CABB 41st Annual Fowey Light Distance Race
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Miami, Florida
By John McKnight, Hobie 20

Oh boy, this was a wet, wild, and windy one. Boats flipped, lines broke, and rudders malfunctioned. When eight boats start a race and only three finish it, you know the conditions were challenging. Oriol Cruzeta and I were on one of the boats to finish, and I wasn't sure we were going to make it at times. I check the winds at the Virginia Key NOAA reporting station website after the race. At the time of our race, they recorded winds of 11.1 gusting to 18.1 knots. Everyone said it felt like a whole lot more than that. The winds recorded at the Fowey Light NOAA station were 10 knots higher than at Virginia Key. This race was supposed to go out in the ocean to Fowey Lighthouse, but that didn't happen. There was way too much wind to go there. Listening to my marine radio at breakfast that morning, they were reporting winds at Fowey up to 27 knots. That is not exactly ideal beach cat wind for sailing in the open ocean. For the first half of October we had been suffering under unseasonably warm conditions. The temperatures for the fourteen days prior to the race day had been in the record breaking low 90s. Our first cold front of the year came through Saturday, the day before our Sunday race. The winds clocked around to the NNW, and the temperature plummeted. The high air temperature on race day was about 66 degrees. But, the water temperature was still at a balmy 84 degrees.

I polled the other racers at the crew meeting to try and come up with an alternate course within Biscayne Bay. We decided on a large triangle course in the bay. The triangle started at the Rickenbacker Causeway and went south to Matheson Hammock on the west side of the bay. From Matheson the course crossed the bay to a shoal mark off West Point, west of Key Biscayne. From there the course returned to the Rickenbacker. The total distance was about 14 nautical miles. The race was called as twice around this course with the option of stopping after one lap if the conditions proved to be too much. Well, the winds were fierce, and so the race was cut short after just the first lap.

We had a good variety of boats in the race with two Hobie 20s and one each: Blade F-16, Inter 20, Nacra 5.8, Stiletto 23, G-Cat F-16, and an A-Cat with a spinnaker. Oriol and I were on my Hobie 20. Oscar Garcia Coni and John Esquivel were on Oscar's new-to-him Hobie 20. Chris Stater and Hans Evers were on the Blade, F-16. Jay Sonnenklar and Evan Greene were on Jay's Inter 20. Rick Tobin and Karthik Sankara were on Rick's Nacra 5.8. Kenny Pierce and Dawn Chapman were on the Stiletto 23. Bret Moss was on a brand new G-Cat, F-16. Raul Lopez and Carla Schiefer were on the A-Cat. Before the race everyone was a bit antsy in anticipation of the big winds, at least I was. Where we set up on the causeway; the wind did not seem too bad. We were in the lee of the tall buildings of downtown Miami and in the wind shadow of the trees on the causeway. The water was almost smooth just off the beach, but when you looked to the south on the horizon; you could see the lumps in the water. Lumps are never a good sign. That means big waves. We all knew this would be a day of testing for the sailors and their machines.

The race started between two fixed swim buoys just south of the causeway. It was a downwind start, so no one was crowding the line. When the "whistle" blew, we were off like a herd of gazelles bounding down the bay. As soon as we were a hundred yards off the causeway, we got blasted by the full force of the wind. The sails popped to attention. The boats accelerated. The adrenaline began to pump. We were off and running. Jay and Evan hoisted the chute on their I-20, and it was like they had been fired out of a cannon. They were trapezed and flying a hull instantly. Bret got the hole shot at the port pin and took off on this new prototype G-Cat, F-16. This was to be the big wind sea trial for the new boat. The boat has a chute, but I don't think it saw daylight. Everyone was powered up enough without needing more sail area. Oriol and I quickly passed Bret. We had the main traveled all the way down to the hull and the jib slot opened up with the barber hauler. It was rock and roll time. We were hopping from wave to wave taking big spray off each one. John Esquivel and Oscar on the other Hobie 20 were to windward of us and making good time. We were neck and neck ripping down the bay. The Inter 20 crew dropped their chute and fell in line beside the two H-20s. The other boats were falling back a bit. It was a 20 foot boat kind of day. Kenny on his Stiletto 23 was right on our tail even with a reefed mainsail. Everyone was enjoying this exhilarating, spray drenching, downwind blast. But we all knew it would be payback time shortly, when we had to turn the corner and to head back upwind.

The Esquivel/Garcia Hobie 20 was first to reach the Matheson turning mark. The Inter 20 was right on their heels, and Oriol and I were 20 seconds behind them. Some of the other boats in the race had already turned around. I didn't see which ones; I didn't have time to look away from my boat. If you lost concentration for a split second, you could be swimming. When we turned the corner, all hell broke loose. We were now beating into a near 20 knot torrent. The waves were only a couple of feet high, but that is huge for the bay. Oriol and I jumped out on the wire and were pounding back north up the bay. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the other H-20 do a flip flop into the bay. They were on their side. They appeared to be okay. I found out after the race that the rudders on their Hobie 20 were not locking down properly all day. That is a true testament of John and Oscar's sailing skill to be able to sail the boat in these conditions with the rudders kicked back. Oriol and I quickly sailed past them after they capsized. We charged upwind in pursuit of the I-20. We were overpowered. I had Oriol crank in on the downhaul line. I had him drop my main traveler car down a foot. We were still over powered and flying a hull in the puffs. I had Oriol rotate the mast straight back to help destroy the lift. He opened the slot on the jib to dump pressure. We were still overpowered. The big puffs would hit, and the port hull would fly in a heartbeat. I repeatedly had to jam the tiller to leeward to round the boat up and dump pressure off the mainsail. The spray was everywhere; it was like you were sitting on the hood of your car going through a car wash. I couldn't see half the time. Fortunately the bay water was still very warm, and there wasn't that shock you get when you get hit with cold water. We were on the verge of losing it with virtually every big blast of air. Several times we each had our feet knocked out from under us by a big wave washing across the hull. Oriol ended up behind me on a couple of these fiascoes. Okay coach, now what do we do? I told Oriol we were going into "survival mode." He furled the jib. We needed to reduce sail to keep from getting dumped into the churning bay. I stayed sitting on the boat, and only Oriol trapezed. That worked; it gave me more stability to control the boat. We weren't going very fast, but I felt in control once again, which is always a good thing. The Esquivel/Garcia team had quickly righted their boat, and they were hot on our heels. They still had their jib out and were double trapezing and gaining on us like mad. I didn't care. I couldn't physically push my boat as hard as they were pushing theirs. If they beat us, they beat us, so be it. I wanted to stay upright.

