San Francisco to San Diego

by John Burnham

courtesy of Sailing World Magazine

When the ultralight took off down a wave on this dark and moonless night, the horizon disappeared in a blinding sheet of spray thrown up on both sides of the hull. The driver focused one eye on the compass, the other on the bow, and with a feather light touch on the tiller, felt the Pacific Ocean burst past his rudder blade. His questions came in staccato breaths: "How am I doing? Am I too low? Too high?" Just aft, his co-pilot held a flashlight on the Windex and replied with a steady flow of encouragment: "You're fine, a little high, little low, looking good." The 27-footer skipped over the peaks and valleys, the speedo dancing from 10 to 13 knots.

So there we were . . . our Express 27 New Wave rocketing south through the night, 30 miles off the rugged California coastline. We were "MORA's Macho Midgets," as our soggy race t-shirts proclaimed, racing to San Diego in the Midget Ocean Racing Association's Long Distance Race. MORA (not to be confused with MORC, the national group) is a San Francisco Bay area organization that relies mostly on PHRF handicapping and sponsors 10 ocean races a season for boats shorter than 31 feet. The 437-mile Long Distance Race, held every Fourth of July weekend, is the season's highlight.

Typically, the race has a fast start and a slow finish. Conventional wisdom dictates that the fleet hold west of the rhumbline down the curving coastline between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, jibing out at the bays and in at the points to stay in good air while sailing as little distance as possible. After Pt. Conception, the halfway point, the longer route outside the various islands pays more often than not, since the prevailing northwesterely breezes are stronger farther offshore. Then, as the leaders approach the coast, usually in the evening, the wind dies and allows the smaller boats to catch up, so everyone finishes together the next day.

Purists wouldn't call it a fair race, and MORA struggled for years to find a better finishing point, ending the race in several different ports between Morro Bay and Ensenada. Six years ago they gave up the search and made San Diego the permanent destination. The small boats continue to win on corrected time, while the larger ultralights pursue the first-to-finish honors and the race's Holy Grail--the 50-hour elapsed time that is theoretically possible if the wind holds.

At the rate that we were going during the first night of this year's race, anything seemed possible. The four of us--Buzz, Kame, Bill, and I--took turns steering, calling the Windex, and hanging on to the spinnaker sheet. But probably the most incredible sensations experienced that evening were reserved for the offwatch crew, snug under the cockpit in a pipe berth with the fiberglass deck, inches above, and the water hissing by below. As the stern lifted on each wave, the helmsman would jerk the tiller a few times, and the 2100-pound boat would jump sideways and accelerate. The effect on one's beauty sleep was, to say the least, some what deleterious . . . and that's not even considering what it felt like on any of our many broachs.

The wind had gradually been clocking from west to north, which meant the wave pattern included sets of waves from two directions. So instead of surfing monster swells in grand rushes, our high-speed progress on that starless night felt more like skiing blindfolded down a slope full of moguls. Sailing in these conditions, with perhaps 25-plus knots of true wind, slight misjudgments were paid for with instant crashes. In a second we'd go from a 14-knot surf, pointed south, to a 3-knot sliding broach, pointing west--the spinnaker flailing and the mast shaking. Then, in seeming slow motion, one of us would unhook our safety harness and crawl forward to release the boom vang. Still bucking wildly, New Wave would slowly, grudgingly bear off at the insistent tugging of the driver on the tiller. At last we'd get set, retrim the chute, and take off like a shot into the night.

It seemed as if it had been night for a very long time (actually it was not long after midnight) when the worst finally happened. Just after a change of helmsman, in that uneasy first minute of wondering if the new driver has everying wired, we broached the wrong way. A wave from astern threw us off balance, the helmsman overreacted once, twice, and Wham! we had the spinnaker pole in the water. A second later, it was broken.

After that, discretion triumphed over valor (and "midget machoism"), and we sailed with a No. 2 poled out on our spare spinnaker pole. Even so, our speed averaged only about a knot less, and we were able to send two crew below for some sleepless rest.

Just before dawn, Buzz and I were on deck when, ahead of us in the light of the newly risen moon, the sea became lit with the silver phosphorescent flashing of an incredible school of fish--dolphin, we thought. Their number was vast and covered a broad area around our boat. We're still not sure what they were, or even if they were real, but in any case they provided entertainment for our fatigued minds.

By mid-morning we were almost halfway to San Diego, having averaged better than 10 knots through much of the night. Little did we realize that our arrival in the teeming "Sea World" of Southern California's waters was about to bring a decided change in the weather system, and the sea life would be one of the most interesting things about the race from there on in. We had covered the first 200 miles of the race in 24 hours, but the remaining 200-plus miles to San Diego would take three times as long! The promised wind outside the islands deserted us by midday, gradually fading under the bright sun. Later it became hot and hazy, and the swells developed an oily look. We soon got used to sitting to leeward, in the shade when possible, nursing our half-ounce spinnaker and finally our Dazy staysail, set as a lone headsail. Instead of showing double digits, the speedo registered between one and two knots . . . at best.

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine that three whole days passed like this, the wind taunting us at times, but never blowing more than about five knots. Our hourly Loran fixes on the chart often touched, and we learned to be patient, not expecting the wind to pick up, not being disappointed when it didn't. We became experts at light air sail changes, as the true wind flitted from southeast to west and back again, but I must admit that our interest in the race eventually lost some of its sharpness. We watched pelicans, whales, sea lions (who barked all night), sunfish and dolphins, and we devoured all the reading material accidentally stowed aboard. Bill entertained us with patriotic songs, sung fortissimo to the military planes taking off and landing incessantly on San Nicholas and San Clemente. In addition, painstaking research conducted during this time on our airless, 27-foot laboratory led us to several conclusions: The best sun block is Bain de Soleil #15; caffeine-free Coke is useless on a distance race (especially when there's no coffee aboard either); and three packages of hot dogs are decidedly poor insurance against longer-than-expected races.

During the last afternoon of the race, while cutting north of San Clemente, we actually spotted and chased down another Express 27-- Friday --in a jibing match that made us feel like we were once again racing. But the wind failed during the last night, and we didn't limp into the finish until nearly noon; even more depressingly, we had lost to Friday by over 40 minutes.

At the San Diego Yacht Club, we luxuriated in the showers and then went down to the dock to find out who'd won. The answer was that it had for once, been a "big boat" race. Dick Heckman's Olson 30 Saint Anne and Les Muttersbach's custom Burns 30 Skidoo had gained the lead on the first night, knocking off some 220 miles in the first 24 hours. Although the boats remained within sight for the rest fo the race, Skidoo protected her lead the entire way to finish first by eight minutes on elapsed time and also first on corrected time. One highlight of their match was a light-air tacking duel south of San Clemente, with Saint Anne only boatlengths behind. Of the five Express 27s in the fleet we crossed the line fourth (we'd sailed too far offshore on the first night), but saved our time on Friday , which rated higher because of her masthead spinnaker. Saint Anne had easily captured honors among the four Olson 30s, and Howard Wright's Presto , a Moore 24, had finished an incredible fourth boat-for-boat, beating the other five Moores and correcting to third in class and fleet.