The Race

It was to be just another uneventful sail across the Strait of Georgia. The sail plan was set from Pender Island to False Creek, and the weather was expected to be fairly benign.
The primary reason for the outing was to have our long-awaited canvas dodger installed. It just happened that it was to be ready on Wendi's birthday, which also fell during the annual, world-famous "Celebration of Light" fireworks display in English Bay.
We spent four days at anchor in False Creek aboard our Corbin 39 sailboat, "Cosmic Debris".

The summer of 2015 was one of sunshine and high temperatures all across British Columbia, excepting, of course, the two days before Wendi’s birthday—  naturally, it rained. Undeterred by the rain, we — with a few guests and a few pitchers of rum punch — enjoyed the fireworks and celebrated Wendi’s 53rd birthday aboard Cosmic Debris.

We left False Creek the next day with a new canvas dodger and just a bit of a hangover. It was just after lunch and rowing the last of the party guests ashore that we sailed out of English Bay in just a bit of unsettled weather. We were destined for Silva Bay on Gabriola Island, where we would anchor for the night before embarking on the final leg of the trip back to our mooring buoy on North Pender Island.

It was a short stay at Silva Bay; we arrived just before dark, at around 21:00, to an uncrowded and completely still anchorage. We had a quick dinner and then went to bed.

We weighed anchor the next morning and weaved our way out through the narrow channels just after low tide. The forecast for wind that day was less than encouraging—five to ten knots diminishing to light near noon. I hadn’t made any steadfast plans for a route back to our mooring from Vancouver, so I wasn’t too concerned with the timing of slack tide at any of the possible passages into the Southern Gulf Islands. I figured if there was a little wind out in Georgia Strait, we’d sail as much as we could and even go all the way to the south end of Saturna Island if the sailing was good enough.

When we hit the strait, we found about five knots of wind on our stern and set a course dead downwind under sail with the genoa and main. We were managing about two and a half knots of speed over ground and decided to break out the spinnaker. As we pulled it out of the bag, we discovered several small holes in the sail, so we dropped that idea. Oh well, this was not a bad trolling speed, I thought, so we rigged up a rod and threw out a line.

So it seems the forecast for wind was a little optimistic for Georgia Strait that day. It neither hit ten knots nor did it diminish to light—it died completely! Within an hour of hoisting the sails, our five-knot wind was completely gone, the ocean surface was like glass, and I was no longer trolling; I was jigging.

It also turned out that the only positive thing that could be said of the attempt at fishing that day was finding out that I needed a new reel for my salmon rod. Boy, this isn’t going so well—a buggered reel, a holy sail, and no wind!

We decided we might as well look for wind in Trinchomali Channel, which runs southeast between Galiano and Saltspring Islands. So with that, at 12:59, after forty-five minutes of drifting in the exact direction from which we came, we fired up the iron spinnaker and set a course at a slow but appropriate speed so that we would arrive at Porlier Pass at the time of slack tide.

We followed another sailboat through the pass just before 15:00. Her name was Screamin’ Eagle, and she appeared to be comparable in size to Cosmic Debris — maybe a little smaller in length overall. With a large plastic bird mounted permanently atop the radome, she was easily recognisable, even after having seen her only from astern. Once we were through the pass, she headed west towards Hall Island, and we made a course straight down the east side of Trinchomali on a 130-degree heading.

While motoring, we had dropped the genoa and left the mains’l up and centred. The genoa lay strewn along the starboard side from forestay to cockpit. Once we were out of the pass and well into Trinchomali Channel — thus far also devoid of wind — I decided we might as well put the genoa away. After it was stowed, I strung my hammock between the mast and the inner stay and was planning to bring the autopilot controller out to the foredeck so that I could keep watch and steer from the hammock. At least it would be a relaxing trip, and maybe I would get a bit of a tan. At the very least, it would be a bit of a reprieve from the endless drone of the engine.

After the sailing trip to Vancouver, we had left the Yankee Sail on deck, and it was still wet from the rain. We decided to dry it by running it up the forestay and sheeting it in tight for a while. This was our last opportunity to do that, as this was the final sail before heading back up north to work. No sooner had we completed that task when we were blessed with a wee bit of wind. It wasn’t much, and we continued motoring but steered away from the wind enough to find a point of sail to see if we could gain a little assistance. Before long, the wind began to build a little, and I was happy to see a steady ten knots on the anemometer. Soon after, I shut the engine down, and we were sailing close-hauled on a starboard tack in a modest 10 to 12 knot breeze.

