Smith Point Race
"Okay, theres five minutes to go,
lets get the jib down and get the spinnaker ready."
The year is 1990, just a few short months since my first coming
to the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. My job transfer had
allowed me to take my 2 boats, a Celebrity and a Cal 2-24, with
me to the Lower Chesapeake. The Celebrity was a perfect boat for
all the thin water, with a centerboard and Cape Cod style
horizontal rudder. Made of African mahogeny by the Dutch, it was
a constant maintenance headache, so I frequently opted to sail
the one that I was about to race, the Cal named Roué.
The Cal 2-24 is a Bill Lapworth design, one of
the last to conform to the CCA rule in 1968. Intended as a
smaller, racing version of the Cal 25, she was a real pleasure to
sail. I purchased it in Seattle in an estate sale. I cleaned it
up as much as I could given the old gelcoat and ugly fiberglass
patches that someone had pasted indiscriminently around the deck.
Its spartan interior was handy to get around in, and since the
boat had some experience along the barren Pacific coast it had a
large sail inventory. Over the next few years of ownership I
added to the sail inventory which helped her performance. Sailing
Roué was so wonderful. Most of my outings were by myself, even
going through the Ballard locks. Despite carrying some weather
helm, she was so well balanced that I could tie off the helm and
she would sail herself for up to 20 minutes at a time. Having
experienced everything from zephyrs to a pummeling 35 knots, I
was comfortable with what we could do together. But one of my
goals after making the big move to Norfolk was to officially
enter Roué in a race.
So armed with a PHRF certificate fresh off the
presses, and an enthusiastic-but-short-on-experience
high-schooler named Ned, I was now prowling the starting area of
the Smith Point race. As I expected I was the smallest boat in my
class, but undeterred I stated my lofty expectation. "I want
to beat one boat on elapsed time and one boat on corrected
time." I guess realism was more prevalent than optimism on
After observing the start line my game plan is
obvious. The Smith Point race is a point-to-point distance race
where the smaller classes observe only one marka lighthouse
at Windmill Point 36 nm off in the distance. So the start line
was set perpendicular to the course irrespective of wind
direction. With the breeze from the SW, the pin was to windward
and quite attractive for the aggressive racer. But as I look over
my shoulder with the sequence counting down, I am quite mystified
why I am all alone and the rest of my class are huddled around
the committee boat. No matter. I am not one to cave into peer
pressure. My plan is simple. Sail bare headed about 10
boatlengths to windward of the line, at 45 seconds hoist the
spinnaker, hitting the line at the gun and at full speed, full
sail, full of evil laughter.
"Go ahead and get the spinnaker pole ready
and everything clipped up." All of the lines lead back to
the cockpit, so making things happen is easy. I look around at
the 8 12 knot breeze. Still pretty steady, no signs of
shifts or puffs. A quick glance at my watch. I always love
starts. My heart increases in pace, I am more alert than at any
other time of the race, except during those rare moments when
Im in the lead. I feel like getting buzzed by 15 cups of
sweetened ice tea.
"45 seconds. Okay, Ned, hoist it up!"
I am now focused on the combined task of watching the big orange
chute go up, pulling on the tiller to get the boat pointed
towards the starting pin, simultaneously pulling both the guy and
the sheet for the rapidly filling sail. The whole process takes
10 seconds. Roué picks up speed in response to the vast increase
in sail area. Minor adjustments to the main, sheet, double check
the spin halyard all the way up. 15 seconds. We wont be
early, thankfully, but it will be close. Being early over the
line with the spinnaker up would be a minor disaster since it
would mean taking the spinnaker down to crawl back to restart.
"Where is everybody else?" Both Ned
and I peer under the mainsail boom to check on our competition.
Still way down by the committee boat, lounging around. Some even
look like they are headed for the line.
A dull gunshot goes off. We are half a boat
length from the line, going full speed. I am jubilant. Weve
beaten everybody across the line, and even 10 seconds after the
start I dont see any spinnakers hoisted on the competition.
