Harvest Moon 2012

I had no idea the Harvest Moon Regatta involved nearly 200 boats, and was such a big event.  We sailed en-masse’ with more sails than commonly seen together which was picturesque in itself, now add the fact the race involved a night sail under the full “harvest” moon… and the experience went from unexpected to unforgettable.  Night sailing just before Halloween was really fun!  You almost expected to see witches ride their broom in front of the moon across the glistening night sea.  “The Harvest Moon Regatta” is an annual event that courses 150 miles South from Galveston to Port Aransas Texas. 

The dark 2 foot seas found the fleet constantly adjusting lines to eek out the best performance from the excited skippers of the more than 100 different boat designs.  I thoroughly enjoyed the passage on the awesome luxury Yacht owned by a fellow Bahamas cruiser.  Alternate Latitude was the envy of the fleet. 

As the race began, we all looked for that last knot of speed from the moderately tight sails easing along the gentle start provided by prevailing 8 to 10 knots winds.  Looking at the map, you’ll see the Texas coastline from Galveston South on SE prevailing winds can be a pinch…. We were ready to tack to sea after the committee boat, but held our point to see what luck would bring us.

I was invited to tweak the sails and help drive the Voyage 440 catamaran owned and operated as a charter boat by Captain Steve Schlosser.  I have tens of thousands of  catamaran miles under my keels having sailed the Bahamas on bareboats for 10 years, then on our own Seawind cat “Sea Yawl Later !!” after buying her a few years ago.  “Alternate Latitude” is now stationed in Galveston Bay but leaves this month for the British Virgin Islands.  The boat is 25’ wide 44’ long, weighs 10 tons with 4 queen sized beds, 4 bathrooms and just about every amenity imaginable. 

Needless to say, our sailing adventure was not as “adventurous” as some of the fellahs sailing open cockpit 30’ go fast boats in full foul weather gear… they got splashed every 4 minutes sitting on hard fiberglass with a tiller in one hand and a flashlight in the other grabbing energy bars as they could to survive the ordeal.  We…. On the other hand….. each had queen bed accommodations, our own bathroom and dined on Fillet Mignon with a loaded baked potato at the races end.  Seven sailors shared the duties…. so fatigue was never a factor.  Our “race conditions” were never more luxurious.

It normally takes 27 to 30 hours for a cruising boat to make the trip.  This year we had decent winds at the start, but sat through a 5 hour period where our only progress was the speed of the current, then found our wind and finished in style. 

The night helmsman Matt saw winds drop from 8 knots to zero about 1AM.  Matt kept glancing North looking for that much anticipated cold front due to slide off the Texas coast into the Gulf of Mexico.….. In my many years and thousands of miles of sea experience I know that just before a major weather change you always go calm….  The fleet sat near motionless from 1am to 6am Friday morning.  For five hours the racers excitement slacked to a semi-alert scan… as we made 1 to 1.5 knots forward progress due only to the Gulf of Mexico currents. 

Nearly two hundred sails rocked in place along a 40 mile string of boats in the night, we slatted and rattled waiting on the wind to give us back our speed.  Each boat watched the others mast light…. wondering when the wind might restore the ancient power that propelled Columbus to the new world.  

Then just before daylight… we got our wish; the wind suddenly blew like God threw a switch and we sped off toward the finish.  Finally (while I was asleep) there were rooster tails behind both hulls.  I heard it happen from my queen sized bed, a little motion…. then the whirring of the prop shafts told the tale of speed.  My sleepy ears became vaguely aware that our ship had regained its motion…. the calm was over.  Our heavy “big wind” boat was suddenly and decidedly back in its element!

We left the Galveston Pleasure Pier along side more than a dozen boats in our class, half a hundred multihulls in the fleet…. behind a hundred and a half monohulls.  Generally a race starts the multihulls last….. supposedly because they are faster, but many of the go fast monohulls were much quicker than our big starship.  

The PHRF rating system considers boat design, sails, and possible sail combinations then assigns a handicap…. if all boats are perfectly sailed they would theoretically arrive at the same time.  Anybody that has ever handled a jib sheet knows no boat is never “perfectly” sailed due to differing personalities, sailing choices and human dynamics.  Every captain decides on a different track and sail settings.. so the race is won or lost by the skipper’s choice and helsmanship.  The fun of it is… you’re always considering the fluidity of the racing surface, changing winds and your own wit to be the best boat home. 

