The event that kickstarts the central Puget Sound sailboat racing season brought PNW sailors together again to play in some unusual breeze.

The Blakely Rock Race — the first of the Corinthian Yacht Club of Seattle’s Center Sound Series — is for all intents and purposes central Puget Sound’s sailboat racing season kickoff. 

Anticipation and excitement built through the week leading up to the big event on March 4. There’s always something special about turning the page to a new season of sailboat racing fun. I know I wasn’t alone in texting friends and crew members to kibitz about the forecast long before it was close enough to race day to have anything like a reliable prediction. 

In total, 67 crews loaded up their boats with sails — possibly a crinkly new one or two for 2023 — as well as lunches and warm gear for the annual spring trip around “the rock.” While race boats tend to focus on keeping extra weight off the boat, the wintry mix on the drive to the marina proved that Punxsutawney Phil must have seen his shadow after all, and gear bags would be a little fuller of extra layers than on some March races.

Other than chilly and damp, the forecast called for light-to-middling pressure, probably a southerly with some easterly trends, and a possible afternoon switch to the north. Reality was something like that…

On the TP52, Glory, we headed to the course with the light-wind jib on deck. We hoisted sails to dial in settings before the starting sequence began and we were suddenly rocked up in 18-knot growlers directly from the east. Hmm. “Jib down.” 

Crew went below to don foulies or add layers as the rain came in and mysteriously didn’t reappear until the soggy few still on deck called all-hands because it was time to go racing. As the fleet got started, the biggest gusts had subsided and a puffy 7-12 knots from the east-southeast had settled in. 

Considering the forecast and the conditions, the race committee shortened the course to eliminate the temporary mark near Point Wells, making the course an almost-14-mile route from Shilshole around Blakely Rock and back. 

With the easterly in the breeze, it seemed an easy fetch of the rock off the start. The goal was definitely to have clean air, but to start near the boat end (west side) to reduce distance. With the fluctuations in pressure, the game was to get as low as possible when there was pressure, while keeping the speed up when the puffs abated by heading up slightly. Past West Point, the breeze backed a little more, inviting some explorations with Code Zeros. From what I saw, it was right on the borderline of conditions where that sail would have been a huge benefit. The breeze was just strong enough and just far enough forward that it didn’t seem like there was much, possibly anything, to gain with the Code Zero. 

As it turned out, the jib reachers also had an advantage when, closer to the Bainbridge side of the Sound, the breeze quickly headed south, even southwest in some puffs. A quick transition to upwind sailing wound up being a real factor in the final outcome of the race. 

Traffic and shifting puffs made the last few hundred yards approaching Blakely Rock pretty hectic. It wasn’t easy to stay on the breeze with oscillations and disturbed air, and there were quick tacks and ducks galore. Finally, tacking to starboard to round the rock, everybody’s pulses got to come down for a minute.

The first portion of the run back to Shilshole was a tight spinnaker reach. Crossing the Sound and approaching West Point, the breeze compressed and shifted east enough to take the kite down. At least for us. The shifting pockets of pressure got so wonky that some were able to hold their kites and their lanes longer than we were. But you’ve got to sail the breeze you have.

Racers try to interpret the right sail configuration in the changing breeze near West Point on the return trip from Blakely Rock. Photo by Erin Noelle Parker.

Sailing the breeze you have got even more difficult entering Shilshole Bay, when the breeze went exceedingly light and got very flukey. Kite up, jib up, kite down… we were searching, but only occasionally finding the puff on the right heading. Roll tack. Ease. Trim. Nobody move. Auto-tack, everybody to the other side!

The breeze eventually settled and filled as a light southwesterly, presumably on its way to the predicted northerly. Our suspicion that the boats behind were bringing pressure was confirmed when it seemed like the majority of the fleet finished in the few minutes after we had eked out line honors on Glory

Glory came 3rd in our ORC class on corrected time, behind TP52 Mist in 2nd, and J/160 Jam in first. The overall winner of the day was Carl and Carol Buchan’s Custom 40 Madrona, who pipped the win after handicaps were applied by a mere 13 seconds over Philip Dean and Pete Dorsey’s new-to-the-area Jeanneau Sunfast 3600, Rush

Any time you’re sailing an easterly in central Puget Sound, you’re in for a weird day. Luckily, the day provided plenty of intrigue and fun to balance the weirdness. And it was truly great to be back on the water with so many sailing pals! The 2023 season is off to a wonderful start. 

Full results available here

Title background photo courtesy of Erin Noelle Parker.