Swiftsure International Yacht Race. Just the name Swiftsure makes a west coast sailor’s heart start to pound. This is one of the premier races on the BC/Washington coast. It is not just a yacht race, it is an event, it is a adventure, it is a quest, it is a reunion, it pushes the average sailors beyond what they would normally do. Why would 5 men cram into a small 30 foot sailboat and sail against strong currents, sail all day and night, sail when there is too much wind, try to sail when there is no wind. Why? Who knows why in this day of modern travel when the space shuttle is routine and space tourism is passe. Why are people willing to strain against the wind and tides to make a small sailboat go 6 knots an hour? They get giddy if the boat goes a whopping 10 knots an hour (just over 18km hr). Just try driving your car at 18km an hour and try to feel the thrill.
Sailing is just one of those strange sports that is not a passive sport but a full on challenge that is not just physical but a combination of physical and mental ability. For a sailboat to do well it needs a combination of teamwork, skill, leadership, organizational ability and a pinch of luck. I was very fortunate on this years Swiftsure to ride on a great sailors yacht. The yacht was Electra CAN109 a Aphrodite 101 with a great skipper, friend and mentor on the helm Roger Kibble. We had a top tactician/navigator 1st mate Philippe Erdmer, extremely capable fore deck ape Nicholas Sladen-Dew (Nick you owned the fore deck you deserve the title of “fore deck ape”), sailing junkie Dmitri Bernhardt and yours truly trimmed the sails. All of us have sailed together at various time on various boats. Roger enjoys the prerace strategy and planning and it pays off. Over the last week we had numerous meetings including a snooker game/planning session going over all the multitude of situations we could encounter. A strong tidal current was against us this year. We would be fighting the current for most of the race. The weather was sunny but a high pressure ridge would keep any fronts or low pressure systems away and give us predictable winds from the west.
On Saturday morning we untied from docks in front of the Empress Hotel and joined in the precession going out to the starting area. It was rather amusing on the way out of the harbour to have the police boat beside us and rather rudely yelling at us to proceed in single file. I was wondering if he would be following us out into the strait and badger us all day. Once out at the starting area it was not what you would call ideal conditions. Strong current and light winds are not desirable for a sailing race but sailors play the cards we are given. The Canadian Navy sounded the gun and sent off the divisions at the right time. Just after the start I hit the bunk for a little cat nap. My forte is nights not morning and I knew my time would be the dog watch. A little before race rocks I rolled out of the bunk poured myself a coffee and headed up on deck to watch the show. Roger being the bold skipper had his plan for the strong current at Race Rocks. There had to be 50 – 70 boats battling the current trying to find a way through the passage when Electra sailed up on the Vancouver Island side just off the rocks. When I say “just off the rocks” lets just say you could step off the boat and be on the rocks. Roger likes to sail unbelievably close to the rocks. His diabolical plan worked, half the fleet was stuck in the current and we sailed right through the passage passing most of them like they were standing still. It was magnificent sailing. We had speed and the shelter of the rocks and just plowed through like a hot knife through butter. We even passed a few 50 foot sleds. It was our victory.
We were all cheering like we had just won the race but I think the race gods took a dim view of this cheering and decided to send us a little humble pie. The wind picked up and it was time for a head sail change, not an easy job on Electra, Roger does not believe in ro…. I can not even say the words. Hanked on sails have to be pulled down then the new sail is hanked on to replace it. Not an easy task in 15 knots of wind. This was the race gods first bit of humble pie. They thought we needed more of a test of our seamanship, team work and well you be the judge. We were going along with the little head sail and one reef in the main when all of a sudden the main comes down on the deck. A broken shackle. Electra being a fractional rig had no other halyards going to the top of the main. Race over…. well there was one chance if we sent someone up on the spinnaker halyard they might be able to reach up with a boat hook and snag the line. Well needless to say we did it. One man went up and hooked the main and we were back in the race. The winds picked up that night and we plowed on. Philippe and Dmitri where on the helm for most of the worst of it. With a reefed main and the storm jib up Electra rocked on. Nick was looking green down below and I was really hoping he was going to be fine. Needless to say we bashed on with out any souls on board praying at the head. As night settled in Nick, Dmitri and I drove the boat in the right direction but in extreme light winds. At one point the winds dropped to zero. We where totally adrift with no steerage. Then off our bow was another boat coming right at us. We hailed them and it was Chivita out of Seattle. They had no steerage but were bearing down on us. Wow a collision bow to bow in the middle of the strait. We knew we were drifting the right way and could not figure out how they where drifting so fast the wrong way. Today in the Times Colonist I read where Chivita was the last place boat and the skipper did not mention the bow to bow drifting encounter in the paper. I’m sure they will have a better race next year. It was their first Swiftsure I’m sure they will do better at drifting next year.
