By Ron Weiss
For the 65 boats that started the 74th Storm Trysail Club Block Island Race, the wind gods proved to be capricious. Competitors found themselves to be racing in big breeze one minute, and no breeze the next. Many were sailing in a northerly only to find that they were – without warning – “auto-tacked” by a southerly of similar strength and now headed in the exact same direction but on the opposite board. Ideal blast-reaching conditions out of Long Island Sound were followed by a giant parking lot in Block Island Sound, soon to be followed by ideal reaching conditions again, terminated by another parking lot which developed outside of Plum Gut and The Race.
Boats that were lucky enough or talented enough (or both) could beat the changing of the tide at the exits of the Sound before the wind died. Others had the door slammed in their face, and many found they were skunked again upon re-entering the Sound when the wind died and the tide turned against them once more. Teams that were last at times ended up in first, and some that were in first ended up in the “cheap seats.” Yes, the fabled “Fickle Finger of Fate” played an outsized role in this year’s race, but that’s yacht racing (at its best, or its worst – depending on how “fickled” you were by the results).
Every year, this challenging race offers many opportunities for both good and bad decisions: Do you pick the Connecticut shore or the Long Island shore on the way to Block? Do you select the Gut, the Race, the Sluiceway (or rarely, Fishers Island Sound)? On the return leg, those decisions need to be made again. Most years there is some level of consensus as to which strategy paid off. This, however, was not one of those years. What worked for some proved fatal for the hopes of others. It all depended on what type of boat you were racing on, and where you were when the wind either stopped, or re-appeared. Sometimes a mere 100 yards separated those who were doing 8 knots toward the finish and those drifting backwards doing minus-1.
Despite the variety of winning strategies, the two biggest winners had very similar approaches. In the end two very different boats with comparable strategies brought home the most silver: Peter McWhinnie on the state-of-the art JPK 1080 In Theory (Larchmont, NY), and Steve Gordon on his traditional, heavy-displacement Alden 50 Elena (Briarcliff Manor, NY). In Theory triumphed with a first in class and the “William Tripp, Jr. Memorial Trophy” for First in Fleet in IRC, and Elena hauled in a first in her class, the “Terrapin Trophy” for First in the PHRF Fleet on corrected time and the “Harvey Conover Memorial Overall Trophy” for Best Overall Performance in the race as well. It was only Steve’s second race ever as skipper, and his first Block Island Race in any capacity. (Does the phrase “Quit While You’re Ahead” come to mind?!)
“The reaching conditions at the start were ideal for us,” said Peter of the In Theory team’s experience: “We put up the kite and took off at 9 or 10 knots, hitting 12-14 in some of the gusts. Conditions moderated as we got further east, but we were nearly at the Race as the wind went forward. We were lucky enough to make it out of the Sound in a healthy position before the wind shut down. The night and most of the day were anxious as we drifted and/or watched as competitors gained ground, but we were still in a solid position rounding BI.”
“On the leg from BI back to the Sound, we wanted to go through Plum Gut to position for the southerly and were trying to call the wind on the water to get there. We had a loose cover on Carina and Vamp, who went further south and west, and that didn’t work out well for us as they picked up some better wind and pulled ahead. It was edgy getting to the Gut in winds that came and went, but Carina got there first and had a roughly two-mile lead by the time we got into the Sound and met the southerly. From that point, we were just trying to stay in touch with the competition. With winds in the high teens and on a close reach, In Theory was powered up and flying. We had everyone on the rail and kept pushing hard as Carina’s lead varied between 2 and 2.8 miles. By the finish, we had their lead down to around 2 miles, which was just enough to take the win. We knew it would be close, so we even put up the Code 0 for the short last leg from 32 to the finish. Overall, it was a really fun race with a great range of conditions and very close competition.”
I was the tactician on Elena, the team using this race as a tune-up for the Marion-Bermuda Race in a few weeks. Elena is a 50,000-pound behemoth – the exact opposite of a light air flyer. We were doing quite well beam reaching in 15-20 knots along the Connecticut coastline, trying to beat the tide turn at the Race at 10:30 pm. We made it out by the skin of our teeth, but when the wind died right after that, we found we were being sucked back toward Stamford at 2.5 knots. We actually put up a spinnaker and a jib wing-on-wing as an “air brake” to slow our backward momentum.
Most of our division caught up and/or passed us in and around Block Island Sound, but when we got to the Gut we found them and a sizable number of other boats parked to the east and south. We stayed up near Montauk and Gardiner’s Island, hoping that we’d catch a southerly breeze before the competition did. Finally, the southerly materialized, but it was only very near the shore so we tacked and sailed in a light westerly almost a half-mile away from the Gut to get to the breeze. Soon we were doing 8 knots toward Orient Point while the rest of the boats were still bobbing around and waiting for the wind to get to them. We made it through the Gut literally just as it was turning, and then had a great ride all the way home in close-reaching conditions where our heft was not an issue and our waterline length was a big help.
Complete results and a list of the perpetual trophy winners are posted at stormtrysail.org/regattas/block-island-race. ■
Ron Weiss is Chairman of the Storm Trysail Club’s Communications and Sponsorship Committee.