Kicking Off the 2024 Racing Season on Puget Sound

The second race of the Southern Sound Series is the Duwamish Head Race, hosted the first Saturday in January by Three Tree Point Yacht Club. It’s a mid-distance race starting off the Des Moines Marina, heading north to Alki Point, east towards downtown Seattle to round Duwamish Head, then proceeding west across the Sound for a rounding of Blakely Rock before heading south back to the finish at Des Moines.

Typically, boats from the north and the south are delivered to Des Moines on Friday afternoon and early evening. There was a brisk southerly wind on Friday, so those coming from the north had a chilly wave-pounding delivery. I was down at the marina most of the day preparing our Cal 33 Cherokee for the race, dodging some frigid downpours and getting what I could done.

I knew my friends’ Hobie 33, TC, was being delivered solo by Jack Killalea. I checked my phone for AIS location and progress, it looked like he was probably having a tough time battling headwinds and waves with an outboard. Sure enough, when he pulled into the marina, he was pretty cold. TC’s skipper, JJ Hoag, joined me and we greeted Jack and helped him land the boat. Right after getting TC secured and the day’s heaviest downpour began, we pointed Jack to the warm tent on the dock where yacht club volunteers were greeting delivery crews and providing some warm food and shelter.

Farr 395s Time Warp and Zulu Tango, along with J/130 Flash—all boats in Class 2—ready for hoists at the start. Photo by Jan Anderson.

On race day morning, we had little to do to finish rigging the boat prior to leaving the marina. Our crew started showing up about 8:30 a.m. accompanied by some of those cold rain showers. We got off the dock a little bit later than planned and hustled out to the start area.

At the start, the winds were shifting from the predicted southwesterly, oscillating between southeast and southwest at 5-7 knots. It was supposed to be a light flood tide until about 11:15 a.m., followed by a moderate ebb tide. We made our sail selections and contemplated our start tactics and overall plan for the race.

Our class got off the starting line cleanly, hosting spinnakers on port jibe just prior to the start. We made our way up the course with Ranger 33 Aurora and J/27 Zephyr maintaining position, all the while looking for signs of a southwesterly shift. Derek DeCouteau, Aurora’s owner, “mast abeam” to us, chuckling.  That’s a Racing Rules of Sailing reference that went away in the 80s. Of course, both our boats have been racing since the 70s. I smiled back at him, acknowledging.

Ranger 33, Aurora, enjoying a run in fresh breeze early in the the race. Photo by Jan Anderson.

Behind us, S2 9.1 Chinook, and a couple of others, headed higher towards the west, with a slightly freshening teaser of a southwesterly. We held course patiently, as we were in a little bit of positive current going up the Sound. Past Three Tree Point, we got a view of the Olympic Mountains brightly shining—gotta be out there doing your winter sailing to see and appreciate the sights of the PNW. Halfway to Alki, the winds picked up to 10 to 14 knots, and we briefly had a spinnaker staysail up flying. That didn’t last very long as the winds got lighter and shifted farther southeast abeam of Fauntleroy.

The decision had to be made — could we jibe to starboard and continue to Duwamish Head under spinnaker, or did we need to use the genoa? Gordon and Patrick got the genoa to the port foredeck in preparation as we closed in on the point. By this time, some of the faster boats had passed us, including most of Class 2 and TC, so we had a little bit more information to inform our decision. We knew it would be a strain, and I had Gordon rig the reaching strut. We were able to hold a close reach with the chute pretty close to the mark.

We hoisted the headsail and dropped our kite early enough to prepare for a jibe around the namesake of the race, Duwamish Head. It’s a tricky place because there is current flow coming out of the waterway, often sending you right to left as you sail the last bit of the leg. In lighter winds, you need to be conservative on your approach to it, or you might not make it around (not that I’ve ever done that).

After a nice tight rounding of the mark, we were navigating a pretty direct course to Blakely Rock. We needed to approach Blakely with enough space to avoid the shallow areas surrounding it. Reaching across with our big genoa, some of the other boats were flying spinnakers, with many having trouble and rounding up. In hindsight, we probably could have flown our heavier, flatter-cut spinnaker, and made gains, but we were maintaining pretty good speed. We were holding onto the lead position in our class, so we felt pretty good about that.

About halfway across, we saw a southerly breeze from 14-18 knots, and considered a headsail change for the upwind leg back to Des Moines. Some pretty dark clouds were approaching from the southwest, and even some small thunderstorms to the west and north. We switched headsails behind Restoration Point, and came out on starboard tack with the J3. It turned out to be a great decision and the perfect sail for about 10 minutes.

Sailing back towards West Seattle, we started struggling and went from rigging the J2 to going back to the big genoa, as the winds decreased under 10 knots. Thinking that we were finally seeing signs of the southwesterly, and that maybe we had sailed out of it, we tacked out on port again. We had mostly good speed, and were pacing with boats that are faster than us to the east.

As we continued, we found ourselves on the outside of a big lift, with wind shifting from 130°M to 090°M. We decided to roll the dice, hoping for a big shift as we made our way down the Sound on the west side. The tack back to starboard to get east again would’ve been such a bad course that we pressed on. Our long port tack on the west side looked good at times and bad at others, but we felt committed. As we continued past Dolphin Point toward Tramp Harbor in about 10 knots of wind, a very nice shift came in. We tacked Cherokee when we saw 150°M, and it kept clocking as we continued east on starboard. Eventually, we were lifted enough that we were easily clearing Three Tree Point, and eventually sailing above the finish. Tracking right towards the finish, we eventually were able to ease the sails and foot a little.

Cherokee took another class win, their second in two races of this year’s Southern Sound Series. Photo by Jan Anderson.

We finished with Chinook slightly behind us, and Zephyr 43 seconds behind them. Nipping at their heels was the Santa Cruz 27 Solitaire who corrected just 7 seconds behind them. Boats that played the east side of the Sound fared better, especially those in Class 2. We had a great day out there on Cherokee and were happy to take a class win.

Considering that it was early January with a potentially miserable forecast, it turned out to be a pretty nice day for sailing. After we had folded some sails on the dock, a heavy downpour came in, but it was too late to get us—we were all in the doghouse enjoying a little post-race rum and some wonderful cider that was brought to us after finishing.

The third race in the series is Toliva Shoal, hosted by South Sound Sailing Society and the Olympia Yacht Club on February 17. It is a very challenging 38.4nm race that you either love or hate. When the conditions are favorable, it can be one of the most rewarding and scenic races in the Pacific Northwest.

Full results:

Photos courtesy of Jan Anderson.