Rodger and Philip took over the helm at about 3am and had a building wind. Close to the rounding mark Demetri and I joined them on the deck for what we will always tell Nick was the best part of the race. Nick missed the rounding mark (half way point). The fans at Neah Bay where lining the docks cheering us. The Navy sounded a 21 gun salute, the clouds parted, the sun came up, Nick you will have to see it next year. The rounding set us up for our down wind spinnaker run back to Victoria. Most boats just put up their spinnakers and enjoy the ride home but on Electra Roger likes to change spinnakers depending on the wind angles and strength. I think we only made three changes which kept our sail trim sharp. We did have one bad wrap that was the result of a bad jibe and it was easier to just pull it down and change it. The finish of the race was anti climatic with no bands or hoopla, just the required safety check. The coolest thing happened when we were just about to tie up at the inspection dock. Braveheart was pulling out with its pro crew when the skipper looked over and yelled 101 and gave us the thumbs up. The trophies were given out the night before the race from last year. So even if we did win we will have to come back next year to pick up our hardware. Well Philippe and I jumped ship as fast as we could to hit the 7 pm ferry back to our lives. It all seemed so unreal.
So why did we do it. It was fun and just so cool. Such a great race, great friends, great sportsmanship, great food (Roger is a great chef he has actually had a cook book published) great time. Hope to see all back at the race next year. The Swiftsure 2010 is calling…
Cheers Scott Simmons
Dear Philippe and all Electra’s crew,
Let me please say that this was one of the most enjoyable of all the Swiftsures that I’ve sailed to date. It was the most comfortable for me because of everyone’s uncompromising friendliness, can do attitude, cooperation, generosity, pre-race interest, practical help and unending enthuiasm. The sunshine helped of course and ELECTRA performed with her legendary phenomenal performance, class and smoothness. I always give a silent thanks to Paul Elvstrom and Jan Kjaeruiff for her sublime design after every sail. I must only ask for her, and your, collective forgiveness at selecting such an inferior inappropriate, poor quality mainsail shackle, the failure of which undoubtedly cost us overall victory. The individual seamanship of you all at all times was truly outstanding. Scott’s brave and heroic mast head perseverance at the top of a rolling 44-foot mast waving a ten foot boat hook in one hand for 45 minutes and then succeeding in securing the errant mast head shackle was the stuff for folk lore. Philippe and Nicholas drew all the tough jobs including cold long arduous helm duty in tough upwind 25 knot conditions guiding Electra with efficient ease, never pinching or slamming the waves. They also did most of the grueling sail changing foredeck work and the thankless task of jibing the pole in big winds. Philippe and Dmitri kept us precisely on course at all times with multiple GPS assistance. Nick, Dmitri and Philippe quietly kept Electra moving in the wee hours in the cold dying airs when all boats around were stopped, a thankless but critical task and ended off other boats that impeding our ruthless progress towards Neah Bay. Scott helmed deep downwind with superb accuracy and skill and kept everyone in the best of spirits with his infectious laugh and extraordinary army life tales. Everyone shared all the duties with grace, efficiency and immediate willingness while suffering the whims and fancies of your demanding and wistful skipper. You gave me your confidence, trust, unqualified support, continuous good humour and more rest than any of my previous Swiftsures. Thank you all for a wonderful weekend.
My hat’s off to you,