Friday, November 13, 2015

J/130 LESSON # 1 Scores In Havana Race

J/130 delivery sail to Pensacola, FL (Havana, Cuba)– “Back in December 2014, the U.S. Government made the surprise announcement of the re-opening of diplomatic ties with Cuba.  I immediately said to myself, ‘Holy crap - we will be racing to Havana in 2016 or 2017,’” commented John Lee, owner of the J/130 LESSON # 1. “No one would have guessed the remarkable speed with which Gulf Coast clubs and associations would put together and get approval for the return of these historic races to Havana and the Marina Hemingway.”

Lee continued with his commentary prior to the race, “With a legacy of races reaching back to the St. Petersburg YC's Havana races in the 1930's, Cuba has always been the exotic port of call for Americans and the history is as colorful as one would expect. The days of schooners may have passed, but in May, the Pensacola YC announced a surprise regatta and nearly six months later we are transiting a J/130 east through the Mississippi Sound towards Pensacola and a start on Halloween morning.

J/130 sailing Havana Race startCobbling together two mixed crews over the summer, including solo sailor Ryan Finn and 2014 Mallory Cup champion crew member Randall Richmond, the eight of us marched Bob Seger's (of the ‘Silver Bullet Band’ fame) old boat through a bottom job, sail drive replacement, shroud, engine repairs, and untold other items including a new #3 Jib. Not to mention the piles of paperwork required by the U.S. State Department, Coast Guard and other US agencies.  Ironically, the Cuban government has placed no such impediments on the crews whatsoever!

LESSON # 1 has over the last 15 years primarily done beer-can and Lake Pontchartrain races with a few 100nm Gulfport to Pensacola's for good measure. This Saturday we sail south from Pensacola Bay towards this island so elusive to Americans and described by the first European explorers as ‘an island crowned in palms’ and will put her to a task that she hasn't done since the Mac Race in 1999.

Pairing up with the satellite communications company Globalstar, with shipboard Wi-Fi and sat-phones, the crew of LESSON # 1 will transit 500nm across the Gulf of Mexico and midway catch the downward arc of the massive Loop Current for a +2 kick straight to Havana.

J/130 boat cleaner with gogo bootsAs we slide east along the Gulf Islands of Mississippi and Alabama, the water is already becoming clearer as we lose the effects of the muddy Mississippi River and the sugar sand beaches of Pensacola will be in sight by sunset. Talk onboard is of the French and Spanish sailing this coast 500 years ago and of rum, particularly Havana Club Siete Anos - an email just came through on the Sat-Fi system confirming our reservations next week at the legendary ‘Tropicana’ in Havana for the Saturday night after the prize-giving (wow, better clean her up fast! One of our dock babes here giving her a rub-down).

It may be a cliché, but cliché’s exist for a reason. With the legacy of Gulf Coast sailors landing in Havana for nearly a century behind us, this crew has worked their tails off in prepping this boat and deserves every bit of their Havana daydreaming over the summer. This Saturday morning we will hear the gun and only 500nm stand in our way to making that a reality.”

A Brief History of the Havana Race
The original Gulf of Mexico-based race began off the famous St. Petersburg Municipal Pier.  The pier marked one end of the line; a Coast Guard cutter, which would follow the fleet with the race committee on board, usually marked the outer end. A U.S. Navy cruiser, the Trenton, served on one occasion; her wind shadow in the starting area can only be imagined.  As described by Franklin David Hewitt, a participant in two of the pre-war races, in his book ‘The Habana Race’, the old “Million Dollar” Municipal Pier would be jammed with spectators. Then, as now, most were ignorant of the sport but were thrilled by rushing boats, maneuvering in a good breeze near the pier. They would frequently break into applause when a yacht would race up to the pier and tack with sails snapping, blocks whirring and the crew jumping around.

Pensacola to Havana Race courseIn those days before electronic navigation, going aground in the end of the Florida Keys (a.k.a. ‘Rebecca Shoals’) or onto the rocky north coast of Cuba was a substantial risk. No GPS, no Loran, no satellite phones.  All that most crews had to use were lead lines, a magnetic compasses, and taffrail logs.

The final leg, 90 miles south across the east-flowing Gulf Stream, presented the fleets with everything from a rail-down reach in an easterly trade wind with the loom of Havana’s lights drawing you in from 30 miles out, to 30 hours of squalls, knockdowns, low visibility and uncertainty about their position relative to Havana and the rest of the hard north coast of Cuba. The finish line was under the ramparts of Morro Castle— a mind-bending sight on a moonlit night after a violent Gulf Stream crossing! In the early years, the fleet anchored off the old waterfront buildings. Skippers then hailed the bumboat ‘Matanzas’ for a short trip to shore— and a wild taxi ride to a hotel or the yacht club.