The first fleet of monohulls left at 2PM… our fleet was the last to be set loose.  We left Galveston at 2:50PM in 8 to 10 knots of wind in a fairly tight pinch. That means the winds were prevailing from the SE and we were heading into them at about 45 degrees….. the minimum you want on your nose in a sailboat race.  The go fast multis and 99% of the monohulls stayed along the beach pinching into the wind on the most direct path to the next mark.  Some of the catamarans and slower monohulls turned left soon after the start and headed out to sea to get a bigger bite of wind in their sails….. those guys made the wrong decision.

Our strategy was to set the sails to pull their best while skipping along in shallow water along the beach as close to the wind as possible and hope for a “lift”.  It’s risky, because you could run out of water depth while sailing the boat at less than optimum speed.  Even though it’s the most direct route to the finish line you could lose to the guy screaming along at top speed even if he had to go out of his way to achieve it.  However, if the wind changes and you can veer off the beach into the building winds without having to set your course off by tacking away offshore…. It’s a huge plus.  The guys that spent 45 minutes heading 90 degrees off shore from the finish line to make sure they had “the wind” lost big time this year… The conservative “smart” sailors squandered their advantage to us more risky rascals that counted on our own luck.

We knew 34 miles down the track AL would have to reach offshore to round a mid-race mark.  It looked impossible to make with the winds we started on….. but with good luck and weather, the risk takers won and the conservatives lost this time!!!!!! lol.  Those willing to risk his pocketbook to make the big bucks WON!  There are those that always play the game safely, then… there are those that normally win.  We opted for the second category.  I’m willing to bet on my own knowledge and skill more often than not…. or at least more than the average racer.  I put myself in a position to be blessed by the wind and thankfully I was. 

The heaviest current that carried us toward the finish line was along the shallow coast, so we stayed there….. then when we needed to go offshore to round the mark, I found the heavy outflowing current of San Luis Pass.  It spewed us out to the Rhumbline quite comfortably to round the Freeport mark.  (The rhumbline is the most direct route from finish to end of a sailboat race)

We reached away from the shore far enough to be comfortable, driven by the outbound current, then an hour after midnight we lost our moderate wind……. The current alone now moved us ever so slowly toward the finish line.  But thankfully we were all in the “same boat” at that point going nowhere.  Design or sail set didn’t matter anymore…. We all bounced along in the slow current for what seemed like an eternity in a “boat race”. 

Alternate Latitude’s crew was fully aware that after the doldrums a strong North wind would fill in from across the beach so we stayed close, others went offshore to try and find a bit of wind to sail on.  Generally the further offshore you go the higher the winds are, so there is value in the move…. but our captain made the right decision, the heavy North wind would hit us quicker if we stayed close to the beach, again time proved that we made a good choice….  We found 20 knots of wind to fill our sails 30 to 45 minutes sooner than the offshore group.  Thirty minutes of cruising at 8 knots put us 4 nautical miles further down course than the boats flopping around offshore going with “safe bet” that usually always works.  That’s a net gain of 30 to 45 minutes of “time to finish”.  We ended up winning the division by less than 30 minutes, so it was all about choices!

The 20 to 25 knot wind over our starboard hull now drove the boat like a railroad spike…. hard and fast to the finish.  While the offshore crowd stayed in place we screamed for the finish line along the rhumbline….. Our chosen route proved a double good thing….. early speed and the most direct route to Port Aransas, Texas.

Late in the race the waves built to 5 foot.  The building waves offered another advantage available for those willing to take it.  We showed the class that if you drive 10 tons of fiberglass… sitting on a fluid surface…. into a hole behind a breaking wave on a 20 degree down slope……. you can go really fast!  That’s probably the biggest oversimplification I’ve made so far… so I’ll do some explaining; Surfing waves is a delicate art. 

Initially you have to have enough waves to play on coming from the right direction and enough wind to drive the boat once you get it surfing…… couple those conditions with a zen-like understanding of how waves form and fall and you can begin to learn how to successfully surf a 4 bathroom boat at 18 knots.  It’s not in any text book… It comes from years of sitting at the helm of a boat in every condition imaginable while paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t.  I guess we can call the knowledge….. a BS from Blue Water U.

