Monday, October 26, 2015

How I (Almost) Won the 2015 Archipelago Rally

So my friends Eric and Gary and I showed up with our shiny, new(ish) 2015 RS Aeros for the Archipelago Rally at Spindle Rock Club in Westport MA on Saturday and started to wonder if we had stepped into a time warp.

Clearly quite a lot of the sailors at the event had brought the oldest boats they could find, preferably something from the 1940s, or something found in a dumpster, or something that had been sitting under their deck for 30 years, or something they had built themselves. I helped one guy carry his boat down to the beach and I swear to god there was a mouse nest in the cockpit.

I was also wondering if I should have brought a few random grandkids with me as other sailors seemed to be planning to see how many small kids they could cram on to one of the aforementioned oldish boats, with or without any adult supervision.

Whatever! The Poster of Race did say "Anything with a Sail" and the RS Aero does have a sail and I had checked in with the Archipelago Rally organizer, Chris Museler beforehand to make sure we would be welcome with our RS Aeros. "Ya ya," he had replied. "Please come and send the rating you think is good."

Poster of Race

So I had crunched the numbers and calculated some Portsmouth Handicap ratings for the RS Aeros on the American scale, which for reasons I have never understood is totally different from the British scale, so I basically chose the Laser, a boat of similar speed to the RS Aero, and converted the UK handicap numbers for the RS Aeros into American on the assumption that if an RS Aero is X% faster than a Laser in the UK it will be X% faster than a Laser in America too. Sounded like a fair system to me and I sent the numbers off to Chris.

A few days before the regatta I received a "scratch list" showing the start times for all the boats. The Archipelago Rally is a pursuit race with the slowest boats starting first and the fastest boat last. As I expected the RS Aeros were very much among the later starters.

2015 Archipelago Rally scratch list 
which you probably can't read
 and in any case
 it got changed again before the actual race
 when they knew who actually showed up 
and what boats they had brought.

As we offloaded and rigged our boats, Gary was stressing out about how he was going to remember the course.

"There are over 30 boats starting before us," I told him. "Just follow the others."

"But what if I am in the lead?" he persisted.

"The least of my worries is that I will ever be leading this race!" I argued.

How wrong I was. Not for the first time Gary was right, and I was wrong.

Just before noon there was a skippers' meeting. It would be a Le Mans style start from the beach. The starting order and times were explained. Everyone was asked to remember their start times but if they didn't there would be a man called Matt with a very loud voice who would shout at us and tell us when it was our time to go.

A man called Woody explained the course.

The course
Start on beach middle left of chart near "17"
Head to top right and go round "27" aka Crack Rock leaving it to S
Back to "17" leaving it to P
Head to bottom right and go round Halfmile Rock leaving it to S
Back to beach
What could be easier?

That's easy I thought. Only three things to remember. I even looked at Woody's chart to make sure I knew exactly where the two rounding rocks were. Anyone can remember that, I thought. Once again I would shortly be proved wrong.

Woody went on to explain the tides. The water will still be flowing out from the river when we start. But by the time we round Halfmile Rock, the tide will be coming in and so nobody will get swept out on to the wild and wooly ocean and we will all make it safely back to the beach. That's a relief.

Woody then warned us about the channels and flats. Basically he was saying that if you stay between the channel markers you will probably be OK but if you venture a few inches outside the channel you will probably hit the bottom but don't worry because it's very soft mud in fact it is so soft that under no circumstances should you get out of your boat and push the boat out of the shallows because the deep soft sticky mud will probably suck off your boots or even worse suck you down, down, down into the dark dismal depths of the deep, deep, soft, sticky mud and we will never see you again. Oh, and by the way if you haven't yet signed a waiver, please do so now. Hmmm!

The last thing you will see in this life 
if you step off your boat 
and sink into the infinite depths 
 Westport River 

This post is turning out to be longer than I thought it would. If you need to take a bathroom break, then now would probably be a good time. Don't worry we are getting to the fun bits soon.

So we all walked over to the beach and stood by our boats waiting for our turn to start.

Photo taken by Tillerwoman 
of boats on the beach 
showing just a few of the 43 diverse craft 
which sailed int the 2015 Archipelago Rally
artistically framed by the weeds in the foreground

Almost everyone started launching their boats and walking them out into deeper water in preparation for the start. We RS Aero sailors decided we would rather stay dry until it was a bit nearer our actual start time. Matt started shouting and the slower boats started racing.

