Fog and Wind on Water Leads to Fun Ashore
As a rule, members of the Storm Trysail Club are a hardy lot.
After all, the club’s by-laws state that “Candidates for membership must have set a storm trysail under storm conditions offshore or have weathered a storm under greatly reduced canvas or sailed 1,000 nautical miles offshore. They also must be experienced blue water sailors, capable of taking command of a sailing vessel offshore under any and all conditions.”
However, there is a time when even the most seasoned sailor must be prudent and proceed with caution when considering the safety of the boat and crew. Such was the case on Monday when organizers of Block Island Race Week XXVII cancelled racing due to high winds and severe fog. Race committee chairman Dick Neville made the final call after monitoring the wind velocity and fog layer on Block Island Sound and consulting multiple weather forecasts.
“Conditions on the sound were not safe for sailboat racing. There is less than 100 feet of visibility, which is a very dangerous situation,” Neville explained. “Commander’s Weather and other forecasts agreed that if the fog lifts, the wind would get five knots stronger. That would put the wind in the high 20s with gusts into the 30s.”
Shawn Adams, who operates the weather mark boat for the White Fleet racing circle, traveled out to Block Island Sound first thing in the morning and again at 10:30 in order to provide the race committee with real time information. Adams recorded steady winds of 20 knots with gusts to 28.
“That would have been sail-able. However, there was no visibility, which was the problem,” Neville said. “Based on all reports, when we get the visibility the breeze comes up to a level that is not sail-able. For those reasons, we think it’s best to take the day off and let the sailors enjoy Block Island.”
Which is exactly what the crews of the 146 boats competing in the regatta elected to do. Brandon Flack, kite trimmer for the C&C 30 Themis, threw out the idea of having an Around the Island Race on bicycles. What transpired was “All Roads Lead to the Oar,” a bike race that started at Henry Maxwell’s crew house in Old Harbor, stopped at local watering holes, and finished at the Atlantic Rigging Trailer by the regatta tent.
Teddy Papenthien, skipper of the Naval Academy’s TP52 Hooligan, said he and some other midshipmen were going to go surfing. For the family-based crew of Teamwork, a day of bocci ball at the rental house seemed like a good idea.
Not surprisingly, The Oar filled up rather quickly as soon as the cancellation announcement was made as some sailors decided that drinking mudslides should be the first order of business.
Most of the skippers asked agreed with the decision, citing the experience of Neville and others on the race committee.
“I would defer to the discretion of the race committee and say it must be a good call,” said Jim Carkhuff, owner of the Donovan GP 26 Hall Pass. “The Storm Trysail Club does not make these decisions idly. These folks know what they’re doing.”
Gear breakdowns and sail blowouts are almost inevitable in 25-30 knot winds. No skipper that went through the expense of fielding an entry in Block Island Race Week 2017 wants to see that happen at the start of a five-day regatta.
“I think everyone out here would agree that it would not be good to break up the boat on Monday,” Carkhuff said.
Further down the dock at Champlin’s Marina, the crew of the J/105 Good Trade sat in the cockpit and tried to figure out how to spend the unexpected off day. Husband and wife co-owners Bruce Stone and Nicole Breault regularly sail in 25-30 knot winds on San Francisco Bay.
“We would have liked to have gone out racing, but we understand the race committee must think about the good of the entire fleet,” Stone said.
Neville noted that in the early editions of Block Island Race Week, the Storm Trysail Club rarely cancelled racing.
“In the old days we went around the island in the fog and some boats didn’t bother to round every mark,” Neville said with a smile. “How can you protest someone when you can’t see whether or not they sailed the proper course?”
The long-time race committee chairman for Block Island Race Week said consideration was given to racing in heavy air under a unique stipulation.
“One of our committee suggested that we should have a race using only storm trysails on days like this. I thought that was a pretty good idea,” Neville joked.
In all seriousness, it would be irresponsible of organizers to conduct racing in heavy air when competitors cannot see each other. Multiple skippers reported near-misses during Sunday’s practice race, which was held in fog that was not as thick as Monday’s.
“We could not have raced on Sunday because of the same concerns. We need a minimum of 1,200 feet visibility to have a safe race and prevent collisions,” Neville said. “That is the number that allows the race committee to start boats properly, allows boats to find the weather mark and allows adequate time for boats to avoid each other.”
Neville announced a two-hour postponement at 9 a.m. and the longhorn making that official came at 9:30. After getting the update from the racecourse at 10:30, Neville then announced the cancellation at 11 with the horn following a half hour later.
“As recently as a few years ago, we would do rolling postponements. Every half hour, there would be an announcement,” Neville said. “We got feedback from the sailors that they hate rolling postponements because you can’t do anything. That is why we made the first postponement two hours. That gives sailors an opportunity to get a cup of coffee or breakfast.”
In considering the prospect of a lost race day, Neville and the race committee looked carefully at the forecast for the rest of the week. It is very promising, both in terms of wind and weather.
Neville said the signature Around the Island Race will still be held if the wind cooperates. He noted there have been some editions of Block Island Race Week that did not include the distance race due to lack of breeze.
“We looked down the road to the next four days and believe we can do plenty of racing,” Neville said. “There is a front coming in that should pass through by Tuesday morning. When that clears and the thunderstorms move away, it’s going to be sunny with good breeze and that should hold for the rest of the week.”