2017 Florida 300 Regatta Wrap Up

2017 Florida 300 Regatta Wrap Up

Florida 300 2017

300 miles of Catsailing dedicated to the memory of Rick White

The keg of YingLing was helping to ease the pain of my salt soaked face that was blasted for hours in 30 knot gusts and spray from steep 6 – 8 foot waves.  The final leg was enough to make anyone question why they left the beach.  The lights we requested were not on so our awards ceremony was getting darker as the sun set.  My eyes were still burning from the salt anyway so I really didn’t care.  I can eat this nice big cool wet plate of salad by feel and I know where the keg is.

Chuck holds in high regard a Team that will finish the leg and cross his line.  The more challenging the leg the more acknowledgement and respect does Chuck bestow.  He is not shy either, if a boat problem or just bad luck brings you in late Chuck offers a big ole pat on the back at the next skippers meeting.  Crossing Chuck’s line is an honor, and he is honored to have you do it.

We all wish this race would grow, have more awesome drone video coverage and attract big sponsors.  But even as we had some shrinkage this year we still had a great race.  Without folks like Chuck, Warren, Damon, Lisa, Dennis and everyone who donated, contributed, volunteered and worried about us, we would not have this opportunity.  On behalf of the sailors, thank you to everyone.

Awards began with a raising of our glasses and a toast to the memory of Rick White.  Chuck shared his first memories of Rick… which made everyone laugh and shake their head.  I’ve only known Rick for the last 8 years from doing the Steeplechase and Tradewinds.  I’ve drunk beer and rum in his kitchen, read his book, listened to his stories and got a good laugh from the bleached out orange t-shirt on a broom stick that set the start line of the Steeplechase.  All are really good memories and I’m glad I met the man.

The good folks who organize this race (SSPUSA) have stepped up to carry on the tradition of the Steeplechase.  The keys in December will never disappoint and this race is one that should continue.  There is a rumor that some cash is being put up as prize money this year.

The quick and dirty version of our 300 mile week went like this…  It was a Nacra carbon 20 race being challenged by 2 F18s, a hotrod Tornado and a high mileage I20 known affectionately as the Flesh Rocket.  Yeah, Larry’s I20 is still going.  Todd and Dalton have the Carbon 20 figured out for sure and showed each day a consistent and impressive lead on the fleet.  The whole fleet sailed well and stayed together for the most part.  Day 4 we all started to get tired and Day 5 kicked our butts.  We were treated to a variety of conditions from awesome offshore 18 knot spin runs, to wicked jib reaches, to rain showers with shifty drifters, and finally big breeze on the nose with huge steep seas.  But… there were NO thunderstorms, NO lightning, and NO waterspouts.  We had good weather with challenging conditions and a keg of cold beer at the finish, thanks to Fleet 80 in Daytona.  That’s what I signed up for and I’ll be back next year.

For the longer version we start at the beginning…  It’s hard to say when any event actually begins.  The process of getting to the start line can take some effort and planning long before race day.  The Dutch Rockerz may have started first with loading a container and prepping for travel from Holland.  Or maybe it was those of us that did the Miami to Key Largo Race the week before as a warm up and shake down.  It’s a good long day to finish the MKL and then keep going to the Islander on Islamorada to stage the boat for the 300.

This year’s MKL was the second year of a jib reach drag race.  Tavernier Creek (Carbon 20) finished second behind Eric Roberts (RC30) and we finished 4th  (F18) behind Kenny (Stiletto 23) but took 3rd in spin class.  Kenny took first in “Fast Cats” and corrected out in front of Eric so he and crew were champions of the day.  John McKnight (Hobie 20) finished after us and dangerously close on corrected time.  John’s no spring chicken but I dare any young bucks to challenge him on that boat on that course.

After the finish storms were rolling up from the south so we chose to retreat back to Miami rather than follow the Tavernier Creek boys to Islamorada.  Good decision because they beat a storm to the beach that would have blasted us on the slower F18.  For us it was a nice reach back to Miami Yacht Club for hot showers and cold beer.  The old guys choose wisely.