Since the start was at 3:30 in the afternoon,
this is an all night affair. I settled back a bit and steered
lightly on the helm and kept an eye on the spinnaker. Ned
alternated playing the mainsheet and the spinnaker sheet. 30
minutes after the start, most of my compatriots had slowly passed
me, all having longer waterlines to take advantage of the breeze.
Still, it took more time than they would have liked, I thought to
Despite having the wind coming from aft of the
port beam, the boat was going fast enough to pull the apparent
wind forward. The spinnaker pole rested against the forestay, its
guy tight as a piano string. A slight increase in wind, combined
with a few puffs threatened to broach Roué. A broach can be
quite an experience, depending on the boat. A quick lesson was in
"Ned, if we go over, I want you to let out
the main as far as it will go." A friends advice
echoed through my head. An experienced dinghy sailor, he said,
"If you broach, dont let the chute go. Let out the
main and the spinnaker will pull the boat around." This flew
in the face of traditional wisdom learned while crewing on a
number of boats in Puget Sound. Most skippers preferred to let
the spinnaker go when the boat rounds up, thus preventing the
spinnaker from filling with water and keeping the boat on its
side. The typical drill was to listen for the helmsman to start
cussing as they lose control, hang on for dear life as the
boats deck goes vertical, blow the spinnaker sheet, guy,
whatevers handy, then the boat returns upright pointed
straight into the wind with 8000 sq. meters of nylon, dacron,
mylar, kevlar and docksiders shaking the rig with an utmost roar.
Once everyone had returned the boat towards the original heading,
it would take 15 minutes for the adrenaline to slow, the screamed
instructions over the din to be forgotten, and the skipper to
ease the white-knuckled deathgrip on the helm. But what my friend
had to say made sense, at least on the relatively small boats
that Ive had. So, no time like the present to put it to the
test, if it should happen.
It happened. The afternoon breeze started
becoming unpredictable as the sun got lower. Strong puffs came
followed by a comparative lull. I caught most of them from
tripping the boat, but it was only a matter of time before that
ol familiar feeling of being pasted came to fruition. Ned
had the mainsheet, I had the tiller and spin sheet. Ned let out
the main as we had done several times before, but Roué still
continued happily into serious broach mode. "Ive got
it all the way out," said Ned, as I was now standing on the
leeward cockpit coaming. Doing anything with the tiller was
useless, since the rudder was no longer in the water. "Just
hang on," came my reply, as I looked briefly down into the
cabin. Roués windows are cut into the side of the flush
deck above the sheerline. The flat green view they now had
indicated that they were below the waterline. Steadfastly like
Capn Courageous I gripped the spinnaker sheet, not letting
it slip away. In the blink of an eye, but seeming much slower,
Roué staggered, spun slightly downwind, got back on her feet and
continued on as if nothing happened. No fuss, no muss. After Ned
and I trimmed for a slightly more downwind course, I didnt
have much time to think about changing my shorts when we got hit
by another. This time, though, the spinnaker halyard had had
enough abuse and pulled partly through its cleat, preventing us
from a repeat performance. I figured that this was a sign from
above, so I calmly said, "Ned, lets put up the old #1
The slight shift in wind also signaled the end
of the day as the sun started to set. As we not-as-bravely
continued, a fellow competitor came up from astern, crossed our
wake and passed us heading more inshore. It was a San Juan 28,
bigger, more powerful, flying a yacht club officer burgee to
signify the owners pedigree. I was frankly surprised to see
anyone behind me, as I figured that 5 hours of sailing would be
enough for everyone to leave me in the dust. It did give me some
hope for the first part of my goal, to beat one boat on elapsed
time. A few puffs later found us totally becalmed with the SJ 28
a mile inshore of us but still visible in the fading light.
"Time to don the life harnesses." I
had bought one just before the race for Ned, as I had one for
myself already. It was the kind that was full-body, requiring the
agility of a orangatan to adjust it all. Ned repeatedly
complained about it pinching here, there, but he knew the rules.
