Monday, September 23, 2019

Epic Finale @ Rolex Big Boat Series

J/70 sailing San Francisco Bay
(San Francisco, CA)- Seventy-nine teams gathered on San Francisco Bay to sail the 55th edition of the St. Francis Yacht Club’s annual Rolex Big Boat Series from September 11th to 15th. The regatta format is unique in that it offers enormous challenges to the most experienced skippers, tacticians, and crews. Their is a premium on getting good starts, divining the swift moving currents, and executing perfectly on teamwork to get into and out of the corners of the random leg race courses; the StFYC PRO has over forty-three courses to choose from depending on breeze direction and strength and factoring in the current that can often hit 5.0 kts in some places in the Bay! This year, the contingent of J/Teams virtually took over the Rolex Big Boat Series, with five boats sailing ORR Division and fleets of J/70s (14), J/88s (6), and J/105s (23) sailing one-design courses in the morning (windward-leewards), and the random leg course in the afternoon to finish off the fable finish line off the StFYC Race Deck! That was a total of forty-eight J/Teams, about 61.0% of the total fleet!

The 2019 edition posed a few new challenges for the sailors this year as the first two days were warm and light, while the second half of the regatta on Saturday and Sunday provided classic SF Bay conditions- the famously epic, “fresh to frightening”, “blowing dogs off chains”, 18 to 30 kts of cold Pacific Ocean breezes from the west underneath the majestic Golden Gate Bridge. Here are the daily reports on what went down over the four days and some of the carnage some unfortunate J/teams endures in the big breeze.

sunset on San Francisco Bay
Day 1- Dawn Glass-out to Afternoon Cruise Around
If nature abhors a vacuum, sailors have detested windless conditions since the days of ancient mariners. Historically, there is little reason to sing the lack-of-wind blues, given the Bay’s notorious reputation for delivering breeze-on racing. Unfortunately, for these same sailors, Thursday delivered one of the Bay’s rare, windless mornings forcing the StFYC’s Race Committee to make the difficult decision to downshift from the day’s two planned races to a single afternoon race, allowing the slowly building sea breeze to develop and overcome the unseasonably warm onshore temperatures enshrouding the city.  

“The forecast is uncharacteristically light this week because of the nice weather,” said Graham Biehl, the StFYC’s Race Director, who explained that, typically speaking, high temperatures in the city equate to light airs on the Bay. “So, we have plans to run shorter races. It’s the reason that we have so many courses to choose from,” he said, adding that he and his team have 43 racecourse permutations available. “We don’t like to shorten courses— this is tricky for the racers,  So, we choose courses that are on the shorter side.”

While the AP flag flew for several (atypical) hours from the RC boat, all competitors and organizers understood that the pain was ephemeral.

“Compared to a lot of other places that lose days to too little wind, too much wind or lightning storms, we have it really good on the Bay,” said Susan Ruhne, Regatta Chair for the 55th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series. “But I always tell people that days like this are a really good test of a crew’s ability to shift into action when the wind fills in. Good boats are able to just go into race mode so that when the wind fills in, it’s game on.”

That is exactly what happened at approximately 1400 hours, local time, when the call was made to send the eight fleets out for a single race, which started in light airs developed into great racing late afternoon.

Once the sea breeze finally arrived, the Race Committee selected courses that were heavy on tactical challenges but relatively shy on miles. This smart move ensured great racing on an afternoon when the ebbing tide opposed the westerly breeze, making for sluggish upwind and downwind legs.

“We always say that, while we can’t control the weather, we can deliver world-class race course management,” said Ruhne. “Today was a great example of this. We didn’t like skipping the day’s first race, but it was worth it to ensure fair and even racing across the Bay.”

Winning the first J/70 race was Peter Cameron’s KANGAROO JOCKEY, followed by Chris Kostanecki’s JENNIFER and John Brigden/ Chris Snow’s COOL STORY BRO.  In the J/88s, Jim Hopps’ WHITE SHADOW started off strongly with a bullet, with David Britt’s SPLIT WATER and Steven Gordon’s INCONCEIVABLE rounding out the top three.  In the heated J/105 battles, it was Tim Russell’s super J/105 NE*NE winning the light airs race over Ryan Simmon’s BLACKHAWK and Bruce Stone & Nicole Breault’s ARBITRAGE (the recent winners of the J/105 North Americans). In ORR C Class, David Halliwill’s J/120 PEREGRINE took the win, followed by fellow J/120 CHANCE (Barry Lewis) taking the deuce.

