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Whitebread 23: A Light Air Success

By Andrew “Bill” Shemella

Whitebread 2016What a difference a day makes. On Saturday, October 8, 2016 we sailed in the 23rd edition of the Peconic Bay Sailing Association’s (PBSA) Whitebread Race (WB23) with barely enough wind to keep the boats moving. As I wrote this the next day, it was howling and raining in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew.

Light breeze presented unique challenges for sailors in Whitebread 23. © Celia Withers

No one can say the light conditions were a surprise. All week anyone with a cell phone and any one of a dozen apps knew the forecast was for, at most, 5 knots of wind, cloud cover to make a seabreeze unlikely, and rain. OK, we all chose an outdoor sport but at least we’re not sleeping on the ground.

Aboard Bill Coster’s Tartan 33 Silent Passage (New Suffolk, NY), my ride for the day, we had an immediate problem before we even left the dock. The owner Bill, his son Bill, a crewmember named Bill and another named Willie made four of five crew with appellations derived from William. We imagined calling for Bill to adjust the outhaul and two crew knocking heads on the way to it. So we did the only rational thing and gave me the middle name Bill, which was the operating name for the day. It was an all-Bill crew. How’s that for égalité and fraternité? That describes the atmosphere on SP: a group of Bills making decisions together. Besides being pretty successful, it was a very enjoyable experience.

This year the Race Committee chose to start the race in Little Peconic Bay instead of the usual Cutchogue Harbor, so we had an hour’s motor to the starting area where we found light conditions. With greater current in the vicinity of R “18” and not much wind, the fleet was challenged to stay on the correct side of the line. Charitably, the RC made a very ample starting line and chances for confrontation on the line were minimal. So Bill, the driver at the start, took advantage of the conditions and slowly drifted towards the line pointing to the buoy end. He crossed the line within seconds of the horn, on starboard, with “Speed,” in clear air with a good angle to the first make. In other words, a perfect start.

The course was a clockwise rounding of Shelter Island so the first mark was Paradise Point, a close reach from the starting line in the light southeasterly. We headed to the mark, directed by Bill, whose plan was to fore reach with speed while others in our fleet, at the other side of the long line, had a deeper angle. While the wind was light, it wasn’t variable. There were the usual oscillations but the velocity was consistent and the direction was stable. We didn’t have the large shifts which might foretell a predicted shift to the SW.

The fleet hunted for the current in Greenport Harbor. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds because we would have to sail low and very slow to get to where the most (outgoing) current was. So, as is so often the case in sailing, everyone knew what to do but every skipper had to walk the line between sailing speed and current speed. Bill got it nearly right. Mike Canuso’s J/109 Live Wire opted for more current, and with the 109’s speed led coming out of Greenport Harbor.

Once we were in Gardiner’s Bay the much maligned “MO-A” buoy was our next mark and it was directly upwind. Thankfully, the wind was probably the best we saw all day. On starboard tack there were waves, which Bill thought was odd since the wind wasn’t really that much. On port the ride was much more smooth. Unfortunately, we had to sail on both tacks to get to the mark, so Bill called for sailing a little fat on starboard and we could point a bit better on port. The current conformed to the predictions and pretty close to our rounding of MO-A the outgoing current became the incoming.

By this point, Bill had sailed well enough that we were in the midst of the fleet that started ahead of us and as we headed towards Sag Harbor the faster boats in the later starting divisions were starting to catch and pass us. Whitebread sailors, for many reasons, aren’t of the ilk to gratuitously head up as they are being passed. I think there is the gestalt that such antics are mostly counterproductive. And, in turn, the faster boats are likely to pass below if it’s possible.

As we headed into Sag Harbor, Bill detected some trouble afoot. No one wanted to put voice to it but Bill finally said, “It looks a little light up there.” “Yeah, it’s pretty glassy,” echoed the other Bills. Actually Bill was understating it. You could see your reflection on the water surface. Worse yet, we were about to turn downwind. That’s when it began to rain. So as we headed north along the North Haven peninsula more of the faster boats from the divisions behind us were coming by us. It was Bill’s strategy to just avoid those islands of sucky wind. We jibed back and forth from a slow deep reach to a slow run, trying to avoid bad air when there wasn’t any good air. At least we were seeing significant incoming current.

As we turned west at Tyndal Point, Bill noted that there was an enormous red spinnaker bearing down on us. The proboscis of the sprit was heading for our transom like a proctoscope with an attitude. Bill gave a loud whistle and a head popped from under the huge red sail and the Class40 altered course to leeward. All the Bills got a good close-up view of this beautiful machine, and pleasantries were exchanged between the two boats. No, really. We exchanged greetings and there were smiles all around. Then the wind went even lighter. That is, it shut off completely. The fleet was drifting through the South Ferry area, searching for the most current.

Pretty soon, maybe a little too soon, the VHF squawked with a few inquiries of what the RC intended. Well, there’s a history there. And, boats from the East were now sailing away from homeports and, understandably, wanted to get a shot at a finish before spending another six hours on this endeavor. Simple arithmetic indicated that we could not sail to the original finish in the time limit. In a while, the announcement came that the RC would shorten the course for the Cruising class to R “18” (the start) and R “20” for the others. We drifted all the way to Jessup’s Neck, where a SW breeze carried us to an exciting finish as we dueled with a couple of local buddies for line honors.

As we motored towards home, we passed a good deal of the boats heading for the Spinnaker class finish and they were mired in a morass of light wind. The breeze was more illusion than reality, so it has to be said that the WB RC made the right call to shorten the race. Thankfully, PBSA had the assets on the water with the ability to execute finishing the fleet. And because the RC opted for the PHRF-friendly path, the race was a success. I saw an email this morning about a planning session for WB24. All the Bills can’t wait. For more information, visit www.pbsa.us.


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