I am a safety hound, and I dont want to be combing the
ocean for a man overboard at night. Especially a teenager, one
whose life is just starting to get good. Bobbing gently, we
wolfed a sandwich while listening to a muffled conversation on
the SJ 28.
Suddenly I felt a puff of breeze on the back of
my neck. SW again. Good for spinnakers. Cognizant of how easily
sound travels across water, I told Ned that well douse the
jib and put up the small spinnaker without making any noise. No
winches, no major conversation. I didnt want the SJ 28 to
catch what we were doing; they could mirror our actions and pass
us. Quietly, with the spinnaker up overhead in the darkness, I
watched as the SJ 28s running lights slowly fell astern
never to be seen again.
Anybody approaching an unknown lighthouse in
the dark knows that many things can be around the structure.
Sections of old lighthouses, parts of boats carelessly run
aground. Crab pots to catch unsuspecting spade rudders. It was
this in mind that I gave a wide berth to Windmill Point
Lighthouse, its red light piercing the blackness. I looked at my
watch. 11:30 pm.
With a light 5 knot SW breeze, we were now hard
on the wind. I was glad I had lots of experience with Roué.
Without a light to show the trim of the sails, I could tell when
she was in the groove, sailing her best. A look around showed
other running lights, the characteristics giving away that they
were sailboats also. But the darkness obscured any hope of
finding what kind of boats they were, whether they were in my
class, whether they were the bigger boats that have already gone
around Smith Point, another 20 nm distant.
Having been at sea as a deck officer, I was
familiar with what the night looked like on the ocean. Well out
of the traffic lanes, we had virtually nothing to be concerned
about save other sailboats in the race. The normal clutter of
beeping machines, radars, radios cackling, and hushed
concentration that you find on a ships bridge are gone.
Only the wind, a hand on the tiller, the rush of water as the
hull slips through the water. Aside from the occasional tugboat
or coastal freighter, there is no distinction between the water,
the horizon, or the sky. All one big black ink well.
The wind steadily picked up until we were
overpowered by the big genoa. Ned volunteered to change to the
135% jib, known as the lapper. A flatter sail, its well
adapted to 15 20 kn of breeze. My boat is not the custom
racing machine found today. The jibs are all hanked on, requiring
the boat to be sailed without any headsail while the jib is
changed. This severely reduces the speed and handling until the
next jib is hoisted and pulling. By the time Ned has successfully
hoisted the lapper, the increase in breeze still overpowers us. I
carried on, hoping that the wind will diminish some so we
wont have to change again. Roué labored through the famous
Chesapeake chop that was quickly building. Similar to an earlier
cousin, the Cal 40, Roué has rounded, bluff bow sections that
dont cut through choppy waves. Roué would blast to a
complete stop, heal, pick up speed before being pounded to
another stop. The complete darkness prevented me from feeling the
bigger waves and possibly steering through them easier.
The sudden presence of the moon through high
cloud cover around 2:00 am brought a slight increase in breeze
that forced another sail change. Ned didnt volunteer this
time, as the bow was pitching pretty good. Not having the
fortitude of Bligh, I wisely told Ned to keep the course as best
he could and Ill take care of it. So I fought a pitching
bronco deck, unhanking the lapper off the forestay, and hanking
on the 100% working jib, while getting slapped with 20 25
kn spray. You know, what foredeck guys have to deal with every
day. As I crabbed across the deck with sails and with salt taste
on my lips, I suddenly thought about what I was wearing. Under my
life jacket and harness was a very thin cotton buttoned shirt and
a cheap pair of shorts. Though slightly wet, I was not cold. I
was astounded. Having spent all my sailing life in the Pacific
Northwest, such an outfit would have meant hypothermia during the
hottest day of the year. The fact that it was May, 2:30 in the
morning, blowing 20 25 kn, encroaching spray, well, it was
beyond my imagination.