My surfing BS thesis reads like this:

  • Big waves always come in sets of three; usually the first one gets you going, but the second or third is the “money wave”.
  • Whenever a wave breaks at its peak… it then forms a big hole you can drive off into.
  • To make a boat accelerate hard into a hole you need a loose jib.
  • To make a boat stay surfing you need a tight main to hold speed once it’s achieved…. But be careful because a tight main gives you heavy weather helm so don’t let the boat round up much if the wind is high… keep her surfing down wind.
  • To accelerate to surfing speed you need to scoot over behind the first breaking wave (no matter the sail angle to the wind) to set up the second and third wave.
  • Once you’re positioned behind the first breaking wave, open your sails to run 10 degrees fat…. downwind off your optimal sail set by cranking the helm hard downwind as the second wave lifts you.  What that does is turn the rudders 50 degrees off the boat centerline…. the  effect provides two (on a cat) rudder surfaces semi perpendicular to the flow of the wave… so the underwater resistance lifts the stern of the boat and at the same time, allows the wave to drive the boat faster as it “pushes” you at wave speed (much faster than your own)
  • Just after the wave pushes hard on your rudders…. There comes is a moment just as the wave passes your rudders when you need to crank hard upwind and here’s why…..
  • Every sailor knows that if you crank the helm into a puff while setting deep.. the jib grabs at the wind and gives you a temporary lift in speed.  So……………
  • There is no way to surf a wave without cranking hard on the helm.  If a wave sees a straight rudder…. You won’t surf it, it will flow under you with the greatest of ease.  Under water resistance at the right moment is paramount to climbing up on top of a wave and racing down it.
  • Wave dynamics provide a trough to sail into if you can see it happening…. then crossing up the rudders provide water resistance to lift the stern and accelerate to surfing speed…. as you ascend the wave, crank in some acceleration by grabbing air in the jib… then after your surfing carefully watch your wind angle so your tight main stays the right angle to drive you at top speed for as long as the wave lasts……  oops, one caveat……
  • If the wind is high… and driving you well……… drive the boat down the wave at the optimum angle to the wind (of the sail set) so the main will keep you truckin’  but if the wind isn’t there fall off downwind so the wave will carry you as far as possible before washing under you.
  • Now you know everything I do about wave surfing…… !

We went from 9 knots with a cruiser steering to a max of 18.1 knots surfing the waves.  50,000 miles of steering boats on the open ocean have taught me a few things.  The cruiser often finds his best steerage “to stay comfortable” and maximize passenger comfort by avoiding conflict with the air and water when it pipes up… on the other end of the spectrum…. surfing a 4 bathroom 10 ton boat to race boat speeds requires using every wave and puff you can to propel the boat forward. 

Who said a 4 queen, 4 bath boat can’t go fast.  It’s simple physics; 10 tons on a 20 degree slope WILL speed up.  I don’t care who you are.. gravity is king.  The sail set and helm dynamics to make that happen only come with experience.  And thankfully my wife Linda has been with me for a bunch of those hours without complaint.

I often recall a time when Linda awoke after a long passage of the Gulfstream to see the water on a 40 degree angle out the side window of our little Seawind cat.  She came up from the bed holding on to the walls saying “is everything OK!!!!!!!!????  I pretended to need her help to reduce sail… but secretly I had been playing on the following 12 footers for hours in 20 knots of wind behind the boat to see how fast I could go.  I achieved my boat record on my SW 1000…. !!  When Linda showed up with big eyes…. we took the main down and finished the passage comfortably under jib alone.  I felt like a kid caught with his hand in a cookie jar…. Lol.  She’s a great wife that lets me get by with stupid stuff like that.

Anyway… during the Harvest Moon Regatta we won our class and finished fastest in the multihull division on corrected time earning the Commodores trophy for Alternate Latitude.  It was fun surfing by 45 foot boats nearing the finish line at 16 knots in a 4 bathroom condo!

My suggestion for attaining the knowledge to do what we did…… go sailing.  Sail as often and far as your budget or wife will allow.  I am blessed to have enough of both to know how to surf a 4 bathroom boat 18.1 knots…… Thanks Baby, I love you.

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