Just about the time that we were clearing the southernmost tip of the Secretary Islands, we came through the wind onto a port tack, and guess who appeared out of nowhere? Screamin’ Eagle! I saw her over my right shoulder. "Where the hell did they come from?", I said to Wendi. "I don’t know", she replied, "but it’s that boat with the bird on the radar." The last time I had seen Screamin’ Eagle, as we emerged from Porlier Pass, she was motoring and appeared to be on a course that would have taken her between Reed and Hall Islands and possibly around the north side of Saltspring Island. I guess while we were in our own little world, dealing with our sails and hammock, we hadn’t noticed her creeping up behind us, but there she was, under sail, and she was now almost overtaking us.

As we sailed in close proximity, we looked each other over, seemingly to assess the competition. I took a look at her sails. They seemed baggy and poorly trimmed. Her genoa was big, probably 130%. In comparison, our foresail was only a Yankee—much, much smaller. I had considered hanking on the stays’l too but was too lazy, and besides, my hammock was in the way. I reassessed my trim and hardened the sheets. The race, by definition, was on!

Unfortunately, our current course was taking us directly towards the Victoria Shoal marker, meaning we’d have to tack again in just a little more than a nautical mile. Oh well, when you’re beating to weather in a narrow channel, you have to be ready to do some tacking. If that weren’t bad enough, the next two tacks would also put us on course with rocks and shoals, severely cutting the breadth of the channel. Meanwhile, Screamin’ Eagle’s courses were taking her in between and around all these obstacles and on longer legs before tacking. Finally, after our fifth tactic, the channel opened up for us.

Right about this time, Wendi announced she would go below to start preparing dinner. It wasn’t long after seeing her disappear into the comparative darkness below, alone in my own dimension and focused solely on the task at hand, that I became completely unaware of my companion’s presence aboard the boat. In the world where I existed, there were only the wind, the waves, two men, and two boats.

I never spoke to anyone aboard Screamin’ Eagle, so I can only speculate, but despite looking smaller overall than Cosmic Debris, she appeared to be of comparable length at the waterline. They seemed to be pretty well matched, with each having her own advantages and weaknesses. Thanks to that big genoa, she definitely outperformed us in lighter air, but once we got into some better wind, in spite of our smaller heads'l, we prevailed.

While I was mucking about with those first few tacks, she almost took the lead, but once I got out onto the longer stretches and found better wind, it levelled the field.

We were sailing pretty much neck and neck, with our courses crisscrossing as we zig-zagged upwind. Then, just south of the Walker Rock marker, Screamin’ Eagle tacked out in front of us to starboard. We chased her on a 170-degree heading for about a mile and a half on a port tack. We matched her speed and heading exactly, and we were trailing by only a few boat lengths. As we drew nearer to the rocky eastern shore of Saltspring Island and the inevitable tack, I prepared my sheets, and with anticipation, with eyes trained hard near the top of her fores’l, I watched for my cue. Screamin’ Eagle was fast approaching the island when he began his tactic. At the moment his fores’l began to spill air, I swung my wheel over to port and began my tack. With our tacks complete, Screamin’ Eagle now trailed us as we headed out across the channel once more.

The new starboard tack started out on a 55-degree heading, and this time Screamin’ Eagle was ever so slowly gaining on us as the wind faded, to her advantage. By the time we had gone a little more than a nautical mile on this leg, the wind had weakened from seventeen knots down to just twelve, and our opponent was overtaking us. In response, I rounded up into the wind to spill some air from the Yankee and slow down just a bit, allowing him to pass a little sooner. As soon as he was by, I tacked out behind him and headed back to the windy side of the channel. Within a few minutes, we were back in seventeen knots of wind, and Screamin’ Eagle was just then tacking and falling behind.

After crossing the channel two more times, we sailed past Enterprise Reef with the wind peaking at twenty-one point six knots and shifting just enough to allow us a direct course into Navy Channel and through to Plumper Sound. Entering Navy Channel, I looked back at Screamin’ Eagle as she turned towards the docks at Port Washington. Cosmic Debris had taken an impressive lead by that time, and with a smile on my face and my heart full of life, we sailed on into the lighter winds of Navy Channel.

As the smell of triumph waned, I began to detect a new smell—a warm and inviting aroma wafting from below as Wendi emerged to announce that dinner was almost done. "Perfect!", I said. "We’ll be at the buoy within a half hour." We had one last bit of sailing across Plumper Sound in a renewed 17-knot breeze, with one final tack pointing us towards the entrance to Browning Harbour and our "Home Buoy".

It was 21:25, with only a dimly lit sky above the surrounding hillsides, when we grabbed the buoy and sat down by the light of the cockpit lamp to a perfectly cooked dinner. Pork chops with roasted onions and potatoes, all prepared while I was fully consumed by the ultimate contest of wit and skill — that day when two sailboats went in the same direction.

"By the way", declared Wendi, "when I was below cooking dinner, it would have been nice if you’d have given me a heads up when tacking".

"Oh. Right. Sorry,", I said as I fought a losing battle with a sheepish grin.