The MKL strategy was for me to steer, and my trusty crew Ding do all the heavy work of trimming an F18 on a beam reach in mid to upper teen breeze.  Ding is awesome to sail with, says he likes crewing and never drinks more than his share of the beer.  This year we sailed the same course as last year except stayed high in Card Sound for a nice 20 knot reach.  The plan was to stay high, set the spinnaker and run down with blistering boat speed.  But, when we pulled the kite too late we lost time and sealed our fate of 4th boat to finish.  The three boats in front of us also cut the corner through the shallows at the Arsenickers.  Call me chicken but with the 300 a week away I chose the deeper water of Cutter channel and less chance of breaking something.

Tuesday is Florida 300 Day 1, so we have all weekend and Monday to get ready at the Islander.  We hung out there for Saturday and Sunday even though the boat was in Miami rigged and ready.  Karl and I sailed down to the Islander on Monday as our shakedown and warm up.  We have a nice sporty ride south down the Bay in 18-20 from the east and go out Angelfish Creek to the open ocean.  We find plenty of Sargasso grass and then drive through some rain showers that dropped visibility to 100 feet.  When we popped out of the rain we had almost over stood the approach into the Islander and executed well deserved spin run to the beach.  It was a good spin run, my first in 6 months and I like spin runs, so it was really good.  Blasting along in flat clear blue water to a beach where we’re greeted by our lovely wives and cold beer is a good spin run.  I had a salty face with red eyes and Karl had some blistered fingers.  I sat on the boat with cold beer in hand, watching everyone prepare their boats and made that all important skipper decision, “we are ready”.  A week of sailing 300 miles lay ahead and life is good.

Monday morning, as we were sailing down from Miami, keys were breezy and the showers started early.  I don’t think anyone got on the water, but I did get a sense that they all stayed well hydrated.  The Skipper’s meeting was full of smiling cheery folks with red cheeks and noses.  The Islander bar makes good fruity rum drinks and having your beer cooler boat-side is not a problem.  As Monday closes all boats are ready and many of us meet at the bar for some pre-race cocktails and general fraternization.  We all agree, it’s not a big race, but it will be a good race.  The time before the race is some of my favorite because we’re all together building boats and tossing smack.  Being in the Keys with a long week of sailing ahead does not suck.

Cruising to the start line about a mile out, I am struck by how clear the water is.  Not much rain over Florida this winter so less runoff from land keeps the water clear.  What a great way to start the day and the week.  The breeze is SE at 6-8, more of a reach than downwind and my hopes are that an F18 will carry the kite this high and the 20s will not.  We set up for a good start, pull the kite… and so does everybody else.  Ralph came over the top on his 20 with the kite up and stayed high enough to squeeze between us and the committee boat.  Sailing 300 miles against these guys is not going to be pretty.  It may get really quiet back here with only 2 F18s in the fleet.

The week starts out rough for the rest of our F18 fleet, Vakaros was late to the start by 10 minutes or so.  Unfortunately that sets the tone for their week.  As we head off towards Biscayne we actually ok at keeping with the 20s.  Some stretch out before others but we’re hanging in until we start to turn north.  After Caesar Bank they get smaller and smaller.  The eyes play tricks, “I think I can see a couple sails”, and then there gone.  Keeping the boat moving fast without other boats to race is a mental challenge for me.  I wonder if I’m falling asleep and going slow, like I need to slap myself.

The bend to the north around Caesar Bank puts us at a deeper angle and gives the 20s even more advantage.  We can catch little glimpses of our F18 fleet behind and I still think I’m seeing boats ahead.  It’s been a day of clearing grass from boards and rudders and trying to avoid getting more.  With Miami and Biscayne in sight we now contemplate the approach.  Do we go for VMG and sneak up the beach sailing deep and efficient all stretched out on the front of the boat?  Or, do we go for speed and jibe into the beach from offshore and come blazing in for photo finish?

