Today was a really nice day to be out sailing. Temps were in the upper 30s and lower 40s, sunny, with winds in the 8-12 range getting lighter in the afternoon. You will note I checked the weather and alerts before heading to the marina. This is a critical safety step that cannot be skipped.
In the first race I was slightly late to the line and I got a B+ start with clear air but not at the line on time. The wind was patchy so I kept an eye on where the next wind gust was in the river. I rounded the last leeward mark in about 5th but got lucky with a sustained puff on the right side of the course letting me pass a few boats.
I screwed up the start in the second race and was behind both the first and second row of boats. I worked to get clear air on the right which helped for a time but I had to eat a header that kept me behind the main fleet. I tacked on what I thought was the lay line, forgetting about the current which pushed be below the mark. I lost a few more boats when I added more tacks to get around. Ideally I would stay mid-course to work shifts. Also it’s good to avoid getting to the lay line when in the middle or back of the fleet. Boats in front of you will also tack on the lay line blocking your wind. To avoid this I should have tacked inside the lay line, but I often forget this lesson.
In the third race I got a good start and had clear air near the front of the fleet. The wind was light and patchy so this race was mostly aim for wind and keep momentum. I did okay on this race but I messed up the final leeward rounding. Farley and Michael tacked immediately after the mark where as I held on to port tack for 4-5 boat lengths. The wind had clocked far enough right that no tacking was needed to get to the finish line. Holding on to port cost me exactly 4-5 boat lengths that I wasn’t able to make up.
For the fourth race the wind was mostly gone so the RC (wisely) switched to a once around course. I somehow got an A+ start, which was critical. The light wind clocked to almost west 15 seconds after the start and the race was a parade. I managed to hold my position and finished well. The weather was beautiful and thanks to the RC for running 4 very good races.
We had 3 races in light to medium wind that went normally. There were 8 lasers racing and 2 people on the 16 foot skiff. During the fourth race we had dying and shifting wind. The wind had been steady from the south but as the wind lightened it started clocking west. The wind then picked up to 15 mph for about 60 seconds then the main blast of the storm came through. I was on a reach at the time and immediately capsized. I was able to do a dry capsize and stand on top of my boat, out of the water. I was 3-5 boat lengths from Farley who advised not to right my boat to try and keep sailing. Looking around I could see the wind and waves were way too strong to sail so I stayed capsized and balanced on the hull. I could see Jolie capsized and in the water about 10 to 15 boat lengths to my west and Claus a little further to my south west. James Jacob was back up (or didn’t capsize) and was survival sailing. Other lasers were further south and but I couldn’t say clearly who was where.
At this point my plan was to say out of the water and on my boat until the wind died down. Farley and I were drifting rapidly and the drifting wrapped Farley’s sail in front of the mast (past 90 degrees) putting him in a more awkward position. I pulled in my main sheet some to keep this from happening to myself. I also adjusted my sailing controls to better suit the heavy wind. Max outhaul, max Cunningham, medium to loose vang. In my understanding the loose vang helps to bear away rapidly. At some point I let the mast get too high out of the water and the wind lifted it and capsized the boat on its other side. I wasn’t fast enough with my transition and went in the water. I had a dry suit and life jacket per normal so I wasn’t wet but being in the water was cold. I moved from the cockpit side of the capsized boat to the underside and climbed the dagger board to again be back on top of the capsized boat. Taking more care to keep the mast wet and the boat from flipping again I spend another 2-5 minutes standing on the boat. I had mentally started a clock that there are people who’ve been in the water the whole time and need to get out. Farley was still on top of his boat, good. Keith was upright and moving, good. Others were still in the water and I at some point in the high wind I saw the yellow laser do a cartwheel.
Another gust lifted the mast and sail out of the water however this time I managed to keep the boat upright and sail. The wind was now in the 25 mph range where I can survival sail but not very effectively. I happened to be facing toward the committee boat so I sailed closer. The boat was upright and Len indicated the motor wasn’t working and they had no power. I later found out they had both swamped and capsized during the storm. I’m fairly confident that I met them post capsize but I’m not sure. Now my plan was to get to shore, get the 19’ skiff and come back out to aid the other boaters. I headed for shore and my path brought me near Claus who was in the water with his laser. He was ready to go to shore so after some maneuvering I was close enough for him to grab on and tow him back to shore. It was slow going but we got near the shore and he let go; I assume walked the rest of the way. I made a few tacks in the channel and I was again relatively close to Farley who was also sailing in to the dock. The wind had at this point dropped to 20 mph where I can begin to sail more effectively. I could see Jolie still in the water and given I was not too tired I decided I could pick her up as well. A short sail over and more maneuvering and she was in my boat and we were now heading in. We sailed to the dock with the escort of a police boat.