Once the first 37 boats had got out of the way Rufus Van Gruissen, the regatta photographer, was able to capture this photo of the precise moment of the RS Aero 9s "starting."

Photo credit: Rufus Van Gruissen

Gary in his RS Aero 7 started a minute ago and is already out of the picture - a long way out of the picture. Eric is already in his RS Aero 9 #1422 and all ready to start. I am the other side of him about to give my boat a giant push forwards as I dive over the transom. We are off!!!

Also in the picture is a Laser Radial sailed by Aili Moffet who apparently won the 2014 Archipelago Rally for which she has been severely punished by being given a handicap adjustment making her start a minute behind the RS Aero 9s, as will the two Hobie cats. And the last boat to start will be Steve Clark in what I think is a C-Class Canoe, who will start another minute later, just because he is Steve Clark I assume.

The man standing in the water wearing a red PFD who is shouting and waving his arms is the regatta official in charge of shouting and waving arms. And the person on the left standing in the water is just some random passer-by enjoying, on this fine fall day, the traditional Massachusetts pastime of standing in the water looking at boats. Hey, they all came on the Mayflower, don't you know!

The reason why everyone in Massachusetts likes boats so much

Where was I? Where am I? Oh yes. We are now racing! Woo hoo! And it only took me about 1500 words to get to the start of the actual race.

And so we start beating up the Westport Harbor Channel towards the ominously named Crack Rock and two things become immediately apparent....

1. There is a lot of current still going out.

2. When sailing in an adverse current in a handicap or pursuit race, the faster boats have a significant advantage. Indeed it looks as if some of the slower boats are hardly making any headway at all against the current. It's no help to have a nice big juicy Portsmouth Number if you are actually going backwards.

By the time I spot where Crack Rock actually is (always a help to know where you are going) we have overtaken pretty much all of the boats who started ahead of us. There is a blue boat way out in front (which I later learned was Ned Jones sailing singlehanded in what I believe was a Lehman 12) and then the three RS Aeros. As we arrive at the rock the Hobie 14 catches up with the RS Aeros and passes us. And as we head back downwind and down river toward the beach again, it looks to me as if these five boats have a significant lead on the rest of the fleet and are unlikely to be caught. (One of the few things I got right all day!)

Crack Rock
Wait - I think Google is mistaken
Crack Rock didn't look anything like this

With the current pushing us downwind, the wind is pretty light on the run, and I'm not quite sure exactly which green mark we are heading for. What number was it again? Oh well, never mind, there are some boats in front of me, so I will just follow them. The catamaran starts doing that zig-zagging all over the place thing that catamarans do when going downwind so I just follow Eric who is following Gary who is following Ned. See Gary, I told you there was nothing to worry about. Just follow the boat in front.

Eventually I see which mark Gary is heading for, and Eric and I follow him. As I gybe round the mark I vaguely notice the number on the mark - "19" - but it doesn't really register. I concentrate on sailing fast and trying to catch Eric as we sail out to sea on a very close port tack reach.

Hmm! 19? Was that the right number? Didn't they say 17? The mark we rounded was a green mark just off the starting beach just like the one they pointed out to us. If it were 17, where would it be? Oh wait. What's that green mark close to the dock about 100 yards to my right? Oh shit, that must be 17, the one we should have rounded.

By this time the Hobie 14, who has been doing that zigging and zagging that catamarans do downwind, has caught up with me again and we shout at each other and confirm that, yes, we are definitely supposed to round mark 17. Some other guy sailing near the beach hails that nobody else went round 17. Hmmm? But the Hobie 14 guy and I are pretty sure that we should round 17, so we do so, even though it means I have to backtrack quite a way to get to it.

All these green can buoys look the same
They really should put numbers on them

As we head out to the open sea I am thinking that I am probably so far back that I am not going to catch any of the boats in front of me now, so as the Hobie 14 passes me again I figure that I will probably finish 5th which is pretty damn awesome in a 43 boat fleet. Plus I will have the personal knowledge that I did actually sail the right course so I can always tell myself I am really 2nd.

