In the past I have said that DNF is the worst result you can get in a race. DNF points to poor preparation and judgement, poor seamanship, and a lack of the steely nerves needed to be a competitive sailor. I still feel that way, and I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit all those things came together to produce that result last night.
The night race has come to have a reputation for both magic and horror for me. It's like a blockbuster movie that moves from romance to chainsaw style decapitation, and does it without blinking. This year the switch was so smooth and quiet, it could have been deadly.
Let's start at the start. Crew selection. A few weeks ago I started lining up crew for the event. I had a crack shot skipper sign on, and some new crew, myself, and Chuck. It looked really good. The four of us could sail in two shifts, with reserve crew working as called on waiting for their turn in action. Then the spare skipper got called away on work, and my spare crew got busy with life. More folks were called upon, but by race day it was down to Chuck and I.
Then Chuck decided to give crewing with Newfie Screach a try. I had no problem with that since life experiences are great and everything, but it meant I was going alone.
I've single-handed Iris many times, and figured this would be no different, just longer. I thought I was up for the test, so I wished Chuck luck as she sailed off aboard "the Screach".
Before the race started, the weather radio was calling for heavy winds, but not until about midnight, so I put up my #3 jib. The working jib is a smallish sail that is used when the wind is strong, but not overpowering. I was being prudent and safe. Out on the lake, winds were light, and most of the fleet had big Genoas flying. I ignored them, after all, I was being the safe one.
In the prestart, I hung close to the line, and had a really good start, first or second over with a PHRF Lo boat right next to me. As soon as we were over the line, he started pushing me back into the starting area, allowing the rest of the fleet to pass us. I pointed out to him that I wasn't even in his fleet, and he replied that he didn't care, he just wanted to get in clear air and this was how he was doing it.
By the time the other boat was clear of me, I had been pushed back to the middle of the fleet. So much for my great start. With the smaller sails up, I was having a hard time catching up to the rest of the fleet. I couldn't even get a whisker pole up without losing ground. Things were bad, and I dropped back further and further as everyone else advanced ahead of me.
It wasn't long until a big Hunter 38 came up behind me. I felt a little like a chicken being followed by an ostrich as his huge sails stole all the wind I could get. And he sat there all the way to big bay point. By the time we reached the top of Kempenfelt bay, I was 3rd last, he was behind me, and a third boat trailed in the distance. Things were not good.
After we rounded Big Bay Point, The Hunter held his overlap, and started playing with me on the pointing leg of the race, eventually pulling clear of my boat and leaving me alone. I had almost caught up with "Shoal Mate" and felt comfortable in the gathering night. It nagged at me that the big boat had felt the need to mess up my race so much, abut at least I was still moving. Although I was moving very slowly, and the winds were very light.
I thought about the rest of the fleet so far ahead, and about the wind warning. When I had mentioned it ashore, I had been laughed at, and been told there was no wind in any other forecast. Tonight was about having the biggest sails to a lot of folks. Maybe they were right. Maybe I was losing because I had made a bad decision in my sail selection. I decided to go up in sail size and took down the 110% jib to put up my 155% Genoa.
I lost a little time in the sail change, but overall it went well. And I started gaining on the boats ahead of me right away. The big sail was hard to gybe, and it got hung up on the rigging a lot, but it was definitely better. I patted myself on the back as the boat picked up speed, and started running faster and faster.
Running wing on wing you can't really feel the wind the same way you do when reaching or pointing, so its funny how the wind can build without you being aware of it. I went from moving at 0.5 knots to 1 knot right away, and attributed this to the new sail. Then the boat speed climbed to 3, then 5, then 6 knots. Then I started surfing waves, and fighting the wind as it shoved the boat across the inky black water. Eventually I could feel the wind moving faster than the boat, and saw waves breaking around me. Then I knew I was in trouble.
To change a sail to a smaller size with crew is a formidable feat. It involves one sailor with steely nerves going on the bow, pulling down the sail, and then hanging over the water to undo hanks while the boat pounds up and down on the waves. A second person goes below to receive the sail through the foredeck hatch, and stows it below, while a third person holds the boat into the wind, fighting the seas and winds, always on guard in case anyone goes overboard.
All of this is done with the boat facing dead upwind.
I was alone in the boat facing dead downwind. To change the sail I would need to turn the boat around, then go below and open the foredeck hatch. With it opened, I would have to run above and pull down the sail. With the sail down I could undo all the hanks and shove it below, then run down a stow it, sealing the hatch. Once all that was done I could think about putting up a smaller sail. If I didn't change the sail, it would be a heck of a bumpy ride in the howling wind. I decided to take down the whisker pole as a first step before evaluating my chances of reducing sail.