At about 10 miles out the breeze begins to show signs of life.  Biscayne Bay is to our west and the breeze is SSE, so the sea breeze has no land to help it.  But as we approach greater Miami things begin to change, the breeze fills in.  Well that settles it, let’s get into that going fast mode.  Initially we start to head off shore but with speed and more breeze our angle is still pretty good.  The speed puck starts sticking to 16 and bouncing off 18 and it just keeps getting better.  When it comes time to jibe I’m having too fun and Karl has to speak up, “time for a left turn”.  We jibe and the seas are at our back, so now we’re going 18 knots in smooth water.  This is how you finish a race!  2 more jibes and we slide across Chuck’s line and onto Biscayne Beach with the kite nicely trimmed for a photo finish.  That was a good day of sailing.  I’m thirsty, time for some cold adult beverages, nourishment and spectating of our competition.

There are good restaurants on Key Biscayne and plenty more if you want to venture out to South Beach or downtown.  There is a rumor Miami Yacht Club may do something for us next year, like a seafood pasta buffet.  The club is a very cool place to hang out and would get everyone together to tell exaggerated stories of the day, or what I call “true-lies”.

Key Biscayne start of day 2.  In this part of the world it’s just plain physics.  The breeze is light in the morning.  It’s very nice for having coffee or walking on the beach, but not real exciting for a sailboat race.  So we stroll off Key Biscayne for day 2 like gentlemen sailors and patiently make our way around the sandbar and the inlet.  By Miami Beach the Carbon 20s start to stretch out and we start hitting more grass.  So that’s how it goes, we dodge grass, pray for wind and slowly head north.  Ah but this time Vakaros is with us, we won’t be alone.

Again I get distracted by how clear and deep blue the water is.  We see turtles and watch them dive down 30 or 40 feet.  This doesn’t make the boat go fast but this is part of why I love this race.

As we approach Ft Lauderdale we’re single trapped and sometimes double.  Team Vakaros is still right behind us and pushing hard.  Even though the angle is not there we decide to try some spin reaching.  It makes the ride more exciting and the boat wants to go the wrong way but we milk it out for 5 miles or so.  We drop it, then pull it again, but it was really not working.  However, we did accomplish getting Vakaros to try it and they had way less success.  Those poor guys drove straight to the beach and almost went swimming a few times.  That was kind of fun to watch.

So now we’re double trapped jib reaching up to Delray and spy a square top hugging the beach about 5 miles ahead.  “Hey who’s that”?  Since team Vakaros has faded back we could use a boat to chase.  Off we go like an olde hound dog on a fresh scent.  Mile after mile we close in on our unsuspecting prey until about a ½ mile or so they seem to find new life.  We’re both guessing it’s Larry, those flesh tone hulls are easy to spot but we can’t be sure.  They must have seen us.  I imagine a heroic effort as they reach deep within themselves to find courage, strength and more speed.  It was a little disappointing when they later said, calmly, “no, we didn’t see you guys back there”.

Anyway, we finished this leg into Palm Beach Shores without drama and pleasantly found ourselves up from 4th and into 3rd overall.  Considering the sailors in this race I am very pleased to be in the top 3.  This is home port for Turtlemojo, we live ¼ mile from the park.  The team manager is also my wife and she makes some awesome lasagna, so we invited some folks over for hot grub, cold beer and a camp fire.  I maliciously displayed several bottles of rum, tequila and vodka just in case someone wanted to sail tomorrow hungover.

Third day start Palm Beach to Vero has us facing the open ocean for the first time.  There can be tough surf here but today it’s a perfect Florida morning with sea less than 2 feet and 8 to 10 knots from the SE.  We all have a good start and the spinnys are flying within a mile.  We find some grass, not too much, and the breeze goes more south as forecasted.  Todd and Dalton are motoring away from the fleet on a perfect lay line up the beach.  Were probably sailing the highest of everyone and we commit to speed and jibing in at about 3 miles off.  Looking at the tracker it’s obvious where the Carbon 20s can really dominate the F18.  They were all really deep and still faster than us even though the sea state was lumpy.  I must admit at this point that I am starting gain respect for that boat.  The sailors with time on the boat can squeeze out some serious speed and it drives really well in the open ocean.

This leg gives me the spin run nirvana that I so enjoy, and I think I deserve.  The further off we went the bigger the waves got and eventually organized into a swell we could surf.  On this leg we probably sailed a significantly longer distance than the other boats, but we maintained 18 knots consistently and bounced off 20 many times.  Larry was with us for a few hours and then he started falling back.  Vakaros had fallen back and was out of sight.  As a side note those guys split a hull on day 5 and I suspect it started happening early in the race.  Those guys are normally way faster.

