Michelob Cup Race (March 2003)
We sail in our first race!

Saturday, March 22, 2003: The Michelob Cup Race

The Michelob Cup is held annually in the Gulf of Mexico right outside of John's Pass, so it's really convenient to our new slip. I enlisted Kelley & Keith to serve as crew, and they met us at our apartment around 8:00am. (EARLY for me!) We drove out to the boat, stowed our gear, fired everything up, and headed out!

The first start was at 10:00am, just southwest of John's Pass. The wind was quite nice, blowing 10 knots or more out of the north/northwest. There were four traditional starts to windward for the "real" racing fleets, then the race committee reversed the line for the start of the True Cruising fleet. This gave us a downwind start -- something I don't have a lot of experience with, but which didn't seem to give me much trouble from a tactical standpoint.

My biggest mistake with the start was not timing some of the earlier starts to determine the exact sequence. (We were very preoccupied with trying to find the placard on the race committee boat to indicate which course we were supposed to sail.) As it turns out, the committee was using a 5-minute sequence that went something like this: fleet flag up with 5 minutes to go; preparatory flag up one minute later with 4 minutes to go; preparatory flag down with 1 minute to go; then starting flag up at time zero. I somehow got it in my head that the preparatory flag meant FOUR minutes to the start, so I would have been very late if the wind hadn't totally died as we reached the favored end of the line, leaving me no time for a final circle. This actually worked out quite well, as we started on starboard downwind of half the fleet, giving us right-of-way over the boats that mattered. I immediately used this to force two other boats out on a broad reach with me. One of the skippers yelled at me that the mark was "that way" (pointing downwind) but I just ignored him until he asked me directly what I was doing. I then told him that I was sailing to clear air, at which point he and another boat both tacked away behind me. He was a bit miffed because he'd already set his whisker pole for the downwind run, so the broad reach was proving awkward for him.

Though we did sail out from the fleet with good speed, I had difficulty keeping the sails full and was obliged to sail closer to the wind (and farther off the rhumbline) than I had hoped. The problem was exacerbated by swells coming out of the northwest which, in the light air, kept knocking the wind out of the sails. As we became more and more separated from the fleet, I tried to jibe the genoa over to the starboard side and run downwind wing-and-wing, but the swells and light air rendered this utterly impossible. I was obliged to jibe on broad reaches back and forth all the way downwind, and I was unable to make up the extra distance with better boat speed. This ultimately put us around the leeward mark (almost three hours later) in second-to-last place out of 18 boats. This taught me my first major lesson: Serendipity doesn't go to leeward very effectively, at least in part because she lacks a whisker pole. All the other boats had them.

The wind died to less than 2 knots as we neared the leeward mark, so we barely managed to maintain steerage to round it. Even half an hour after rounding the mark, we had drifted more east of the mark than we'd managed to sail back to windward of it. Perhaps there was some current involved, because the one boat behind us managed to round the mark and cut our lead, but he then became stuck in much the same predicament as we. My GPS knotmeter was reading precisely ZERO, and I could barely turn the boat.

Fortunately, the wind started to build again, but even as it reached 5 knots, I was still having problems getting the boat to move at more than a crawl (less than a knot). Again, I suspect that there may have been some current involved, but there seemed to be other problems as well. The swells out of the northwest continued to dump what little wind managed to fill our sails, and the drag of our large, three-blade fixed prop had us effectively anchored. The situation was frustrating because I could feel the wind on my face, but I still couldn't get the boat to move. This taught me my second lesson: It pays to calibrate your instruments as accurately as possible, particularly wind speed/direction and speed through the water. The latter influences the former when it's correcting apparent wind to true wind, so it would have been very helpful to have them all working correctly. This was true to a lesser extent on the downwind leg as well. We listened on the VHF as the leader of our fleet (a Beneteau First, I think) -- now MILES ahead of us -- reported his finish.

Once the wind reached 6 knots, though, Serendipity finally started to move. We gained steadily on the next boat ahead of us (Metaphor II), but the skipper suddenly did a U-turn and fell in BEHIND us! I have no idea why he would do something like that, but it clearly wasn't the tactic of a serious competitor. As the wind continued to build, we continued to pick up speed, leaving Metaphor in our spray and soon passing a small blue boat farther offshore. Meanwhile, the boat that had been behind us at the leeward mark started mixing it up with Metaphor as they both fell farther and farther behind.

