Here’s a fun report from a great edition of December’s Winter Vashon Race, told by the skipper of the boat that won overall.

Each year, on the first Saturday of December, the Tacoma Yacht Club’s Vashon Race puts an exclamation point on the year of sailboat racing. It’s the last local distance race and kicks off the Southern Sound Series leading us into the new year. That series has one race each month over four months, offering some great winter racing for the weather tolerant. The first event is a 30.7 nautical mile circumnavigation of Vashon Island. Easy enough, right? Right! Not so fast, since it is known for giving us every possible sailing day you can imagine — from happy racing under clear skies to foggy drifters, downpours and even snow. This time of year can be rewarding or frustrating.

We have raced this series many times with our 1971 Cal 33 Cherokee, which was once owned by Pat Stewart and was handed down to me, Peter. Looking at a forecast of southwesterly breeze from 15 to 25 knots, I asked for a 6:45 a.m. dock call so we could depart at 7:15 for our delivery from Des Moines to Tacoma. We had coffee ready and breakfast burritos in the oven. With the blustery southerly, some boats had moved up their delivery even a few days to avoid the conditions.

As the crew arrived, my brother Gordon and I had the boat rigged and everything but a few tasks done. We were eager to get going as we expected slow progress upwind against the waves. I let the last crew member, Patrick Doran, in the gate, and with a grin he pulled the collar of his foul weather jacket to flash me a Hawaiian shirt underneath! I chuckled and we chatted about the forecast. 

Soon, we headed out into the 25 knot southwest wind with the J4 up, motor sailing to steady us. Andy Ryan and Lonny Marble took turns at the helm taking us across to Mauri Island in search of some relief from the waves. Down below, a crew brief ensued, reviewing the sailing instructions, tides, and forecast winds. It looked to be a pretty typical reach until you can get more downwind and hoist the kite to run up Colvos Passage. John Hoag and I, who have been friends since high school and often sail on each others’ boats, discussed tactics at the start and sail selection.

Even though it would be windy, we laughed about how everything can change at the top of the island. We contemplated the spinnaker du jour, and selected the heavy one because a jibe at the top of the island might be too much of a strain on the lighter kite.

Milling around the starting area, the winds were 15 to 25 knots off of Ruston, Patrick put away the J4 and teed up the J3 for the start while I checked in on the VHF.

The fleet jib reached until they could bear away and launch a spinnaker in Colvos Passage. Photo by Jan Anderson.

Ten minutes prior to our start, our seasoned crew was all set with full main and J3, ready to execute our plan. We wanted to start at the committee boat end, hold position, and get into Colvos sailing fast. We appeared to be sharing similar tactics with the Ranger 33 Aurora and Moore 24 Skosh. We took the stern of Aurora to sail a little higher. Gaining separation, we now anticipated the hoist. Clearing the lee of Point Defiance, we now had southwest breeze of at least 25 knots, so as we turned north up Colvos, the Moore 24 was now surfing under main and jib. I knew their kite would go up soon and, sure enough, it did. Having had a spectacular broach on day one Round the County, Cherokee deserved better. With a little comment about how to keep her on her feet, we set the kite. We got the boat in balance, the flat bottom girl was in her element. 

Cherokee got off the line with Moore 24, Skosh, and Ranger 33, Aurora. Photo by Jan Anderson.

Cherokee has a big “J” measurement (14 feet from the forestay to the mast) and masthead kites, so our sails are large, but our rudder is not! We were ripping up Colvos at 8 to 10 knots in a fresh breeze, staying on our chosen path. 

Marc Hulbert. Photo courtesy of Patrick Doran.

We talked about how at home, 94-year-old Pat would be watching us on AIS, following along with the race. Lonny said, “You know who else would like this, is Marc.” Marc Hulbert — a well-loved member of the sailing community who passed away this summer — raced with us on Cherokee for the last five years and was a big part of our program. “With Marc looking down on us and Pat watching from home, we better have a great race today,” I said. Patrick chimed in to say that Hawaiian shirt he was wearing had been Marc’s!

Farther up Colvos, we were seeing lighter winds with strong header puffs. Calling puffs and staying coordinated in trim was critical to taking advantage of the puffs and keeping the speed up. We started passing some of the boats from classes that had started ahead of us as we neared the top of Vashon Island. With lighter wind, we decided to get the genoa on deck for the rounding. With eyes on the committee boat and the limit mark, we contemplated our rounding. We decided we should just jibe at the mark, and then we needed to get east to escape this area.

Eventually finishing 2nd overall, Olson 40 String Theory heads up Colvos, where the breeze lightened near the top of the island. Photo by Jan Anderson.

In these conditions, we now had the wrong spinnaker up, and we adjusted to the greatly oscillating shifts. It took a few miles of this before the southwesterly teasers finally prevailed. We were so preoccupied as we navigated the transition that little was said about boats having a tougher time at the top of the island. We soon realized that a number of them looked like they hadn’t moved for 15 minutes or more. 

Soon, we were into 15 knots of southwesterly wind, reaching with the big genoa toward Point Robinson and the finish beyond. We settled into the breeze; all we had to do was switch to the J3 for the leg to the finish. Normally, the faster boats would be past us way before this point. Our crewmate still on our minds, someone quoted Marc, “We’re not just racing for the class,we are racing for the overall!“ He loved to say stuff like that. Knowing that we were looking really good, I said, “This one’s for Marc, let’s finish it out smartly!”

The breeze picked up and we went to the J3 as we closed down on Point Robinson. We reefed the main for most of the final leg as the breeze built above 20 knots. A handful of the fastest boats passed us entering Commencement Bay, so we shook the reef as the breeze fell below 20 knots near the finish. 

“You’re not gonna let those boats get ahead of us, are you?” said John Hoag. 

A couple more tactical plays and wind shifts, and we finished in front of Tacoma Yacht Club at 3:23 p.m.

Cherokee sailing smartly to 1st overall! Photo by Patrick Doran.

“That was for Marc!” we cheered as we steered away for the run to Des Moines. The crew was happy, we had good fortune to break away from so many of our competitors, but we have been on the other end of that countless times. That’s what brings us back out here.

Class 2 was one by Custom 40 Madrona, Class 3 by Olson 40 String Theory (who took 2nd overall), Class 4 Jeanneau 519 Equus, Class 5 Burns 49 Schooner Sir Isaac, Class 6 J/80 Veloce, Class 7 Cherokee, Class 9 Pearson 36 Koosah, Class 10, Cal 40 White Squall. The overall went to Cherokee. It was a great start to the 2023-24 Southern Sound Series, and we look forward to the Duwamish Head Race in January.

Full results are here.

Title background photo by Jan Anderson.