Once in every 20 years it happens...you are beating in the middle of the night for hours and hours towards Key West in a fleet of 30 boats trapped between the reef and the Gulf Stream. This year’s SORC Key West Race was one of those years.
The race started off Port Everglades with a great mix of boats in ORC and PHRF plus a few multihulls with a faint NW breeze that tried to become a sea breeze. As it happened the US Navy was running submarine trials south of the entrance, and the whole fleet motored south 5 miles to safe waters and recognizing that the US Navy is not to be messed with even if you are racing!
By the time Kenai, our A-Sym modified J/44 reached the Miami RW the light weight fliers were well ahead. We were sucked into an interesting false positive on that leg. With the wind behind, the further offshore you venture into adverse current, the more the apparent wind builds. Now if you were an AC75 this would have been a great tactic as you travel 3x the wind speed. But for a keel boat it feels good as your compass bearing on the boats inshore (shown by AIS) drops a few degrees on each refresh.
After the Miami sea buoy a light wind filled in from the SE and rotated S. The beating upwind began. We were inshore (finally) and on the correct side of the rotation. However, as we passed Fowey Rock it became clear that we needed to tack every 3 to 5 minutes in order to stay out of the stream. We would watch the calculated current Set and Drift on our B&G H5000 instrument pack (between GPS COG / SOG and Boat Speed and Heading) slowly rise on Starboard tack and then call the turn at 0.9 knts. It takes six people to efficiently tack a 145% Genoa with a 24ft LP. One to release the moment the sail backs, one to stop it catching on the shrouds and then to skirt the foot inside the lifelines if needed, a tailer, a grinder, a mainsheet trimmer to release the sheet so the main roach does not hang on the back stay, and the helmsman. Meanwhile the modern boats with non overlapping jibs would annoyingly flip from one tack to the next.
The inner course boundary was set by twenty waypoints along the Keys that marked between them an imaginary no go boundary, straight lines slowly increasing in bearing. Our navigator would count down the feet to this line 500, 400, 300, 200, 100 and at 100 we would start the next tack out to the stream.
Kenai started to overtake boats after being almost DFL at the Miami Sea buoy. Then as the reef curved to the west, our port tack started to extend with an acute approach to the course boundary until we were at a point where if we sailed in high / slow mode, traveller up, stalled top tell tail and genoa on max. trim we could delay the next tack for quite awhile.
114 tacks later we were on a fetch, then a reach and the kite was up. We’re we’re making 8.5 knots to KW with the A3. But then our Navigator started to bring up bad news. “The high pressure sitting in the Florida Gulf is not moving. I ran the routing and every model shows that we won’t finish inside the 48 hr race time limit.” As skipper I decided to ignore this as negative news is the last thing a tired crew needs to hear.
We pressed on and sure enough the wind shut off. But fortunately we were now in the 0.5 knt. counter current inside the stream off Marathon Key and we persevered with a VMG run in 3 to 4 knts. of breeze. 28 gybes later many boats had pulled out the race. Some were headed back and others were peddle to the metal to hit the Key West bars before closing on Friday night.
We became locked in a boat for boat battle against Wings, a J121 with lead changes as shifts and puffs made all the difference. Lake sailing on the ocean!
Finally as the expected NE land breeze filled in and it allowed us to finish at 4 am with an elapsed time of 41 hrs 18 min.
Our perseverance paid off and we won ORC 2 Class and corrected to be second in fleet behind Flat Stanley, a Melges 32 that is a fraction of our 23,400 lb displacement.
For comparison the first time we sailed this event, Kenai finished the 170 mi course in just over 16 hrs!
So now we are entered in the final Islands In the Stream event; a 340 nm race from Miami to Eleuthera on Feb. 17 where strong finish could mean that we win the Island In the Stream Series. But the Gulf Stream, a a venture into the Atlantic around the exposed Eleuthera coast and a lot of water has to pass under the bow between now and the finish off Cape Eleuthera Marina. Never mind all the COVID tests involved.
Chris and Karen Lewis