The wind soon reached 12 knots with occasional gusts to 15, and we were hauling along at 6 knots on port tack, heading due north with 15 degrees of heel. While we were adrift earlier, I had set the finish mark (the John's Pass sea-buoy) as our next waypoint, but I now had Theresa, Keith, and Kelley on lookout for the other (fast-boat) finish line as I focused on driving the boat. We made only two tacks (Theresa and Keith's first ones upwind) in something like four miles.

As we entered the final mile to the finish line, the next closest boat tacked over onto starboard and crossed well ahead of us. Several minutes later, as we passed that boat's stern, I noticed that she seemed to be heading much farther off the wind than Serendipity was capable of. I waited another few minutes, then tacked away on the next header. (Our new bearing was about 250 degrees, indicating that Serendipity tacks through about 110 degrees to windward -- not bad at all.) We sailed along for about 15 minutes, and the other boat tacked back over onto port. We were still several minutes apart, but I knew the crossing would be close. Sure enough, we crossed the other boat's bow with only about 100 feet to spare. Our opponent took a nasty dose of our dirty air, and then I tacked over to cover. We continued to point higher and travel faster, though, so they quickly fell away below us, and the match was over.

I realized at this point that there were actually several other boats still heading for the finish line, and that we were hauling along at such a clip that we might have some chance of overtaking them. This we did, but they all dropped their jibs and passed behind the John's Pass sea-buoy, demonstrating that they were, in fact, boats from the "real" racing fleet that had already finished earlier and were simply heading home. Nevertheless, we finished the race in fine feather with at least four boats behind us. This certainly wasn't the spectacular finish that I had hoped for, but it wasn't bad considering our abysmal downwind leg.

The Unexpected:

We headed in under full sail, but the day still had a nasty surprise in store for us. A motor suddenly came on below, and Keith asked, "What's that? It's not the bilge pump, is it?" My response was something like, "SHIT!", though I don't recall the exact expletive. It sure enough was, so I abandoned the helm to Theresa as I rushed below with Keith. The bilge was full, and water was seeping over the floorboards. We were clearly sinking! Keith and I frantically tore up floorboards and checked through-hull fittings in a desperate attempt to find the leak, but to no avail. Fortunately, the bilge pump seemed to be keeping pace with the inflow, so I left Keith below to monitor the situation while I went back above and turned on the engine. I sure didn't want to run out of juice! I gave Theresa the helm again and furled the sails. Keith reported that the bilge level was slowly declining, but then Kelley noticed that we weren't moving, despite the engine running. When I heard this, I about had a heart attack. My thought was, "Oh my God, we've lost the prop shaft!" I pulled a bit of the main back out to give Theresa some steerage, since we were now in a cluster of boats heading in the channel, and I dashed back down below to rip open the engine compartment. Surprisingly, it seemed fairly dry, so I went back above, popped the engine back into neutral, and then put it into drive. Sure enough, the boat drove forward, indicating that Theresa had accidentally left the clutch button depressed when I gave her the helm after starting the engine. Thus, lesson number three: Don't panic, and keep thinking.

With the situation now under control (apart from the risk of the bilge pump burning itself up), we waited for the next opening of the John's Pass bridge. This was several minutes in coming (which seems like forever when you're worried about sinking), but we made it through safely, and we executed a quite elegant docking in our slip. (Kudos to the crew!) We got the boat tied up nicely, then I turned the engine off and Keith and I went below again to find the leak. Keith noticed a sound in the aft head, and I quickly found the culprit: the plastic fitting on the West Marine head treatment that I'd installed over a year ago had broken apart. A piece of it was lodged in the head's water intake hose, and the rest was dangling from the head end of the hose. Water was, of course, pouring in through the intake hose, but the flow was easily staunched by closing the seacock. I later extracted the broken fitting. That cheap piece of junk nearly sank our boat!

We left the bilge pump running as we put the interior back together, packed up all our gear and provisions, put everything away, reconnected the power, jiggered all the lines, and finally disembarked. There's still a lot of saltwater on top of our port and starboard freshwater tanks, so I'll have to clean that up and then purge and refill the tanks, but it was probably time for me to do that anyway.