When we reach the mouth of the harbor I see a big rock with a pole on it just to the right of the channel. That must be Halfmile Rock I figure. Half mile from where I wonder? But wait, all four boats in front of me are sailing past that rock and further out to sea. They can't all be wrong, surely? I try and figure out where the rock really is. I squint. There is something out there, but it seems a lot further out than I remember from Woody's chart.

Then one of the safety boats for the rally comes out of the river mouth and the people on it start blowing whistles and shouting at us and pointing back to the beach. They are too far away for me to figure exactly what they are saying but they clearly want us to go back to the beach which means either....

(a) the race has been abandoned for some reason or

(b) the rock with the pole that I just passed is really Halfmile Rock.

So I turn around and decide to pass the rock with the pole to starboard, just in case (b) is the correct answer. The other four boats ahead of me turn around too.

No, wait. Now they aren't ahead of me. They are following me now. And I'm leading the race. The thing I told Gary before the race was the least of my worries, the thing that I never imagined in my wildest dreams, has come to pass. Oh shit. Now, I have nobody to follow.

Thankfully the Hobie 14, who wasn't that far ahead of me when we turned round, soon passes me... for the third time today! It is being sailed by a family, father and two sons by the look of it, and the boys are whooping and hollering as they take the lead.

All I have to do is stay in the channel and I will be second. I don't even get that quite right as I somehow find a shallow area and realize I must have strayed from the channel. But I had already released my rudder downhaul and pulled up my daggerboard, so it's no big deal. I skitter along with the rudder half up and hardly any daggerboard in the water until I find the channel again, cross it, sail towards the beach, jump out of the boat when I can see the bottom, take out the daggerboard, lift up the rudder and run through the mud, pulling the boat until I hit the beach to score second place.


And that's how I (almost) won the 2015 Archipelago Rally.

I shake hands with the father of the family on the Hobie 14 and one of his sons and congratulate them on their win. Apparently their name is Guck. I think Mr. Guck may have done a bit of catamaran racing before, maybe even won a few races.

This picture looks like it was taken, from on or near the beach, just about as I was finishing. Eric and Gary in their RS Aeros, Ned in the blue boat, and Aili in the Radial are heading towards the camera to finish. Pretty much everyone else is still sailing out to Halfmile Rock. Gary held on to take 3rd and Eric was 4th.

Photo credit Rufus Van Gruissen

The awards ceremony was as awesome as the rest of the event and very much in the overall spirit of the rally.

There was quite a lot of swag - t-shirts, hats etc. - to give out. The results were read in order from last to first and the swag was given to the sailors at the back of the fleet first, making sure that all the many kids got something, until all the swag had run out. Quite right too. I always feel that in sailing and running races, the rewards should go to the competitors at the back of the race. After all they spent more time on the course than those at the front who also got to the beer first.

There were various special awards. The DNFs got swag but the Lonely Loon award went to the sailor who completed the race but came last. (I would have been the lonely loon at a Laser North Americans a few years back.) There was a special perpetual trophy for the lowest placed family. There were a few very large bottles of rum. I think two of those went to the sailors with the oldest boats.  I kid you not, there was also a trophy called the Pine Needle award which went to the sailor with the most "biomass" in their boat and this was won by the guy I had helped who had a mouse nest in his boat. There may have even still been mice in it for all I knew.

Mouse in nest
Hard to beat this for biomass in a boat

The overall winners, the Guck family, took home the Broken Head perpetual trophy which is actually an old wooden Sunfish rudder that was broken in the first ever Archipelago Rally in 2006 - also won that year by a Hobie 14, sailed by Olympic silver medalist Bob Merrick.

Thankfully by the time they got around to reading out the names of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th place sailors there was no swag left, and the rum had all gone, so we RS Aero sailors didn't have to go through all that rigmarole of going up and shaking hands and having photos with cheesy smiles taken. But we were sternly warned that by showing up with three boats in the same class that had done so well we had earned a major (adverse) adjustment to the RS Aero handicap for next year's Archipelago Rally.

Something to be proud of, I think?

Participants and volunteers at 2015 Archipelago Rally

Lessons learned.

1. If there is any chance whatsoever you won't remember the course, tape a course diagram on the deck. I tell you what, tape a course diagram of the course to the deck anyway. Your memory ain't so good these days as you remember it was.

