May 1/2, 2004
Season Opening Vallejo Race
(If you like, you can skip down through the prose and go straight to the pictures below!)
Moonlight illuminated Sylvia's smile and filtered through both her wine glass and Barry's. It glistened on the highly polished cockpit combing cradling them and matched the soft, still air of Vallejo harbor. The fleet burgee hung limp from its spreader halyard, as did the dress-ship flags on boats nearby. As if suspended in time, they shared reflections of the day's race with a special mixture of objectivity and passion.
Three perspectives blended across the binnacle and varnished table. Barry & Sylvia's from a 4th place finish with Tom Cat. Smokey's from a 12th as crew on Mischief. And Harry, Carol, Michele & Rick aboard Pacific High, where they all sat. Almost exactly 12 hours earlier their pace was quick and sharp - 21 rhumbline miles west and south - as they started the season opening, 104th Vallejo Race as 3 among a fleet of 332 boats.
It started with the promise of a typical Bay day - a brisk 10-12 knots flowing through the Golden Gate to chisel little waves in the starting area near the Berkeley Circle. A well-set starting line afforded the record-setting 20 Islander 36s equal opportunities from committee boat to starting mark - and they stretched from end to end. The short beat to R4, a little over a mile, stretched the fleet into an almost even string, with Peter Szasz, Midnight Sun leading the way.
Dispersal started at once. Some headed the rhumbline for Red Rock and the San Rafael Bridge eastern main span. Some headed higher, with more wind toward the Angel Island side where last year's winner picked up breeze and romped away from the fleet. Others held low, heading for the Richmond shallows, well inside Southampton Shoal. Most of the past fleet champions bore away. Ten to fifteen minutes of exhilarating ride, just enough for the crew to relax, cleat their sheets and start calculating how quickly they would get to Vallejo, subsided to a gentle breeze, then one by one, their air gave out.
First to hit the slows were those headed west toward Angel Island, then those on the rhumbline. Worse yet for them, they were in the path of a builidng ebb tide. Those who held low ghosted along into the Richmond shallows with much less tide against them.
Early leaders Midnight Sun, Pilot, Diana, Tom Cat, and Kapai hit the glue, and gave the likes of Pacific High, Nimbus, and Windwalker a chance to catch, and even pass them. All by now had their jibs on poles, wing and wing, split among those going dead downwind, and reaching up on port or starboard gybe. It paid to go even farther inshore, and even more to sharpen the sailing angle to develop boatspeed - even if headed back toward the increasing current.
A puff or two propelled the boats out in the current, but slowly they fell farther and farther behind the boats along the eastern side of the Bay. Having worked well east, they began to reach back west along the Richmond oil tanker docks. It was like follow-the-leader as boats hugged the pilings of the old wooden piers, then hardend up west around the required Castro Rocks buoy at the San Rafael bridge, then turned sharply east again into shallow water. Those who thought the increasing wind - modestly perhaps 5-6 knots - would shove them through the current in the channel soon saw the shore huggers inching away.
The slow snake dance in between pier heads and the shore against the building current continued at every opportunity right up to Point San Pablo and the entrace to San Pablo Bay. Throughout these three hours to cover about 8 rhumbline miles, the other 212 boats were flying their spinnakers, and even the smaller boats were overtaking the non-spinnaker I-36 division. Lots of conversations, obviously, ensued!
San Pablo Bay is norotious for its blustery 25-30 knot afternoon winds all summer, and against an ebb tide the seas are short, square and steep, not to mention uncomfortable no matter which way you are going. Last year, after a similar light-air struggle this far, the blast came across the northern waters rewarding those who forsake the shorter rhumbline course to Pt. Pinole. Again it looked like there was darker water to the north. First Midnight Sun, then Pilot aimed their bows north. It was easy to see why. Those who turned right on the rhumbline to Pt. Pinole, the "obvious" choice to avoid the ebb tide, were now dead in the water with sails hanging. Once again the followers caught the leaders, and the race began again.
Somehow both Midnight Sun and Pilot read the tea leaves and turned back toward the southern side of San Pablo Bay. A whip of air, an extra puff and they were quickly south of the rest of the Islander fleet - and into the shallowest water with least current. Again they stretched their legs away from the fleet with Midnight Sun and Diana out ahead of the pack.
Though those two were well gone with wind, another bunching occurred at Pt. Pinole. Carrying wind from astern, Blue Streak picked up about three boats, while Razor appeared to get stuck in the mud for a while before rounding the Pinole marker. Again, heading right into shallow water into the last bight before the Carquinez Straits proved to be a winner. Zoop, Tom Cat, Kapai, Windwalker & Blue Streak headed that way. In theory it was simple: head up and keep watching the difference between boat speed on the knotmeter and the SOG (speed over ground) on your GPS. If SOG was slower than boat speed you were still in adverse current, so you headed right. Of course the other eye had to be on the fathometer so you didn't go aground. The balance point seemed to be just under 10 feet of water.