We are now completing the 3rd leg at Vero Beach and NO thunderstorms, what a difference a year makes.  We run the kite the entire leg and plan to keep it flying right to the beach.  There was a little moment that’s worth mentioning, especially for Chuck’s sake.  My normal landing process involves unlocking rudders so they don’t drag in the sand and I do adjust the release tension higher when there’s grass so they don’t pop up under speed.  Manual release is preferred.  Everything is good as we approach the surf, Karl hands me the spin sheet as he pulls the boards.  Since he’s over there, I say “go ahead and pop that rudder for me” and I reach over and break mine loose.  Karl pops the lock and pulls the rudder up which makes the helm real heavy and the boat comes up a bit.  This is just as we enter the surf zone.  The problem here is that we’re pointed right at Chuck who’s holding the flag in waist deep water.  Boat speed is not real high so I’m not getting too excited.  So I say, “NO… not all the way up… I can’t steer”!  I think there may have been a sense of urgency in my voice and I’m starting to stretch the carbon stick.  We’re still headed at right at Chuck.  Karl puts rudder back down and locks it.  I’m looking at it and thinking, “I really don’t want that locked and dragging the bottom” and I say “just unlock it”.  Meanwhile I’m fighting the helm and we’re still pointing pretty much right at chuck.  The problem here is that I’m holding the spin sheet and the stick and don’t have another hand to ease the main even though I keep looking at it sitting there on my leg.  My brain is just too preoccupied with the rudder conversation to tell my left hand to drop the spin sheet and ease the main so we don’t kill Chuck.  I’m sure you realize this is all going on in the space of about 3 seconds.

My brain did eventually determine that running over chuck was bad so I traded the spin for the main, eased it way out and grabbed the rudder crossbar to save that poor little rubber tendon on the stick.  Somewhere in there Karl yelled “go down”!  Which I did, and we sailed by Chuck as if nothing happened and up onto the beach to conclude another memorable day in the Florida 300.  Chuck did have a few comments about the ordeal that he expressed as we secured the boat.  I smiled, assured him it wasn’t personal and he gave me that “I should come over there and hit you with this flag” look.  All things considered I think he was a good sport about the whole thing and I’ll be sure to not over-multi-task on beach landings in the future.

Soon after landing Warren informed everyone a nasty line of storms was approaching with a front and we had an hour or so to get all things tied down.  All the boats were in and the carbon masted 20s were dropping their sticks.  We dug holes, buried our tie downs, carried our sails and watched black clouds roll in.  It got real sporty for about an hour but no damage to fleet was caused.  Vero Beach is a great stop with nice quiet hotels and restaurants all within walking distance to the park.  It supports the friendly laid back posture of the race and it’s easy to get a well needed good night sleep.

The forecast breeze swings around to the southwest with the frontal passage and makes for a downwind launch.  There are some showers in the area but we decide to start and hopefully outrun them.  We launch in light SW breeze and run up the beach with all the kites flying.  Within five miles we’re hit by a huge shift that has everyone heading out to sea.  And then it shuts off… and rains.  There was a rumble in the distance but this was not a good ole Florida thunderstorm like last year.  It was peaceful rain that washed all our salty boats off and gave the water that misty flattened out look.  It was kind of nice, but definitely not fast.

For the first time Vakaros passed us.  They found something in the rain and just sailed right by.  Not sure if we were dead last, but probably close to it.  Eventually we sailed out of the rain and into some breeze.  But it was a west breeze with a forecast to build as we head north.  The Florida east coast westerly breezes are always puffy and this was no different.  As it builds Karl starts getting real busy on the main.  As we head north on a jib reach close to shore we were forced into “team trimming” the main.  Karl was running out of main sheet in the puffs and I had to play the traveler to back him up.