J/105s sailing San Francisco
Day 2- More Chesapeake Bay-like weather- hot and flat!
Generally speaking, Fridays that fall on the 13th don’t enjoy a strong reputation for events unfurling smoothly, and when it coincides with hot, onshore temperatures in San Francisco, the situation on the Bay can become light, patchy, or even downright breathless. Such was the case today for the crews on Friday morning. The morning dawned bright, blue and warm, with barely a cat’s paw aggravating the Bay. While this certainly wasn’t the lucky start that many competitors were hoping for at a regatta that does not drop races, the day’s silver lining was a weather forecast that promised breeze by mid-afternoon. The AP flag remained hoisted with sailors idling ashore until 1400 hours when enough sea breeze arrived to allow the race committee to score a single race.

“The high temperatures ashore make it difficult to run races,” said Graham Biehl, StFYC’s Race Director, noting that today played out much like the first day of racing at this high-level event, with a single—albeit high-quality—race scored in all eight fleets. “But, the good news is that Saturday and Sunday look to be typical San Francisco Bay conditions.”

Competition was plenty stiff in ORR-B. “It’s a competitive fleet and the boats are exciting, with sport boats and sport-boat-like boats, so it attracts some great talent,” said Rich Jepsen, who is serving as vice president of US Sailing and as tactician aboard Dick Swanson’s J/111 BAD DOG (USA 103). “We’re an amateur crew, so we’ll be happy to stay in contact with the best boats, such as another J/111 that we spar with- SWIFT NESS.”

In ORR C Class, the J/120s continued to perform well, with Lewis’ CHANCE and Halliwill’s PEREGRINE scoring a 2nd and 3rd, respectively.

The J/105 class was witnessing a strong leader emerging in the form of Ryan Simmon’s BLACKHAWK, adding a 1st to their tally to lead with just 3 pts. However, behind them it was evolving into a dogfight between three boats- Russell’s NE*NE, ARBITRAGE, and Jeff Litfin’s MOJO.

J/105s on San Francisco Bay
Day 3- Classic, Epic, Fresh to Frightening Winds… Finally!
After two days of light-air racing, Mother Nature finally flipped the fun switch on day three, giving the big-air fanatics a huge dose of the classic Bay breeze. After starting in a beautiful morning breeze from the west of 10-12 kts, by the time the Race Committee’s finishing gun fell silent, gusts of 25+ knots were reported by the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The breeze came back!” said Graham Biehl, StFYC’s Race Director, the relief from the last two days of AP flags and wind holds visible on his now-happy face. “Thankfully the forecast materialized and we got in two races in a row.”

While breeze-on conditions are especially helpful to the heavily ballasted Classics class and the larger ORR-A and ORR-B boats, the same relief visible on Biehl’s face was evident on the expressions of J/70, J/88 and J/105 sailors, all of whom were more than happy to abandon their cerebral, light-air skills for the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled downhill rides that draw these One Design teams to this regatta, year-on-year.

“The Rolex Big Boat Series is a World Championship qualifier for the 2020 J/70 Worlds, and it’s good to see a big fleet,” said Biehl. The winning Open and Corinthian J/70 teams will both receive berths to the 2020 J/70 Worlds (July 27-August 2, 2020), which is being hosted by the California Yacht Club in Marina Del Rey, California. “We haven’t seen much J/70 action on the Bay since the 2016 Worlds, which we hosted at StFYC, so it’s good to see them lining up again.”

Christy Usher, co-owner and co-skipper of CHRISTINE ROBIN, explained that while some J/70 teams competing have already qualified for the 2020 Worlds, their prize berths transfer to the next fastest finisher if an already-qualified team wins top honors in either the Corinthian or Open divisions. “No mercy is being shown out there,” said Usher, adding that every J/70 team entered the regatta to win, plain and simple. “Everybody wants to go to next year’s Worlds because it’s local—there’s no hassle of traveling to Europe or the East Coast, so these berths are first and foremost in everyone’s minds.”