The 100% jib was still too much sail, so it was
time to take a reef in the main. Having done that a few times in
Seattle, I was able to accomplish that fairly quickly. Ned and I
settled in for a long slog to windward, with a tack thrown in
every hour or so to keep us on the west side of the bay.
Soon the light of the moon gave way to morning
twilight, and now the sea could be easily distinguished. Flat
grey waves were broken by white foam. Clearly a 25 kn gear buster
if I ever saw one. Unfortunately, smaller boats dont do
well on their ratings in such stuff, so I was becoming more
resigned to not reaching my racing goal. These thoughts loomed
more stronger each time another big boat would appear from
astern, obviously returning from the longer course, and pass me
But before long we were able to make out the
finish line, a point off of Fort Monroe. Both Ned and I felt the
competitive juices flowing now that the end was near. The breeze
let off some, so it was time pull out the reef in the main. All
right, were in it now! We started tacking frequently now
that our options were constricted by Buckroe Beach on the right,
and Thimble Shoal channel on the left. "Can you make that
next buoy?" Ned asked excitedly. I pinch up a little.
"Nope." Nosing closer to a channel marker gave us some
valuable information. It looked like the buoy was motoring to
windward judging from its wake. This was a bad sign.
"Weve got to get out of this current!"
"Jeez, the finish line is only right
there!" Ned might not be the salty sailor, but he knew that
the shortest route to the finish line also meant that we would be
stemming the worst of the current. Hmmm. Longer course, less
current. More current, shorter distance. A tough call. We watched
a MacGregor 65 zoom by us at over twice our speed. They stayed to
the right, out of the current all the way to the farther side of
the finish line. Okay, time for compromises.
"Well stay to right until we think
we can make the offshore side, then tack." We almost make
it, watching the finish marker fade off to starboard.
"Two more tacks and were
there!" Ned is moving quicker than on a high performance
dinghy. I frown. Nothing worse than killing a small boat rating
than wind on the nose and current to boot. Thankfully the
government structure buoy marking the finish slides by to port.
We hear a small bullhorned voice from the shore, "Nine eight
over." Thats it! At 10:30 am its time to head
Ned and I shared congratulations. He was a bit
too young to toast with libations, besides I had nothing stronger
on board than Dr. Pepper. Oh, well, thatll do. The best
part was that "home" meant a fast reach to Little
Creek. With the outhaul loose, lots of boomvang, and the jib
powered up, Roué leapt for the barn. We watched the channel
markers that crawled along slowly before suddenly zip by.
Roués bow wave would occasionally reach the same height as
the deck. A prominent rooster tail appeared from under the stern.
Despite being tired, Ned and I were grinning from ear to ear. I
dipped below quickly to check the LORAN. "This thing says
that were doing 8.5 knots over the ground," I told
Ned. Considering about 2 knots of current in our favor,
thats still exceeding the boats theoretical hull
speed just a tad.
I scanned the horizon for signs of any
remaining boats. It was disappointingly empty. Farther out I
noticed a smaller boat sailing towards Fort Monroe, but it was
too far away to really discern clearly whether it belonged to our
class. All too soon we were tied up, things packed away, and
headed for Newport News to drop off Ned at his parents, then on
to my house in Chesapeake. In mid-afternoon I crawled into bed
with the minor thought that Ive been up for 36 hours
I didnt get to the sponsoring yacht club
until Wednesday afternoon, when I crewed on another boat there
for the evening "beer-can" race. I ran in to the
clubhouse and hunted down the posted results. After weeding
through all the other alphabet soup classes (IMS1, IMS2,
NON-SPIN) I finally get to my class at the bottom. Roué is
posted as 5th
in a class of 6! I beat one boat!
Checking the list more carefully revealed that I beat the same
boat on both corrected and elapsed time, since it finished almost
45 minutes after me. Interestingly enough it was the San Juan 28.
Ah, yes, such feelings of accomplishment are
but short lived
That was my one and only official race with
Roué. I sold her to a young and eager couple several years