2. If you are racing around navigation marks and random rocks, then make a copy of the NOAA chart, mark the course on it, and tape it to the deck.

3. Trust your judgment. The sailors in front of you are not smarter than you. They are just faster.

4. Karma exists. If I had not back-tracked to round the correct mark then I would have not have been so far behind which means that I would not have then been so far ahead.

5. I need to lay my hands on a decent, but seriously old, Hobie 14 or 16.

Just what I need for the 2016 Archipelago Rally
If nothing else I would be in the running for the Pine Needle Award

More to the point, what boat will YOU be sailing in next year's Archipelago Rally?


Unknown said...

I totally loved this post. Especially the part about the Mayflower. And yes, writing the course down in ALWAYS a good idea. Once, early on, I had the heady feeling of "leading the fleet" and sailing like mad, and then that sudden, jarring realization that I was headed for the wrong mark. Talk about the agony and the ecstasy! Oh, the joys of sailing. . .

Tillerman said...

Thanks Deborah.

Gary was so right. It's easy enough to get stressed out when leading a race, without having to deal with not really remembering the course too!

Anonymous said...

My tiller broke on the first leg!!!!!!!!!!

JP said...


But why does she run backwards?

Tillerman said...

Too bad Anonymous. Was it painful? You shouldn't pull on it so hard.

Glad you asked JP. She runs backwards because she has a rare neurological condition that causes involuntary spasms when she runs. But she discovered that she doesn't get the spasms if she runs backwards. Can I use that as an excuse when I am sailing backwards?

SoxSail said...

My buddy in Marion has an old Hobie 16 for sale. It's 100% matt black (except where the paint has chipped).

Tillerman said...

Interesting SoxSail. Does it have any animal nests inside the hulls - mice, squirrels, chipmunks perhaps? I really fancy taking a few little critters along for the ride next year so I can have a chance at that Pine Needle Award.

Unknown said...

You may know that sailboats and rodents have a long and often disastrous history, dating back to the early explorers who brought the varmints to islands over the world where they had no natural enemies. Locally over the years we collected 24 Sunfish for our small fry sailors from generous residents willing to give them away, included one which had a rat's nest in the hull's styrofoam, complete with rat. This did not make us popular with the moms in town. Oh, well, anything for the cause of youth sailing.

Tillerman said...

I didn't know that Jay. Although we were taught as schoolkids in England that the Black Death was brought to Europe by fleas living on rats that were passengers on merchant ships from Asia. Rodents on boats clearly have had a major impact on history and it was good to see the Archipelago Rally recognizing this fact in its award ceremony.

Unknown said...

I have enormous respect and affection for the English (and their dinghy class sailboats), but I suspect your teachers did a little rewriting of history as the English, having the greatest navy in the world, probably brought the rats to lots of places in Asia.

By the way, there is some new research on the black plague which you might find on the internet.

Tillerman said...

The Black Death peaked in Europe in 1346–53. There were no ships from England sailing to Asia in those days. The first European to sail to India, Vasco de Gama, arrived there at the end of the15th century.

Unknown said...

Oops, nailed again. However, according to, rats have been wrongly accused.

Tillerman said...

Gerbils? Camels? A likely story!

I think that lady's theory reads like something out of Monty Python.

In any case, how am I going to take a camel on a Hobie 14?

Anonymous said...

So, what happened to Steve Clark in his canoe?


Unknown said...

Steve says he came in 12th. But I guess he had a good time.

Tillerman said...

The results do indeed show that "Rev. Steve Clark" in his canoe came in 12th. In the photo taken around the time I was finishing you can see him (sail with red outline) and it looks as if he is sailing out to Halfmile Rock at this point.

My wife reports that he seemed to be having some difficulties with his craft not long after the started, but as she's not a sailor she couldn't be more specific.

Hugh said...

I have a old and rather decrepit, but very fast, Hobie 16 you can have free. It is sitting in some woods on Lake Carlyle in south central Illinois, so it might even have some wildlife living in/on it. Not sure the trailer could make it out your way, but it once made it to Pamlico Sound and back, not on its own you understand.

Tillerman said...

Thanks for the offer Hugh. But that's a long way to come for an old boat. Maybe I'll go hunting for one in the woods around here.

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