Once ashore I pulled my boat out of the water and got more information from the people on shore. All 8 sailors were back at WSM and 2 people on the committee boat had been towed by the coast guard to another boat ramp somewhere on the other side of the river. We talked with the police and paramedics answering their questions and assuring we had the correct head count. Amongst the remaining laser sailors we formed a new plan. We would pack our boats while the officials wrapped up what they needed to do. Keith would take Len’s truck and the 16’s trailer to go get Len and his wife from where they had been towed ashore. Some sailors would take the 19 to get the 4 boats that had been left in the river. It ended up being Farley, Claus, and myself that went back out though we had more volunteers. Other PRSA members had begun arriving and recall Melissa had brought glorious hot cocoa.
We could see 2 of the lasers from the dock and they were not moving so we decided to search for the 2 unseen lasers first. Heading down river we found the first 2 most of the way to the 495 bridge. The first was in the shallows south of Marbury Point and the second was tied to a pier in old town. With the 2 “lost” boats found and recovered we came back to retrieved the final 2. We got to the yellow boat which was in waist deep water. The fourth boat was in neck deep water and we were unable to recover it on the first attempt given the 3 boats in tow limited maneuverability. Bringing the 3 boats back to the dock where we’re greeted by a number of PRSA members who unloaded the 19 of the lasers in record time. With the light dying we headed out for the last laser. With the new maneuverability of the 19 we recovered the last laser and brought it ashore. To recover some the boats I had cut some control lines to get them apart, for which I am sorry. I tried to cut near the end of the lines but I not sure I did this very well.
No one was hurt and property damage was minimal which is good but the day was a closer call than we need. Some of the factors working for us were deliberate like 100% dry suits and life jackets on the sailors. Some factors working for us were lucky, like the bystanders on shore calling for help and a quick response from multiple rescue agencies. Some factors were unlucky like the powerboat swamping and capsizing. How Len managed to get it upright and floating again while preserving his cell phone to call for help is beyond me. Some weather stations had predicted severe wind but I had not checked the weather this day. Going forward I plan to check for these alerts and take them seriously. I’m happy with my gear and how it performed, though I do need a safety whistle on my winter life jacket. I was blown away by the response from PRSA members and the response from the police, coast guard, and fire department.
Welcome back, one and all, to another season of frostbiting on the Potomac! Congrats to Len for winning the day with another consistent performance today. As has become our custom, the third place finisher writes up a summary of the day’s racing. Here goes:
Winds and Course: The winds today were tricky, coming out of the northwest-ish forecast at about 10 kts, with gusts expected in the high teens. We were racing out in the river, just north of the power plant and starting off to the east side. We ran a total of six Windward / Leewards, two laps a piece, starting and finishing in the middle. In total, we had 18 racers out there today—great start of the season. The breeze was moving around quite a bit as we got closer and closer to the windward mark, which made things interesting throughout the day.
Boat Setup: Nothing special to speak of today regarding how I set up the boat. I didn’t use much vang at all, and for the most part my downhaul was either on too much or too little given the up-and-down velocity.
Starts: The pin was heavily favored all day, and getting off the line in clear air was essential to a good performance. I was surprised at how little congestion there was at the pin-end for most of the starts—often times, the breeze would lighten up and people would only get about half-way to two thirds of the way down the line by the time the gun went off. I focused on staying outside the pin until about 45 seconds, and setting up in the last 25% of the line to get a clean, favorable start. This worked most of the time, aside from one race where my tiller wrapped itself in my mainsheet, and the last race when I was about two seconds early and had to go back.
Upwind: The beats were pretty challenging today, given the often-changing velocity and direction, as well as the low-flying aircraft overhead. I found that for the first four or five races, it paid off to stay a little left of center, and ride the port tack lift up most of the way. Once I was 2/3 s of the way to the mark and things started getting shifty, I found that tacking on pretty much every shift was the way to go. Occasionally, I stayed on the port-tack lift a little longer, and that ended up resulting in losses rather than gains. On the rare occasion that I went out way to the left, I lost velocity to the point that it cost places; also, when I had to go back to re-start in the last race, I ended up really struggling on both beats since I had to navigate dirty air and other boats throughout.
Downwind: Can’t offer much here, as my downwind performance has really fallen off lately. A couple of tips: make sure you keep up your speed coming around that windward mark, rather than worrying too much about having the perfect course straight away (that one was from Len); another lesson learned occurred when messing with Farley coming into the leeward mark in race 2, and I neglected to look over my transom to check the puffs coming, resulting in a brief swim. I’m apparently a slow learner, as it happened to me twice today, both times in the same spot.
Bonus tip: when getting dressed to head out, I noticed both Len and Kevin had on wetsuit hiking pants. Given the water temp was sub-50, I thought to myself “these guys are INSANE; I’m definitely going ‘dry suit’ today”. Only a few minutes later did I notice they had put dry suits on over the hiking pants. Given the way I feel below the waist right now, their approach makes a lot more sense.
Big thanks to Keith and his wife for getting six races off today under challenging conditions. It was great being out on the water again; I look forward to seeing many of you again next time I make it out.