Jib reaching at high speeds makes one real attentive to the leeward bow.  If any F18 can jib reach with big power and speed it’s the Cirrus R.  That hull shape just loves to go fast and I have lots of trust in the boat in these conditions.  Between the puffs we go forward and Karl plays the main perfectly to get us accelerating down the face of the swells coming in from the southeast.  In the puffs we run to the back, way back.  The water is flat, it’s a fun ride and we exceed 21 knots many times.  Although I recovered somewhat gracefully there was “that moment” in the race, where I almost crashed us.  Of course there were others, but this was a good one.

High speed jib reaching is all about getting on the back corner of the boat with both hulls in the water going really fast.  No spinnaker, just the main and you’re right on the edge of needing to bail out and head up.  That leeward bow has a lots of pressure on it in the puffs, but it’s fast.  This trick is a basic skill for us hot shot cat sailors right?  Yeah it is, but after a couple hours this hot shot who has 2 grandchildren gets a wee bit tired.  Not so much physically but mentally.  I just start losing my concentration maybe look the wrong way and then lose my balance.  So there I am too far back to even have foot in strap with Karl right by my side.  When the traveler is in hand I can lean on it and I’m ok, but when I need to dump traveler I’ve got nothing but a slack line to hold onto.

I got loose and tried to drag a toe for balance and my booty got ripped off.  Next I end up dragging alongside the boat… at 20 knots.  It wasn’t pretty and I’m not proud of it but this is for ya’lls entertainment.  So, as I’m engaged in this life or death struggle to regain control of myself Karl very calmly says, “just head up, push the stick”!  So I give the stick a good nudge, the boat heads up and most of my self-induced drama deflates.  I climb back on and we sail away, except I’m less one booty.  The ocean has claimed a victim.  One Zhik booty (right) has perished.

All is well for the rest of the leg as we make the best of the puffs that just keep getting bigger.  Getting through the surf upwind into Cocoa Beach was no treat but thanks to Beth’s heroic efforts and long legs we were dragged across Chuck’s line like a dog on a leash.  “Time for you two Yahoos to come in”!  To our amazement we are now in second place overall.  We’re pretty happy with ourselves and the cold beer is tasting oh so good now.

Team Vakaros, the only other F18 got flipped over and tore their main.  So they’re inbound with a jury rigged rig.  I personally believe they were taking on water in that split open hull (which is discovered day 5) and caused the boat to go slow and be way over powered.  But they got in and had a backup sail to continue on.  It’s been a rough race for them and they’re looking tired but they forge onward like true distance racers.  Those unlucky buggers are in for 1 more day of bad luck, but once again they will prove they got salt.

The stop in Cocoa is another great time of kickin around eating good food and having some drinks with friends.  Warren arranged a rib feast for us all and we hang out under some giant shade trees with little fire pits surrounded by comfy chairs.  Larry, of Cat-in-the-Hat Larry is still having babies believe it or not.  And twins to boot, 2 cute little boys and all the girls were fighting to hold one, or both.

Here we are the last leg, Cocoa to Daytona.  The forecast is just downright mean.  Right on the nose as we go around the Cape and all the way to Daytona.  The angle looks like it might be off the beach by 5 – 10 degrees so the water might be flat.  But it’s a solid 20 plus.  Some of the Carbon 20s are launching with no jib.  Breeze is still off the beach and puffy, we decide to hang back and get a clear lane at the start.  It could get messy in shallow water with a big puff.

From the beach to the Cape is a beam reach and once we clear the beach it’s steady 20 with big puffs.  Karl immediately runs out of main and I start playing the traveler.  It’s that quiet time on the boat that says “wow this shit’s serious”.  With an offshore breeze blowing like this you really don’t want to go over.  A separated sailor becomes an PLB activation pretty quick.  The fleet stays together and everyone is fighting it hard.  We’re haulin’ butt and all wondering what will happen on the other side of that Cape where it’s wide open and there’s very few options.

There’s a sand bar right at the point and I’m watching the boats ahead find the best way through.  The water color says real shallow, the breaking waves on the sand bar says real shallow but everyone gets over with boards down.  Approaching the break water the wind is on the nose and I warn Karl not to sheet in too tight we need to reach off through the surf.  We get through and emerge into 4 to 6 foot very steep seas right on the nose.  I look around and ahead and say “holy crap”… “you gotta be shittin’ me”.  The first order of business is to keep the boat from launching off the waves.  We’re talking big air if you’re not careful.  Boat breaking big air.  Probably looks cool from the beach though.