One more challenge awaited the fleet. The ebb was still running strong in the main channel, and the whole fleet had to cross to the north side to enter the Mare Island channel and reach the finish line at Vallejo. Some chose to hug the south shore, some aimed due north across the current, and others tried the diagonal between the last marine terminals on the south and the Mare Island channel. The wind had built to perhaps 10 knots, and no way proved decisive over another.
Like many races, the last 2.5 miles up the Mare Island channel is often decisive in this race. But this year, most of the spinnaker boats had passed the I-36 fleet and few positions changed on the close hauled run to the finish line. There were challenges, of course, as the wind shadows of buildings altertered and truncated wind flow along the way. A few boats went aground before, or after the finish - and Zenith wound up portesting Pulau for running her aground along the west side of the channel.
Roughly eight hours elapsed from start to finish - an average of less than 3 knots over the stated course length. The sun was hot, the wind was light - sunburn and dehydration were serious concerns. It was no surprise that the fleet was quieter than usual when 332 boats were packed safely into Vallejo Harbor.
Of course that does not suggest that there was no frivolity among perhaps 1200-1500 sailors packed in one place. Though only a few crews shouted toasts or cheers over beers or margaritias, Peter Szasz was looking for Fleet Captain Joseph Krensavage on Mustang to deliver a blender for the gallons of margaritias Joseph had promised.
As for the Islander fleet, Commodore Farrell really made good on Kimball Livingston's challenge to "Show me the Bacon." Everywhere you looked, up popped "Kimball's Bacon" in large black letters on a white background. It was in pictures. It was cheered by crews. It was acknowledged in conversations that were, "chewing the bacon." It was even celebrated in literal honor as Mary served Paul Tara a sizzling Sunday breakfast platter of "Kimball's Bacon".
But alas, in the end fatigue had won over fervor! Even with a fine, fun, loud band, the Vallejo Yacht Club dance floor had room for more - a rare occurance - though nice for those who were still on their feet.
It was late when results were posted. But there was still time to relax with a nightcap. And so it came to be that Barry & Sylvia, Smokey, Harry & Carol and Michelle and Rick sat, bathed in moonlight, in the cockpit of Pacific High and celebrated a terrific Vallejo Race.
Sunday dawned bright, warm, and windless. A double gun at 1125 started the postponement sequence. First a trickle, then a few, finally a torrent of VHF raido calls to the Race Committe announced the withdrawal of individual boats and whole sections. The I-36ers were willing to stick it out, but opted for a fleet vote at 1300 hours. With Nimbus already on her way home reporting that there was only about 5-8 knots of wind on San Pablo Bay there was still mixed feeling about racing.
Fleet Captain Joseph Krensavage had done a sensitive job of polling the fleet about racing or retiring, and when one last question over the radio asked, "what does the Race Committee intend to do?", Joseph switched back from channel 69 to 72 and we all heard him pass the question to the Race Committee.
There was about a 30 second pause. "We are hoisting Code Flag N", came the reply, followed shortly by three guns, the hoisting the the Abandon Race signal, and the implicit message to the 200 boats remaining in the starting area, "Boaters, start your engines!" Bow waves erupted as everyone started their engines and raced down Mare Island Channel headed for home.
Everyone agreed it was still a record event for the Islander Fleet - and glad, and proud that we had been there.
To see the finish positions, elapsed and corrected times, click on Saturday 5/3 Results.
Pictures are compliments of Rick Van Mell. Click on images to enlarge, click "Back" to return.
Four Cs short after the start Another group to windward Pilot & Blue Streak to leeward Nimbus leads a starboard tack pack Tom Cat, Midnight Sun & Zoop dig to leeward Pilot also goes for the Richmond shallows ?, Freedom Won & Mustang try the Angel Island side Midnight Sun hits a hole Razor & Kapai bobble with no breeze Pilot has her own slows Nimbus in the glue Where did all the wind go????! You'd thing we were going to Richmond! Passing the Brother into San Pablo Bay Pilot starts to head north for the Sisters Alittle wind at Pt. Pinole It's shallow up there, but less current! Someone has to be Rear Guard Entering Mare Island channel Tom Cat & Zoop battle it out Soup's on for the Zoop crew Harry, Carol & the Blue Streak crew cheer Kimball's Bacon Pulau's crew relaxes Mischief's crew is up to... mischief! Kimball's Bacon is right in the middle of everything Mischief, Pulau & Razor guard the left pack Must have been a rough ride on Mustang! Wherever there are Islanders, it's there! Daphne & Mike Dickson stop by for Bacon bits. The sun is going, going... Gone. "In the evening, by the moonlight..." What has Mary cooked for Paul Tara's breakfast? Charles Hodgkins' pre-race predictions Freedom Won & Zoop wait for Sunday's wind Zenith, Tenacious & Nimbus wait in vain. Three guns - code flag "N" 250 boats respond to, "Racers, start your engines."
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