The Round the County Race has been one of our favourites ever since our first time round the San Juan Islands. This time was to be a little different.
We left the marina, hoisted the jib and motorsailed at over 10 knots while surfing down the odd, large waves en-route to Lydia Shoal. Once there we watched as the wind dropped a few times which had us undecided on a reef or not. The competitors helped with that decision as many had chosen to fly a full main. There was enough strength in the wind that the spinnakers were “kept in the bag” for the time being. There were some puffs accompanied by a few large waves that had us bearing off with force but that was nothing compared to what would happen later on that day.
Up ahead, we could see that the boats that had started earlier were in much less breeze and that made us feel that our decision not to reef was spot on. Even though we were on our toes watching the puffs and ready to bear away those puffs became lighter and less frequent. More and more boats had started to hoist their spinnakers and bear off to stay as low as possible. The fleet began to jibe onto port and head toward the top of the islands and our course.
We kept the fleet on our right to allow us to maneuver at will while passing the slower boats that had started ahead of us. We made the decision to jibe in order to maintain the safe distance from them and keep our starboard option for when we wanted to come back out to the right. This plan seemed to be paying off as the TP 52s by now had hoisted spinnakers and were rocketing along at speeds greater than our own. We were watching as we now had “targets ahead” and info whether they were being headed or lifted. We still had not considered hoisting the kite as the stronger puffs had returned for a while. We were having to bear off every now and then with the added pressure and combined wave pattern. We were all at “the back of the bus” smiling and getting soaked as Pat steered and Sandy trimmed the main in their usual talented manner.
Today was to be different. We pressed along at 18-20 knots while commenting on tactics and potential sail choices when we got a large puff from astern that had us again bearing off and easing the main, sending water over us all. This time, however, as we pushed the leeward bow down we managed to catch a huge kelp ball that stopped us in our tracks! The drop in speed was alarming as the sterns started to rise as both bows dug deeper. The crew was shot forward and the sterns kept rising — the angles were not looking good for Dragonfly. We all tried to hang on as long as we could, but gravity finally took hold of us all as the boat went over. It was horrifying to think that we had just pitchpoled our beloved Dragonfly in conditions that we have been out in thousands of times.
All six of us ended up under the trampoline and one by one managed to get out from under the mesh. Mark Thynes, Nick Banks and Gord Irving were up first and Mark was already starting to count heads. Sandy was next out from the back of the boat. He had waited to deploy his inflatable life vest until he was out from under the tramp. “4!” Mark yelled! Mark then leaned out over the weather side of the overturned boat and saw me and counted “5!” I was getting pounded against the boat by the sea state and I was worried about getting swept right back under the slippery hulls. I managed to grab hold of a spinnaker sheet and slip along the hull to the stern, still holding onto the sheet. The search was on for Pat and he soon came out from under the tramp on the leeward side of the boat. I heard Mark holler “6!” and soon came to assist me in getting on from the stern. Nick and Gordie were both helping Pat up onto the overturned tramp while Mark was helping me. That made five of us “on board” and we saw that Sandy had been picked up by Sean Trew of Pacific Fog Photography.
Next on scene was Martha, the schooner out of Port Townsend, with all sails down offering assistance, quickly followed by Por Favor, also with all sails down, offering aid and support. We gave both of these captains and crew, and all others who had sailed closer, the high sign, as we gathered our thoughts. We had Sean take us all off Dragonfly as we looked at our upside down catamaran. At this stage the small rib Sean was in had about a foot of water in it. We wondered for a minute if we had gotten off of one very wet vessel into another. Sean had me check if the bilge pump was working, it was, so all was well on that front. All of us, except for Mark, were wearing drysuits and we decided he would need to get out of his wet gear. Tom White, with crew John McCartney, on Jo, was next on scene and we got Sean to take Mark to Jo where Tom and John picked a new fashion ensemble for him. All of us were unhurt except for myself as I had a badly strained shoulder and trauma to both my biceps. Most of us had bruises to compare later that day.
The five crew now decided that we should all get on board Jo while we called Vessel Assist to try to tow the boat into calmer seas and try to right Dragonfly. Tom took us to Shallow Bay on Sucia Island to await their arrival. John got the kettle on and gave us all hot chocolate. The ETA for the tow boat was close so John cast off our mooring and we went back to the boat. Sean had stood by Dragonfly all during this time period and took Pat and Gordie on board as they set to work to fashion bridles and tow lines.
Unfortunately, the wind had built a bit, such that the tide and wind had set up large enough waves that the tow boat kept losing traction as the motor cavitated. After many attempts with Pat and Gord taking turns getting in and out of the water and re-setting lines, we could see this was not working. My crew was tiring and the tow boat was not up to the challenge. Tom offered to have a try with Jo, as it had been very close a couple of times. The guys re-rigged again, using the tow line from Vessel Assist and two of Tom’s dock lines we gave it one more shot. Dragonfly sank down at the stern, as per instructions, and Jo pulled as Tom expertly handled his craft to a near perfect stern down/bow over recovery — until first one and then the second tow lines broke. We were all heartbroken.
The day was starting to wain and we decided that due to the exertion required and the amount of daylight remaining, we had to tow Dragonfly to the Alden Bank mark for the night. This was the only place that we could come up with that had sufficient depth for the mast to not touch bottom. After over an hour of towing we caught up with Sean, Pat and Gordie who had been tethered to the mark after a rather wet ride to get there.
Tom slipped in beside the mark and on queue we dropped our towline and Gordie and Pat secured Dragonfly for the night.
Tom took us all to Roche and we cabbed it to Friday Harbor with some of the crew from Por Favor. We managed to catch the 6:45 ferry back to Anacortes. We got picked up there by Carol, Pat’s wife, and headed back to LaConner. Nick and I got the lifting straps which were in Everett and food for the next day’s recovery attempt.
We headed out at 6:30am with rescue gear onboard Pat’s 51′ Navigator, Windntide. We were on scene by around 11:00am. Nick, Gordie and Mark went to rig the straps and lines for the righting. Sandy and I were to man the lines while Pat ran the big diesel engines. All went perfect this time around and we had Dragonfly right side up in no time. Alas, to our dismay, the mast was broken in two places. The mainsail was trapped in the groove and the tough decision was made to loosen the rig and let the mast and sail go over the side. It would have been impossible to tow the boat with the rig as it was and the mast itself was not salvageable no matter what. Sandy joined the rest of the crew on Dragonfly and set to recovering as much of our gear and sails as possible and transferring them to Windntide.
The next part was far less hectic and quieter as it was a long tow to Anacortes and down Swinomish Channel past LaConner to Everett.
All the crew of Dragonfly are thankful for the efforts of Sean, Tom, and John, as well as the assistance from Vessel Assist in our efforts to save Dragonfly.
I sail with the best group of sailors and am lucky to have had them with me that day. Together, we will sail again.