The Sonnenklar/Greene Inter 20 was the only boat ahead of us. The Inter 20 was sailing about 20 degrees above the rhumb line to the next mark. They told me later they didn't dare foot down for fear of catching too much air and going over. In our de-powered configuration, we were able to foot more directly toward the next turning mark at West Point. The I-20 was finally able to get up the courage to foot down to the mark, but it was too late. They had sailed a much further distance than us. We had gained dramatically on them. We met up with the I-20 precisely at the mark. I thought we now had a chance to beat them. They owed us time. The other Hobie 20 caught up to us just after the West Point mark. They had been in high gear after righting their boat.

The final leg was another beat across the bay back to the Rickenbacker. The I-20 got it all hooked up and blasted away from us. I split tacks with the Esquivel/Garcia H-20 and sailed my boat up near the Rickenbacker Causeway in search of sheltered water. That worked out just great. In the lee of the causeway we were able to power up my beast boat and let her rip. We were double trapped again and zipping across the bay at a break neck speed with spray flying everywhere. We finished seven minutes behind the I-20 and four minutes ahead of the other H-20. No one else was either able to or wanted to finish the race. I don't blame them, the conditions were very demanding.

Rick Tobin and Karthik flipped their Nacra 5.8 twice and called it a day after the second swim. They sailed into Matheson Hammock harbor seeking shelter. We didn't know where they were for a while, and I was concerned. Fortunately they had a cell phone with them, and they called to say they were safe and sound at Matheson. Rick's wife came and picked them up and brought them back to their car and trailer on the causeway. Karthik got some nasty scrapes on his shins during their two capsizes and subsequent rightings. This was only the second time Rick had this particular boat out, but he is a very experienced multihull racer. He also races his F-31, Matador, and a Nacra 6.0. The Stater/Evers Blade, F-16 had some equipment issues. There spinnaker halyard broke just after the start of the race, and the halyard line got tangled in the shrouds up at the hound. They had one heck of a time getting the halyard loose and the spinnaker down. Hans slipped and bruised himself when he fell onto the bridle wire during that Chinese fire drill. After rounding the downwind mark they lost the jib halyard, and the jib banged itself to a total loss on that upwind leg back to the launch beach. They also broke a rudder line causing more difficulties. Hans said it was a fun day all around anyway! So there were lots of bumps, bruises, and sore muscles after fighting the wind and waves during the race.

Jay Sonnenklar and Evan Greene won the race on their Inter 20. Congratulations guys! Oriol and I came in about a minute behind them on corrected time taking second place. John Esquivel and Oscar Garcia Coni finished third on Oscar's Hobie 20. We three were the only boats to finish. It was one of those crazy days. The race only took a little over an hour, but it was an action pack hour I won't soon forget.

After the race Kenny Pierce flipped his Stiletto 23 on the way back to the Miami Yacht Club. He was motor sailing with a reefed mainsail and furled jib. Just north of the Powell Bridge near the Rusty Pelican Restaurant they got hit with one of those powerful gusts, and over they went. Kenny said the motor was still running with the boat on its side. He had to reach up and turn it off. It was just Kenny and his girl friend, Dawn, on the boat. In the best of situations it takes two or three people to right this big boat. So they needed some help. In the strong wind and waves they were drifting south toward the snapping jaws of the Powell Bridge. That bridge has eaten a few boats over the years. Jack Wolf on his Stiletto 27 came to the rescue. Jack threw Kenny a line and held the S-23 from drifting towards the menacing bridge. John Esquivel and Oscar also came by to help. Oscar jumped in the water to help Kenny right the boat. A Coast Guard Auxiliary boat also showed up, and its crew held the mast tip out of the water so it wouldn't sink to the bottom of the bay. After the rescue teams righted the boat, Mike Powers on his Lagoon 42 gave Kenny a bilge pump to pump the water out of the hull. The hatches on a Stiletto 23 are not watertight. In all Kenny said it took about an hour to get the boat back on its feet and bailed out. I am sure Kenny appreciates all those who came to his aid.

It was an exciting day of sailing. It was an adventure for all concerned. In the end everyone was smiling and seemed to have enjoyed yet another interesting day on the water. It sure beats staying home mowing the grass. Maybe next year we will actually make it out to Fowey Light and back. We never know.

John McKnight
Commodore, Catamaran Association of Biscayne Bay (CABB)
(305) 251-7600
CABB Forum: