For many regattas, participant numbers are a shadow of their former glory. However, there are two events with a similar racing format that have been selling out (SELLING OUT!) for the past few years in our area: Orcas Island Yacht Club/Friday Harbor Sailing Club’s Round the County and Sloop Tavern Yacht Club’s Race to the Straits. Over one hundred boats participate in each event. Hundreds of sailors have an awesome time. The registration limit gets reached earlier and earlier every year. So, why do these thrive while others struggle, despite best efforts of good sailors and dedicated volunteers? My answer is something I call the Destination Wedding Principle.
I can remember watching a YouTube clip of Ken Read (top-notch American Volvo and America’s Cup racer) talking at a conference a couple of years back. He was beating the drum about prioritizing comfort, fun, and variety in racing. He was saying that a few hours of racing is the right amount. He was also encouraging a move away from simple windward-leeward courses. I tend to agree with many of Read’s ideas. And, I’d say that Round the County and Race to the Straits align with his philosophy, and that it’s a big part of their success.
Our regional distance classics are races that require sailing into or through the night. Royal Victoria’s Swiftsure is the most notable, but West Vancouver Yacht Club’s Southern Straits, and the Seattle Yacht Club’s Smith Island/Protection Island Races are all in this mold, with distances between 80 and 120 miles. By contrast, both Round the County and Race to the Straits are two-day mid-distance races. Each race departs from a sailing hotspot on Saturday, and sends the boats on a course through breathtaking Salish Sea scenery for a distance around 30 miles. Each race spends the night in the middle partying in a quaint and picturesque locale. Partying…as in nobody is going home, nobody has to take the dog for a walk, nobody’s checking on the kids, and nobody has to go to work tomorrow…partying. That doesn’t necessarily mean alcohol fueled, though we are sailors and for many it does. On Sunday morning of Race to the Straits or Round the County, you pry your eyes open, and head right out on the water for another 30-mile sail home.
It’s kind of the dream, isn’t it? Have you ever left a destination wedding having had a bad time? All your friends are hanging out, and real life obligations are suspended while you’re in some temporary, far-off utopia. You get to see people you know in a different context. I’d say I seldom encounter someone who is anything but floored that they spent their weekend doing Race to the Strait or Round the County. People eat it up – they get to catch up with more people from different boats, and they don’t muck up their sleep schedule as they freeze their way through overnight watches. I love those tough distance races and want to see them thrive, too. But, is it as fun as those with an overnight stop? The numbers are beginning to say no, and so do I.
Round the County is a loop course around the San Juan Islands. These waters, most often thought of as cruising grounds, become an extraordinarily fun racing venue in early November. The day-one start and day-two finish are off of Lydia Shoal on the east side of Orcas Island in Rosario Strait. The direction around the islands (clockwise, counterclockwise) switches each year. This year, the fleet of fully crewed race boats went counterclockwise, a direction that traditionally affords a bit more downwind sailing, and Saturday delivered with 30 knots and a lightning quick transit for those who avoided shredded sails or worse. Regardless of the direction, you can be sure you will be sailing a variety of points of sail, allowing different designs to capitalize, and rewarding those who most quickly recognize the changes in pressure, wind direction, or tidal currents. You wind up flying a bunch of your sails: there will be reaching sections, under jib and spinnaker, to complement the windward and running legs.
For what started with, and maintains, a good-time dynamic, Round the County’s fleet runs the gamut. This year, there were three TP 52s and a Reichel/Pugh 55 leading the way in the IRC fleet, the super-fast Formula 40 Catamaran, Dragonfly (which unfortunately pitchpoled, lost her rig, and retired…read that story here). The variety of boats from the US and Canada range in size from 24’ to 70’, high performance favorites by PNW designers like Paul Bieker and Carl Buchan, a healthy one-design fleet of Santa Cruz 27s, a smattering of production racer/cruisers, and a handful of multihulls. And then there’s the 1907 Schooner, Martha, who has won their divisions two out of the last five years, taking first overall and second overall in those two years. The fact that a one-hundred+ year old schooner could be so competitive indicates three things: 1.) There’s the potential for a lot of reaching in this race. 2.) It can be WINDY! 3.) Martha is a really well sailed boat.
Regardless of the direction, day one always finishes just outside of the fairytale hamlet of Roche Harbor. The boats drop sail and head into this one-of-a-kind port. During the summer, this historical lime-quarry-turned-resort community can feel a little touristy, but the cute quaintness of the town has the perfect vibe when it is otherwise empty and overrun by happy sailors in early November. A floating tent party on the dock with provided beer and cookies, as well as BBQs set up for your crew to grill their own dinner, make the party unpretentious and, in my opinion, kind of perfect.
Day two completes the loop around San Juan County. Just like at a destination wedding, those nursing hangovers may be a little green as Sunday gets rolling. There’s not a lot of fanfare at the finish, and though there’s a generous awards dinner at Orcas Island Yacht Club on Sunday evening, I’ve never attended. The party was Saturday night, Monday is a workday, and those of us from Seattle have a two-hour drive (or a 8+ hour delivery) home.