Looking at the beach we see huge breaking surf, looking out to sea we see steep waves getting their tops blown off.  There’s really not a good option here.  Try to go fast without getting airborne and tack in when the seas get bigger than 6 feet.  This went on for hours.  For the first 25 miles the fleet actually stayed together and I had hopes of sticking with the 20s the entire day.  These hopes were dashed as they found a groove and got smaller, and smaller.  Not sure what the winning formula was that day but we did not find it.  In Karl’s words “we sailed the shit out of that boat” all day.  But we lost significant ground and time to the fleet.  I want to say the 10 foot beam was an advantage, but you would also think the F18 in breeze and big seas would be fast.  Not sure but I will say we popped a wire on the windward shroud.  So we pushed it hard.

The last 2 hours the wind backed off but still had huge puffs come through that required us to stay on our toes.  This was exhausting both mentally and physically.  I was steering like a madman and Karl was easing out feet of main sheet, for hours.  This was definitely one of the toughest legs I have sailed and really wanted to be done with it.  Our boat speed was not impressive from all the steering and sheeting.  As we built boat speed and settled down a huge puff came through and I had to head up hard even though Karl was dumping sheet.

Knowing it was probably a bad idea I decided to get on the wire with Karl and see about some more speed.  This worked really well until a huge puff followed by a huge shift dumped us in the water.  From here we pulled the boat over essentially going over to windward.  It sounds like an easily avoidable mistake but when you’re that tired it happens.  We both agreed that getting back on the boat on the first try was essential since we were both tired.  If we screw this up a second try could be ugly.  I’m sure it was not pretty to watch but we got righted, on board and sailed away.  Our girls were watching us on the horizon and noted that we “just disappeared”, and “then were back again”.

The last 10 miles… those were long miles.  The wind was backing off and the hotels were shadowing our course.  The angle had improved so we could lay the finish, but it was not fast.  As we approach the beach I can see some of the 20 already have their rigs down.  These guys are fast at derigging but this confirms my gut feeling that we got stomped on this leg.  And we did.

Even though they all got in like an hour before us most were still wondering around the beach looking really tired.  Because of the spray everyone was caked with salt, except us, due to our little swim.  This salty look was a unique sight and spoke loud and clear of what the day was like.  Everyone, including the Worrell veterans claimed this was one of the most challenging days they had sailed.

Now for the story of the day, which was already posted by Damon on the Sail Series Promotions Facebook page.  Team Vakaros was forced to the beach inside of the Cape Canaveral exclusion zone due to a split and sinking hull.  Quick thinking on their part had them call the race committee who then called the NASA police who then went out on ATVs to greet our boys.  It all worked out well as the officers helped get the ground crew and trailer close to the boat and even helped load it up.  Those guys are tough, they’ll be back next year you watch.

This brings us back to the awards ceremony where we started.  Todd and Dalton took the big trophy home and we dropped way back in the fleet.  We drank some beer, ate some food and gradually all wondered off in own directions.  After spending a week sailing and hanging out with all the other teams this point when we all go our separate ways is not my favorite.  I’m sure some of the younger teams headed to the Ocean Deck bar next door but Team Turtle Mojo took a stroll on the boardwalk and ate ice cream.

As an F18 sailor who really has no intentions of changing boats I must say I was impressed with the Nacra Carbon 20.  The boat held together and handled all the conditions of ocean racing just fine.  Considering the first half of most days is in lighter air they have an advantage over the F18’s who really prefer the afternoon sea breeze.  If this year is any indication I expect to see them back next year.  I’m really hoping for a few more F18’s to show up too.  But either way I’ll be back to battle the 20s alone if need be and now that I know they can be beat with right conditions I’ll have high hopes and great ambitions.

Keep an eye on the Sail Series Promotions web site, they are stepping up to run the distance races in Florida and maybe even adding a few.

-Dick MacDonald


Photo Credit to Sail Series Promotion, Inc. and the MacDonald’s