Scott Sellers, one of three owners of 1FA (USA 534), which is one of five Corinthian entries amongst the 14-strong J/70 fleet, re-emphasized what makes late-summer sailing on the Bay so special. “Tight competition and screaming spinnaker runs all over the Bay are the most memorable parts of Big Boat Series,” said Sellers. Harrison Turner, another one of 1FA’s co-owners, agrees. “This venue is one of the most unique in the world that always delivers high quality racing,” said Turner. “It takes a lot of local knowledge to sail the Big Boat Series…it really places a premium on doing your homework and drawing on previous BBS experiences.”

John Brigden’s COOL STORY BRO beat Usher’s CHRISTINE ROBIN and Kostanecki’s JENNIFER across the line for the day’s first race. Brigden had a repeat performance during the day’s second race, besting Cameron’s KANGAROO JOCKEY, followed by CHRISTINE ROBIN. After a total of four races, COOL STORY BRO tops the J/70 class leaderboard, followed by CHRISTINE ROBIN and 1FA.

While the J/88 class isn’t wrestling for berths to their Worlds, they are competing for top bragging rights in their second running as a One-Design class at the West Coast’s most competitive regatta.

“We definitely feel the pressure, every other team has been working hard to come get us,” said Gary Panariello, skipper of COURAGEOUS and the 2018 winner of a Rolex timepiece and the Richard Rheem Perpetual Trophy.

Still, experiencing pressure and having fun are by no means mutually exclusive entities.

“The best part of racing at the Rolex Big Boat Series is the wildly varying conditions,” said Panariello. “Breeze on and more on, water flowing in every direction, heavy metal (ships) moving down through the middle of the race course and lots and lots of boats trying hard to get to the same spot.” And then there’s the matter of managing sight lines and real-time tactics while negotiating a six-strong fleet of identical boats. “Driving the boat downwind in big breeze is super exciting,” continued Panariello. “The big challenge driving is that it's hard to see anything other than the big kite! You need to have great faith that the crew is keeping all eyes out of the boat.”

Sadly, faith didn’t keep Gordon’s INCONCEIVABLE mast vertical during the day’s second race, as the fleet got pounded by heavy conditions on the inside of the Golden Gate Bridge. After losing her rig over the side, INCONCEIVABLE had to retire from the race and the regatta. But, looking outside of the lifelines helped COURAGEOUS out-sail Britt’s SPLIT WATER and Jeremy Moncada’s JUNO to take the day’s first bullet. Then, the leaders flip-flopped in the second race, with SPLIT WATER claiming top honors, followed by COURAGEOUS and Jim Hopp’s WHITE SHADOW. At day’s end, WHITE SHADOW and SPLIT WATER were tied on points, with COURAGEOUS 2 pts back.

Meanwhile, amongst the 23-strong J/105 class– the regatta’s largest One Design class and racing for StFYC’s Commodore’s Cup perpetual trophy and accompanying Rolex timepiece– competition was as stiff as ever. This began with the day’s first starting line sparring in the Treasure Island starting area, and it continued through two races to culminate in a series of fast, close, downwind finishes off of the StFYC’s Race Deck.

“It was really interesting and variable out there today,” said Ryan Simmons, skipper of BLACKHAW, who reported seeing a puff of 30 knots when they were just to the east of the Golden Gate Bridge. “By the second leg of the second race we were seeing winds in the mid-20s, with bigger puffs. Driving was very intense and was all about turning down in the puffs downwind.”

BLACKHAWK’s crew proved they are equally adept at winning in a breeze as they are in the light stuff by taking the bullet in the day’s first race. BLACKHAWK was joined across the finish by Ian Charles’ MAVERICK and Phillip Laby’s GODOT, in 2nd & 3rd, respectively. In the second race, Russell’s NE*NE earned the win, followed by BLACKHAWK and Rolf Kaiser’s DONKEY JACK. After four races, Blackhawk led the chase in the J/105 class, followed by NE*NE and Littfin’s MOJO.

