On Wednesday July 23, 1896, The New York Times reported…
Nearly 114 years later, on the other end of the continent, another sailboat race fell victim to fluky winds, fog and calm…
As the crew of Sprit Decision gathered on H Dock in Ventura Harbor to prepare our boat for the third race of the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club’s Spring Series, there was only the slightest suggestion of a breeze. As we rigged our sails and made ready to get underway, we all knew what that anemic zephyr meant.
Sprit Decision, a 32’ 9” Beneteau First 10R, is a relatively heavy boat among the contenders in the Spinnaker A class — and she’s not her best in light air. Her advantages of size and design come into play with about 10 knots of wind, and she truly enjoys filling her sails with 15-20 knots, so unless there was going to be a dramatic and unforeseen shift in the weather, Sprit Decision and her crew would be hard pressed to succeed.
As the boats met at Mandalay buoy for the start of the race, the sea was flat and the wind barely a breath. You know there’s very little wind when, from across the water, you can hear people talking in conversational tones on the other boats. If anyone had been listening to the conversation aboard Sprit Decision as we moved sluggishly through the glassy water, they would’ve heard Captain George suggest that it might be a “Brophy’s Day” – by which he meant that if there wasn’t going to be any wind for this race, we might as well motor back to the harbor and enjoy a drink or two at Brophy Bros seafood restaurant. None of us took him too seriously. Captain George is always the last man to quit a race.
The start of the race was postponed as race officials chose a new, shorter course for the race. On this day, there would be no grand sail out across the Santa Barbara Channel and around one of the oil platforms. Instead, we’d race a less ambitious course, from buoy to buoy, closer to the coast.
As we jockeyed for position in the light wind, waiting for the five-minutes-to-start warning to sound, our veteran bowman, Claude, looked to the south and saw a line of fog approaching some distance from the south. “That’s not good,” he told me, but he didn’t explain why. That I would learn later in the race.
After being surprised with only a one-minute warning prior to the start, we managed to get across the line slightly behind the leaders, and proceeded to the first mark, a buoy to the north of us called “Fish Sticks”. We were making 4.5 knots of boat speed with just 5 knots of wind in our sails. That’s pretty efficient sailing for Sprit Decision.
We rounded Fish Sticks in the back half of the pack – our smaller, less-heavy foes having the advantage in lighter air, but after deploying our spinnaker in a most seamanlike manner, we were soon running back to Mandalay buoy, plowing through the gently rolling seas at 6 knots in 6 knots of wind. We chased down one of the smaller Olson 30’s that had gotten ahead of us, and were hoping to overtake a couple more boats as the wind picked up and our boat speed increased.
As we got to within 200 yards of Mandalay bouy, we could see the fog rolling up toward the buoy from the south. By the time we got to within 50 yards of the mark, it was already getting hard to see the leading boats rounding the buoy in the fog. Soon, we were inside the fog ourselves, and as the fog moving north met the weak air current moving south – they cancelled each other out, the wind stalled, and Sprit Decision rounded Mandalay Buoy at a crawl.
For more info on the how and why of wind & fog, click here.
At that moment in struck me how drastically conditions can change in the Santa Barbara Channel. One moment, you sailing along on a sunny day in light wind on a gentle following current – and the next, you’re becalmed in dense fog on a flat ocean. And you’re watching the sudden, dangerous circus as boats try not to collide with each other while approaching, rounding, and leaving the mark – with little wind to give them power or control.
If you’re a sailor, you may find it interesting to know that we jibed the spinnaker as we rounded the mark and were still flying our kite as we ran northeast back to Ventura Harbor. (I’m still a bit confused as to how these things happen.) What I do know is that within ten minutes, the fog cleared, the wind picked up, and we got across the finish line in Ventura Harbor just as the wind was dying again.
Captain George called me that evening to say we’d finished 5th out of 10 boats in the race. And while we weren’t going to take home any trophies for our effort that day, it had been the best day of light air sailing we’d ever enjoyed racing Sprit Decision.
Our next sailing adventure is the Newport to Ensenada race on April 23rd. I’m hoping that the words “light wind” and “fog” will have no place in the account of that race.