I did the Southern Straits 2010 Regatta on Kiva, a Finngulf 41 skippered by Julien Sellgren this past Easter Weekend. The regatta, organized by the West Vancouver Yacht Club, was to be my first overnight endurance race. The race started near Dundarave Pier in West Vancouver and the 87 mile medium course would take us into the Straits, off the coast of Nanaimo. At an average speed of 5kts, I expected to be out for anywhere from 17-24hrs. We had organized ourselves into two shifts however, I didn’t really expect to get any sleep.
I checked the weather forecast at 5am on Easter Friday (race day) and Environment Canada had a gale warning in effect for the Straits. Winds were expected to gust up to 40kts easing to 20kts by 2pm that afternoon. We’d experienced 25-30kt winds under full sails on a weekend trip to Gibsons a few months back and Kiva and the crew handled it very well. I’ve only been racing for a year now but had grown somewhat accustomed to high winds at the start of the racing easing off as the day progressed. This was typically in line with predictions by various weather services and I didn’t expect any different this time.
A small crowd had gathered at the pier to see the race start. Winds were at 20kts when we started off heading south west towards the Gulf Islands. We held off on flying our spinnaker while we assessed the situation. Two boats put theirs up and within minutes, one of them was torn to shreds – overpowered by the high winds. The second one didn’t last much longer. Holding off on the kite meant that I was done for now as I was on kite flying duty. We saw one boat round up in the distance but we were able to hold our own. By the time we got to UBC, we were in 2nd place however, it was still just the beginning of a long race.
As we got into deeper waters, the winds had picked up past 30kts and the sea was visibly rougher. We rounded up a couple of times however, quickly came up with a rhythm of calling out the wind gusts and bearing away just in time to keep control. After about an hour of this, it seemed like we had things well in hand and that we could wait out the gale. After all, the forecast was for winds to ease at around 2pm. Watching other boats wipe out was gut wrenching for me – I couldn’t help but empathize with the crews out there. Given my limited rough weather experience, I was getting a crash course on how boats handle when overpowered.
We checked our watches and it was now 1pm. We’d been racing for just over 2hrs. Something was not right, instead of the weather easing, it was getting stronger. Winds were now inching up to 40kts and when we managed to surf a wave, Kiva saw bursts of speeds close to 15kts. The waves were getting more erratic and were building. Without any clear reference point, it was hard to figure out how high the waves were however, on one occasion, it felt like I was peering over the edge of a second storey balcony. We got overpowered and rounded up a couple more times and each time, it seemed to take a bit longer to get back on course. But each time, my crew mates skilfully brought Kiva back on course. And then, all hell broke lose…
We were once again rounding up when I saw a rush of water coming at me. I yelled out “wave” and braced for impact as water rushed over the me and submerged the cockpit. When I managed to pop my head up, I saw a tangle of boots and jackets on the low end of the boat. The cockpit looked like a hot tub and I could see sandwiches and drink bottles floating away out to sea. As the water drained out, we saw that one of our crew had gone overboard. Thankfully, we were all tethered in. I held on to the high side as crew close by rushed to pull him back in. Our skipper called to drop sails and powered up the engine – we were done racing. Our priority now was to fend of hypothermia. As I struggled to release the jib halyard, the boat heeled violently onto port and another crewmember trying to lower the main sail went overboard. I ran up to foredeck to help him aboard. Just as he climbed aboard, I saw the jib rip out of its track and fall into the ocean. Thankfully, between that and the main sail coming down, we no longer had the full force of the wind upon us. Just as we managed to get the ship under control, we saw a boat in the far distance lose its mast. Once we were able to ascertain that they had the situation under control, we made for Nanaimo and safe harbour.
It took us about 2hrs to motor out to Nanaimo as the storm continued to surge. Once docked, my crew mates and I took stock of the boat and began reporting damages only to be waved off by the skipper. “We’re all safe and no one’s hurt and that’s all that matters…” is all he said as he cracked open a bottle of rum. We listened to the rest of the carnage on channel 16 as boats radioed the coast guard, eager for news about friends and loved ones. We heard of one sinking and two boats dismasted as we rendered assistance to boats coming in.
There’s been lots of coverage on whether the race should have gone ahead and no doubt, it was a rough day for the coast guard (not to mention those who waited for them in frigid waters for well over an hour). I’m told there was a total of 36 calls into them for assistance. The weather is very hard to predict and I don’t believe anyone rightfully expected winds building past 40kts let alone 60kts as was finally the case. A lot of the news coverage has the benefit of hindsight and I don’t believe that any skipper would knowingly put their rig and crew in harms way. Same goes for the race organizers. I’m sure there will be a lot of talk about this race in the community and as a rookie, I got to learn from having been there. The coast guard did however knowingly put themselves in harms way to rescue those in need – for that, I’m certain the sailing community is forever grateful. I for one am very thankful to have been on Kiva, serving with the crew I had and having everyone in the race return safe.