Sadly for the crews of Laby’s GODOT and William Woodruff and Sergey Lubarsky’s RUSSIAN ROULETTE, the gusty conditions during the second race proved stronger than their rigs, which succumbed to classic West Coast air loading. Thankfully, no injuries were reported at press time, however, there’s no question that this mishap will sadly prove detrimental to both teams’ hopes of seeing their names etched onto the Commodore’s Cup.

J/70 winners- Cool Story Bro
Day 4- More Epic, Breeze-on Weather for the “Bay Tour”!
Cool onshore temperatures, ebbing fog, flooding waters and a gathering sea breeze greeted the sailors on the final day. That is usually a recipe for a massive breeze to build by early afternoon. The day’s course selection allowed all teams to strut their big-air skills while enjoying a stadium-style finish in front of cheering fans ashore on StFYC’s Race Deck.

ORR B Class sailors raced for The City of San Francisco Trophy, which consists of one of the golden spades used during the 1933 groundbreaking ceremony for the Golden Gate Bridge. After a total of five races, Zachery Anderson and his J/125 VELVET HAMMER took the silver while Reuben Rocci’s J/111 SWIFT NESS just missed a podium finish by 3 pts in the epic final race, taking fourth place in the end.

ORR C Class saw the two J/120’s land on the podium, but not the in the way Lewis’ CHANCE team wanted to end the regatta. Going into the last race, CHANCE was leading the class by one point. However, they had their hands full taking on a well-sailed Swan 42 and their colleagues on the J/120 PEREGRINE. In the end, a disappointing final race 4th place ensured CHANCE of the silver, but no Rolex Submariner watch to add to their collection (they have won their class before!). Taking third was Halliwill’s PEREGRINE.

StFYC’s Commodore’s Cup is awarded to the regatta’s largest One-Design fleet, an honor that once again falls to the 23-strong J/105 class. Simmons’ BLACKHAWK crew showcased their big-fleet-management skills to win this proud trophy and accompanying Rolex timepiece; they were joined on the J/105 class podium by Russell’s NE*NE and Charles’ MAVERICK, in 2nd and 3rd, respectively.

While these four classes competed for perpetual trophies and timepieces, the racing was just as tough in other classes. For example, the J/70 class saw 14 boats on the starting lines, making it the regatta’s second-largest One Design class. Bridgen’s COOL STORY BRO demonstrated regatta-winning strategy and skills to take home the top prize in this popular class. They were joined on the podium by the 1FA team (Scott Sellers, Harrison Turner and Geoff McDonald) and Tracy and Christy Usher’s CHRISTINE ROBIN.

Additionally, the top Corinthian and Open J/70 teams at this year’s Rolex Big Boat Series also competed for berths at the 2020 J/70 Worlds (July 27-August 2, 2020), which is being hosted by the California Yacht Club in Marina Del Rey, California. 1FA and Cool Story Bro. emerged as the Corinthian and Open winners; however, because 1FA already earned their Corinthian berth, this slot will go to the Usher’s CHRISTINE ROBIN.

The J/88 made its Rolex Big Boat Series debut in 2018, and the newly-launched class returned this year with even more polished skills and tactics, not to mention racecourse strategies honed during last year’s regatta. Ultimately, David Britt’s SPLIT WATER took first-place honors, followed by Panariello’s COURAGEOUS and Hopp’s WHITE SHADOW, who took home second and third place finishes.

While all racers care about their results, they also care about sailing on clean, plastic-free water, and StFYC took some significant steps to make their signature regatta a significantly more sustainable event. “I was proud that the StFYC received Sailors for the Sea’s Platinum-level status for this year,” said Ruhne. “Seeing refillable water-bottles and the West Marine-sponsored water bottle stations was great. We significantly reduced the amount of single-use plastic waste at this regatta, which is a win-win situation for everybody involved.” Sailing photo credits- Sharon Green/ Ultimate Sailing.  For more Rolex Big Boat Series sailing information Add to Flipboard Magazine.