Race to the Straits is similar to Round the County, but not identical. It’s a two-day mid-distance race with the overnight in Port Townsend, which plays host to a hell of a party. Race to the Straits is short-handed, with double-handed and a few single-handed crews. Because of this, there are more non-flying-sails registrants than normal, which contributes to the race’s casual dynamic. The majority still fly spinnakers, but the feel is markedly different than Round the County, which can have a bit more of a fast boats having-fun-by-going balls-to-the-walls vibe. That difference is fitting, however, as the ever-growing Sloop Tavern Yacht Club fills a great need as the “everyman” (or woman or child) racing yacht club in Seattle.
Race to the Straits takes place the first weekend in May, and sends the 100+ boats 30 miles north from Seattle, up Puget Sound to the traditional maritime epicenter of Port Townsend. Home to the Northwest Maritime Center, founders of nationally-renowned events like The Wooden Boat Festival and last year’s inaugural Race to Alaska, Port Townsend is a splendid sailing destination.
The arrival in Port Townsend is always a bit of a zoo. With the handicapped start (which I’ll discuss in a moment), if everybody sailed a perfect race exactly to their rating, all the boats would arrive in Port Townsend at the same time. The charming Point Hudson Marina becomes the marina equivalent of the “chubby bunny” game we played as kids, endlessly shoving marshmallows into our mouths. You think you couldn’t possibly fit one more, but then you do anyway. The result is a sleepy, swaying melee of six-boat-deep raft-ups and, with any luck, minimally scratched gelcoat.
But, once you’re tied up, the worst is over and the festivities begin. With the boats piled on top of each other, sea story roulette and musical beers gets started almost immediately. If you pace yourself, you may even make it to the noisy American Legion, where you’ll find a rock band, a hot meal, more beer, and an always hilariously hard-to-hear announcement about day one’s results. As a double-handed event, nearly all the racers sack out on their boats, which works great until the boat rafted up three inside of you has a 6am start time and needs to be let out.
Unlike Round the County, which is a loop course, Race to the Straits is an out-and-back, retracing its steps from day one back to Seattle on day two. Since the breeze in Puget Sound is almost always either northerly or southerly, most years see a dominant weather pattern keep the breeze from one direction or the other, making one day mostly upwind and the other downwind. It’s a picturesque course with some wild current variations and a penchant for big breeze.
Both Round the County and Race to the Straits utilize a chase start, though slightly different in their specifics. Having sailed on some of the bigger, faster boats in the region, I’m familiar with the chatter about sailing around the “speed bumps.” But, I truthfully believe that everybody likes a chase start. No other set-up has the boats interacting with each other so much. The slowest boats get to play with the fastest boats. Everybody gets to see everybody else – how they’re sailing, where they’re going, what color their new spinnaker is. What’s not to like?
The cool thing about the chase start for Race to the Straits is that the whole thing is handicapped pre-start and each boat is given a designated start time. The slowest boats start at their designated times early in the morning, and the faster the boat, the later the start. The first boat across the line in Port Townsend wins the day. With the handicapped start, racing only gets more exciting as the day wears on. Boats tend to consolidate toward the finish. It’s just plain exciting! The other benefit of the Race to the Strait system, however, is great casual racers. The often-stressful start is sublimely easy. In every Race to the Straits I’ve done, we had a start time all our own. Nobody was around to yell at you or drive you up. For new racers, that’s a gentle introduction.
If you think of inland or coastal distance racing like I do, the course is divided by geographic landmarks. It creates a bunch of little races – to the next point, to the tide line, through the pass. The chase start promotes fun and competitive racing in these little micro-races, regardless of your class or division. I find this helps me focus and increases my enjoyment. “Can we catch those guys by the turn at Patos Island? Can we keep that boat behind us until Double Bluff? etc.” It really makes it fun, and enriches my personal experience of a distance race.
Both Round the County and Race to the Strait aggregate the results over the two days. So if you crush it one day, you’re definitely in the hunt even if the other doesn’t afford the same conditions or good fortune.
In a region where you can still go out and compete with Olympians and pros in boats big and small, the fun-focused stuff continues to tip the scales. I love to sail, and I really love to race. I usually prefer to line up against best competition, to learn as much as possible and raise my game. But, not everybody enjoys this. And these two-day, stopover events illustrate that everybody, myself included, seems to love a feel-good, mid-distance race with an epic party among friends in the middle. It’s as good as a destination wedding, only with a truly compelling activity on either side.
This idea is absolutely applicable in a cruising setting, too. Flotillas, rallies, and rendezvous events, whether organized by a club or your pals, give you the same ability to share an experience. So, as we look ahead to a great season of sailing in the Pacific Northwest, don’t just go sailing. Live large, join fun events like these, and bring your friends.