After a two-year postponement due to COVID, the Swiftsure International Yacht Race was back on in 2022. 

When I asked Mats Elf about doing Swiftsure, he said he was headed to the Gorge to pursue his latest wind powered water activity of high-speed windsurfing. I was left in a quandary of  who else might like to be a part of Team Aliikai, so I made a few calls, but before anyone replied, Mats rang back and said that he could always go to the Gorge but didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to do Swiftsure aboard my F28R Aliikai. He also said he could help us with a third team member, but being a holiday weekend in the U.S. and being sort of last minute, our potential crew list was running dry. With the initial forecast looking light, Mats commented, “wouldn’t we go faster with just the two of us?” He knew perfectly well the answer was “yes.”

The stoke was high as the start time of the adventure arrived. Mats was his casual “a few hours behind schedule”, and par for the course, I needed all that extra time to make sure I had everything sorted anyway. We launched the boat in the rain in Cornet Bay, Deception Pass State Park on Thursday evening. We had hoped to make it over to the San Juans, but since we required an unexpected supply run into Oak Harbor, we called an audible and spent a peaceful night on the recently installed new floats at Cornet Bay. At 6:30 a.m. Friday morning, we caught the last two hours of the ebb through Deception Pass and we were on our way to Victoria.

The wind was perfect for a one tack fetch all the way to Victoria Harbour where we were once again welcomed to Canada. The docks were loaded with racing sailboats buzzing with crews from near and far. The excitement was building as we attended the skippers meeting and we were happy to have an early turn in time to be well rested in the morning.

The race began on Saturday at 9:00 a.m. It was a downwind start with spinnakers in a light easterly breeze and sprinkles. The span of spinnakers across the horizon at the start was a beautiful sight to look back on as we were the second of several starts. We stayed in what breeze we could see coming off the land and made it through Race Passage, despite the predicted flood. Once through the Passage, we were not far off the pace of the leaders. 

However, as predicted, we were headed outbound into the flood tide, with the easterly breeze forecasted to eventually die before turning westerly in the late afternoon. The weather report called for a gale warning late Saturday night into Sunday morning, and we’d hoped to be safely back in the harbor by then. Unfortunately, we played the Vancouver Island shoreline in adverse current and dying breeze for too long and gave up massive distance to the Kiwi built 10.6 M Chris Cochrane designed tri, Dragon. It is always an interesting puzzle to put together sailing in light winds and adverse current in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

It was a light, downwind start outside of Victoria Harbour. (Photo courtesy of Jan Anderson).

After a brief period of no wind, the westerly finally started to materialize. Our enthusiasm was brief as we shortly saw Dragon passing us on the return leg, while we were still at least an hour from our rounding the mark in Clallam Bay. The good news was that we could see the bulk of our other competition close at hand. After approximately an hour of light air upwind sailing the westerly started to build. We rounded the virtual turning mark in Clallam Bay within 20 minutes or so of our three closest competitors. 

We logged our rounding for the first half of our 80-mile course at 7:11 p.m. and we were quick to set the kite and head off in pursuit of our rivals. Under full main and spinnaker, we were instantly in full send mode in 15 knots of breeze with nothing more than 20 knots of breeze expected till we finished. Pushing hard, we soon outpaced a couple of 31Rs and the F82R. As the sun set out in the Pacific, it dropped beneath the cloud curtain that was covering the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The entire fleet was treated to a magnificent magic hour as the sun set below the horizon. Wind against tide made for short steep waves. Stuffing the leeward float in at the bottom of the wave, at times up to the cross beam, was an ongoing issue. Combined with the aft beam shearing off wave tops, we had water cascading everywhere over the bows of all three hulls and into the cockpit! Remember, Mats is a speed seeker and going as fast as you can is the name of the game. Monitoring wind speed at Race Rocks, we favored the Washington shore, which had slightly better pressure. The ongoing parade of commercial ship traffic was one more variable to manage and it wasn’t long until the light of day gave way to the chaos of darkness.

We were still hurtling into, through and over the waves at speeds into the mid-teens and often higher. Mats was convinced we needed to keep sailing hard. I, on the other hand, tried to remind him that we already had our time on our immediate competition, and attempting to “slay the Dragon” just wasn’t going to happen. Wind readings at Race Passage were 16-18, and we chose to round Race Rock on the outside since we were already enjoying the higher boat speeds closer to the Washington coast.

Sending it on the Strait of Juan de Fuca!

And so it was that, once we made our final jibe for Victoria, conditions “somewhat unexpectedly” changed dramatically. It appeared that we had somehow overstood our jibe to the finish back in Victoria, the wind had stepped up to 25+ knots, and the sea state had become rowdier. We almost instantly stuffed all three bows and with the rapid deceleration, the back end of the boat rose uncomfortably. We were forced to blow off the spinnaker sheet, and then had to release the main sheet as well. With all sails flogging and the rig shaking violently, we had to safely turn down wind and somehow regain control of the boat. We waited for the right moment, and Mats quickly turned us through the death zone. We instantly headed downwind, over-trimmed the main and spinnaker, and somehow, I managed to get the kite safely on the net and back in the bag without further incident. We were still sailing in the low teens under a full main and I wondered if we needed more sail area at the moment. After a few deep breaths, we raised the jib, and with 10+ miles left to the finish, we were instantly powered back up and flying down waves in the upper teens once again. Within the last two miles we got uncomfortable with the lighter air and slower speeds and deployed the screecher to cross the finish line at just after 11:30 p.m. 

Big thanks to John Green and his Swiftsure volunteer crew. They greeted us at registration with a smile to kick off our race weekend and served us hot soup at the inspection dock after our finish. By the time we got the boat tidied up and put away, the next boats were coming into the dock. With celebratory drinks in hand, we shared some of the adventure with old and new found friends, until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. 

After the two-year hiatus, it was fantastic to be able to reconnect with the Pacific Northwest international yacht racing community and their families. Thanks to Tad Fairbank and Manifest Racing for dinner on Friday. Big thanks to all my friends on the Island who assisted with shore support: Duncan Gladman (well done Dragon), Sharon Denny and Jonathon Watson (congrats to Korina Korina). And finally, Vince DePillis and Freda Mae, we appreciate your spare nuts and bolts! Thanks to the Swiftsure International Yacht Race committee and everyone that made it happen! What an amazing couple days of sailing in the entrance waters of the Salish Sea Basin.

Editor’s Note: Feature image courtesy of Jan Anderson.