Lessons From the Race:

(1) We would have sailed much faster downwind if we'd had a spinnaker, but then we couldn't have competed in the True Cruising class. Moreover, we would have had a hard time managing the spinnaker with such a green crew. It would be nice if we could figure out how to rig a cruising/asymmetrical spinnaker that can be handled entirely from the cockpit. I'll have to research that. Otherwise, a whisker pole is evidently a necessity for racing in the True Cruising class. (Truth be known, though, I've always hated whisker poles.)

(2) Serendipity has some nice instrumentation aboard, but I couldn't use some of it because it wasn't calibrated properly. Moreover, it's nearly impossible to see the sails from the helm with the bimini up (and the True Cruising guidelines require that you sail with the bimini up) so the wind direction guage is fairly critical. I've gotta calibrate it precisely.

(3) Our large, three-blade fixed prop provides noticeable drag that seems to prevent Serendipity from moving at all in light wind. If we really want to splurge, we might consider upgrading to a folding prop. This will lower our PHRF rating, but that should be offset by the increase in speed on all points of sail. Folding props are very expensive, though.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003: Race Results

I got the Michelob Cup results today, and there really weren't many surprises. There were 19 boats registered for the true cruising fleet, and 18 started. Two of those (the Hunter 34 Boogens II and the Bristol 32 Metaphor II*) didn't finish, and we managed to beat one other boat (the Catalina 42 Sea Gypsy) on the last leg to take 15th place overall. The Passport 40 Penultimate and the Columbia 8.3 Why Knot finished only 3 minutes ahead of us, so if the wind had been just a little more cooperative, we would have beat them too.

The sad thing, though, is that the top three boats in our fleet (the Beneteau First 35s5 Ooh La La, the Catalina 40 Sonia Cate, and the Cal 34 Shady Lady) finished over an hour ahead of us. I clearly need to fix our downwind problem if we hope to be competitive.

Apparently, some of the boats we were mixing it up with at the end were in the more serious non-spinnaker fleet. There were 15 boats in that fleet, and we finished before all but two of them. We even finished before three of the spinnaker boats and two of the multi-hulls. They all had a much longer course, though (16.7 nautical miles, versus our 9.8 nautical miles).

Our finish vis-a-vis the other fleets raises an interesting question: Would we have done better in the non-spinnaker fleet, as opposed to the true cruising fleet? The top three non-spinnaker boats covered 16.7nm in 5 hours, while the top three true cruising boats covered 9.8nm in 3 hours 35 minutes. Thus, the top three non-spinnaker boats averaged 3.3 knots, while the true cruising boats averaged 2.7 knots.

BUT, the non-spinnaker boats had a 20 minute head start in good wind, during which time we would have been sailing at around 5 knots. That means that they presumably covered 1.7nm in that first 20 minutes, after which it's an apples-to-apples comparison, assuming the wind was the same across the entire race course. Thus, they sailed 15nm in 4 hours 40 minutes for an average speed of 3.2 knots.

Similarly, the top three spinnaker boats finished in 4 hours 22 minutes for an average speed of 3.8 knots, but they started a full half hour before we did, so they presumably covered 2.5nm before the wind died. Thus, on an apples-to-apples basis, they sailed 14.2nm in 3 hours 52 minutes for an average speed of 3.7 knots.

There are a number of conclusions that can be drawn from all this:

(1) The true cruising fleet sailed about half a knot slower than the non-spinnaker "racing" fleet, presumably thanks to all the restrictions: cruising ground tackle; cruising water tanks at least 1/4 full; mandatory bimini; roller-furling headsail; no auxiliary sails; and sails of Dacron or cotton only. Note that a whisker pole IS permitted in the true cruising fleet, that we don't have one, and this was a big part of our downwind problem.

(2) The non-spinnaker fleet, in turn, sailed about half a knot slower than the spinnaker fleet. Given the assumption that the only significant difference between the two fleets is the use of a spinnaker, and given that a spinnaker is only valuable on a downwind leg, we can conclude that the spinnaker was good for about a half a knot in this race.

This page has been visited times.
2000-2003 Robert M. Freeland II. All rights reserved.
Changes last made on: Thurs, Nov 6, 2003
Click here for contact information.