The J/130 start off Pensacola, already a mile ahead!October 31- Halloween Start
After the start on October 31st, Halloween eve, the fleet was faced with rough conditions on their 511nm adventure to Havana.  After the first 24 hours, several boats had to retire due to 20-30 kt winds and 5-7 foot seas took their tool.

Sailing in PHRF A Class was LESSON # 1, the J/130 owned by John Lee and co-skippered by Guy Williams and Mike Finn.  Early on, their tracking system malfunctioned, but they had been sending information to a Facebook page via friends posting it after speaking to them on satellite phone. At about 1000 hrs, LESSON # 1 told the Pensacola Yacht Club that her position was near the rhumb-line and was the closest boat to Cuba at 27.56.00 N latitude. They said the winds had moderated and they had blue sky.

The Gulf Stream, which pushes up the Atlantic across the tracks for the Charleston, Annapolis, Newport and Marion to Bermuda races, starts as a current that pushes north between Cuba and the Yucatan area of Mexico. The current sweeps north and then loops south along the coast of Florida giving sailors a boost of up to 3kts going towards Cuba.

The section of the stream between Dry Tortugas and Cuba can be rough because the eastbound current collides with the prevailing wind from the east and stacks up choppy waves.  As a result, all of the boats still on the course were having a wet go of it.

The J/130 Lesson #1 franken-mainNovember 3- Tuesday- LESSON # 1 report:
“At 0245 hrs, we experienced a blowout of the mainsail. Today while under the #1, we created a “franken-main” and have opted to race on. Currently about 230 miles from Havana. Power still scarce and only provided by a solar panel. Spirits are high and all is well.

We were becalmed for a bit overnight, Tuesday's sailing has been slow at around 3 knots - no one is enjoying limping along under the franken-main, but this has allowed some time to learn how to adjust its shape primarily using the "shoestring batten tweaker" and then quickly sending someone up the mast to tighten the turnbuckle on a 4-inch sagging D2 shroud. Sailing this afternoon has improved with LESSON #1 averaging around 6.2 knots in 8-11 knots of breeze and we are now trimming to course - Havana. We have now officially entered the Florida Straits and at 3:30pm, our finish is 120 miles away.

Talk onboard is already of shipping a delivery main to Key West for pick-up early next week and of having our failed, brand spanking new alternator worked on in the Marina Hemingway - if they can keep that fleet of 50's era Fords, Chevys and Pontiacs running, surely there is a wizard down there to assist.

The gulf stream "loop" to Havana, CubaOn Friday November 6th, the entire fleet sailing from Pensacola will participate in the "actual" amateur sporting event which is a race along Havana's Melacon to the historic Castillo de Morro that has guarded the entrance to Havana Bay for over four centuries. Each boat in the fleet will take on Cuban dignitaries and school children and race for line honors again - Lesson plans to fly the franken-main proudly.

As the sun gets ready to set in the Straits, the crew is settling down into the evening ritual even though a bit distracted. In the slow winds earlier in the day, our female crew member did a bit of laundry off the stern and now there are dainties peppered here and there tied to the stern and drying in the sun.

Our navigator has now estimated an arrival of noon tomorrow, but the winds are building and the boat is starting to heel, so much that we are now de-powering the franken-main because we haven't learned to trust it as of yet. Who knows what the winds will do when the sun goes down... maybe a shift to let us finally raise a spinnaker?”

November 4– The Finish
The first monohull to finish was the scratch boat in that division, LESSON # 1, the J/130 from New Orleans, LA sailed by co-skippers Guy Williams and Mike Finn and their crew of Troy Gilbert, Morgan Mayberry, Anthony Bartlett, Bryan Whited, Randall Richmond, and Claire Miller. Despite a broken alternator and a blown out mainsail (repaired and nicknamed ‘franken-main’), they finished as the first monohull at 8:05:50 AM Wednesday. ‘Lesson’ did not use her engine except to charge her battery- - until the alternator went out and there was no need. They charged with a solar panel from there on end to the finish.

Several of the boats that have finished— and many still on the course— have used their engines for propulsion. Calculating the adjusted corrected times of all the boats will be a complex task.   Read more about LESSON # 1 adventures here on their Facebook page   Read the SAILING WORLD blogs from LESSON # 1 here.   For more Cuba Race 2015 sailing information