I eased the sheet forward to release the pole, and the wind took over. In an instant, the sail was snatched from my control, the whisker pole whipped forward and wrapped around the forestay, broken and useless, impossible to remove without leaving the helm.
I ran to the front of the boat and released the pole from the mast. Once it was free I came back to the tiller, and got the boat back under control as much as I could. The big sail was pinned to the forestay by the broken pole, billowing in the wind and pulling theboat madly sideways and down into the water.
A second sprint to the bow pulpit and I got the pole off the forestay. I let it drag from the corner of the genoa in the water beside the boat while I ran to the tiller to regain control before the boat crash-gybed. The sail flaied in the wind, whipping the pole back and forth like a bullwhip in teh night. With every gust it threatened to smash through a side window, or hook on the shrouds as we pounded through the surf.
A third trip forward and I got the pole off the sail and the sheets untangled. I almost threw the pole overboard, but had second thoughts, and instead dragged it back to the cockpit with me. Once in the cockpit I hauled in the sheets and got the boat sailing under control again. With the big genoa she wanted to round up or lay on her side, but there we were, Iris and I alone in the night, fighting the wind to stay alive.
I was 0.4 miles from the downwind mark when I broke the pole and started my fight with the wind, but now I was far off course since the boat had careened to find an upwind course each time I left the tiller. I felt battered and beat up. My big genoa was still flying, and it was a fight to keep the boat on its feet. Iris and I shared some words and I swore at the big Hunter that had helped me lose focus earlier. Then I swore at the boat that had pushed me back after my great start. Then I swore at my own poor judgement for coming out alone in this weather.
Then I decided DNF was better than an obituary.
There was no way to do a sail change alone in this wind. I had already proved that working alone my best bet was to hold a course. Any course. As long as it took me out of the wind and waves. I looked at my GPS. The nearest port was Hawkestone Yacht Club. Its entrance is tricky though and in this weather I wasn't up to chancing it. Next closest was Lagoon City, Downwind on a reach, which would be a fairly reasonable ride, but would mean a much farther sail home tomorrow. Next closest was my home port - 8 mile on a close reach, a bumpy ride, but no tacks or gybes and with it being on the south side of the lake the waves should get smaller the closer I got. The finish line of the race was the farthest port from where I was.
I hove to and had a head clearing session with myself. Heading home was easy, but was it the right thing to do? How much was this series worth? I had just broken a $400 - $500 piece of equipment. How much more was going to break out here? Could I even reach the weather mark in reasonable time? Could I finish higher than last place with the lead I had lost earlier? Did all that matter? Could Chuck get home without me making it to Barrie? What was tomorrow's weather like? Would we have an equally miserable ride home tomorrow?
I got on the radio with Tabasco and asked if they could get Chuck home. They answered that they could - they had broken some stuff too, but thought they were going to finish. I thanked them, asked them to radio the race committee that I had withdrawn, then turned Iris for home.
A couple times after that I almost turned back. The ride home was bumpy, and Iris was definitely over-canvassed, but once in the groove, she behaved quite nicely. Iris buried her rails and nose regularly in the steep chop and breaking waves as she pounded out a rhythem across the lake. Together we made a beeline for the marina, and from 8 miles out never had a question about where we were going or how we were getting there. The boat struggled against the waves, holding her course nicely but never approaching hull speed, happy to get up around 5.5 knots but never much more than that.
The waves took on a personality of their own as I sailed across the lake, and the spray coming off the tops of them looked like hands reaching up to grab me and pull me off the boat. The saying that the water wants to kill you has never seemed so real as it did in my tired mind that night.
As I pulled into the harbour, I heard Newfie Screach on the radio with Tabasco talking about getting Chuck home, and I tried to hail them back, but I was too far out of range and the radio's batteries too weak. I tied up Iris, put on the mainsail cover, and left her a mess to be dealt with later.
I drove home and collapsed in my bed, sleeping like a stone.
In the morning, Chuck arrived at the door and I let her in. She went straight to bed as well after not having slept all night, and then SWMBO and I returned to the boat later in the day. The damage to the Whisker pole was worse than I had thought, but it looks like I may be able to cut the end off it and have a shorter, but serviceable pole. I am not sure. I still need to take out the genoa and see if it needs a repair or not.
So I have my first DNF in the LSIS series. I should have really kept Chuck on board if for nothing else than that critical sail change. I shouldn't have entered the race without the crew I had signed up at the beginning. I should have listened to the little voices saying to go with the smaller sail when I was alone.
I should have done a lot of things, I am also glad I at least gave it a try.