August 2, 2023
Alec, Brooks, Paul, Rob
At Mimico Cruising Club, Captain Paul is as happy as I’ve ever seen him at the awards ceremony. The crew, our wives, girlfriends and daughters are having a fine dinner in good company, enjoying a drink or two (or three) at the MCC. A vicious thunderstorm outside has decided to join our chorus to help us celebrate. We partied until they kicked us out!
“Break Free” careens eastward, downwind at 2am on a run of over 20 knots toward Main Duck Island. Prince Edward County is directly to our north. We are about 110 nautical miles into the race with the spinnaker and jib wing on wing. After a short flail the sail fabric instantly snaps back into shape with a gunshot crack as the strained boat seems to reach its absolute maximum.
The cycle is continuous. Our bow is relentlessly digging in and the extendable bowsprit is straining like a bent popsicle stick! The result was an oversteer that I could barely control.
I looked over and could see Brooks sitting across from me with a look of a gorilla with a suitcase gesturing to our exhausted captain to take over the tiller and end the tenure of torture that I am putting us all through by my hand! We are at the dark eastern end of the lake and without the warm string of lights that Toronto and the surrounding boroughs on the horizon offer or even the stars I have no reference point to steer the boat by feeling alone.
An exhausted Captain (Mr.) Paul deftly retakes the tiller and is able to surf the ship nimbly through the grinding waves, finding the slot again and brings some stability back to our little fiberglass shell! Sleep deprivation be damned! This is the 300!
We were also losing the race!
I am fortunate that I get to dock my own Catalina 30, Catalyst, at THSC and crew on my friend Paul’s Beneteau 30 First Break Free for the 300. We just cleaned her bottom for the race with his new underwater Buff Bottom remote control cleaner to ensure a baby smooth surface for better speed! Every little bit helps! THSC is a friendly, eclectic membership that has many racers, cruisers, drinkers and miscreants within its ranks and all for the love of sailing. There’s a comradery of like-minded people when you sail. Your life is occasionally in another’s hands on the water and this is not often seen so starkly in other endeavors! The competitive aspect of the sport is the gravy!
That said, being fifth out of six boats still sucks!
Heading to round Main Duck Island we would be going from a run to a buck in the same conditions. It has calmed a bit and I am now within my paygrade so I again take the tiller in order for Captain Paul to get some much needed rest! Morning is a few hours off and the lake is still rough!
The occasional bulk carrier silently drifts across our bow. They sneak up in the night like slowly crawling Borg cubes the size of city blocks. Hitting one would be like throwing an egg against a dump truck!
A few hours later we get closer to Duck island and Brooks is badgering me to keep heading up. I’m yelling at him to shut up as there are shoals east of Duck that will rip the keel off the bottom of the boat in a second at this speed. He’s pointing at the GPS and yelling and I’m shouting into the wind about not sinking us in the middle of the g%d d^&*n lake! He keeps shouting to head up.
The crew wakes up startled including our now almost comatose captain to see what all the racket is about. Brooks and I are still shouting at each other like two road-ragers in a YouTube video! Suddenly strife is immediately forgotten and any aggravation has floated away as we all plan and prepare assignments to round the mark. Alex and Steve pull down the spinnaker, let out the jib and reef the main in the lee of the island all in good order. We turn just in time for the wind to hit us hard again! We now settle in for the bouncy southern 30 nautical mile leg to Oswego.
Our crew consists of five club sailors:
Captain Paul, an effervescent, positive and normally calm captain with occasional bouts of frustrated grumpiness when things are not done with appropriate haste! He is able to grind through exhaustion with good humor for a ridiculously long time better than anyone I know.
Brooks, thriving on tenacity and red bull, barking orders like a deranged drill sergeant and a master at the art of boat breaking! Able to take a joke and troll with the best of them! A wind whisperer if there ever was one, he can make a boat move from a fish fart in a duck pond!
Steve, a Catalina 30 owner who helped keep us sane on the trip with continuous positivity and well cooked meals. Good with occasional zingers and always willing and able to do dodgy deck work when needed.
Alex, the Slavic stoic (but not really!) whose experience, intelligence and ability to point out what we are missing in the whirling chaos of sailing with a calm demeanor was impressive. His deadpan humor lands well.
Rob (myself) incalcitrant, argumentative rail meat, beer-gutted overly sarcastic and opinionated arse who just likes to sail!
Now that we have rounded main Duck island and are headed south, we can take stock and relax a little! Steve and I are up and it’s getting lighter as day is breaking. The wind is calming down and we are about 20 degrees east off the rum line on a pleasant southward sail. After a few hours we are getting knocked and I decide to tack west. A short while later I then made what may have been the biggest mistake of the race thinking we should tack back down and head more directly south to the mark but this was the wrong move. It is pushing us too far east and chewing up our previous gains.
The Oswego mark was tricky. The winds were diminishing and we had to make several tacks to keep the line with only about half a nautical mile between the mark and the Ford Shoals Searching for more offshore breeze we hug the land hoping for some extra speed and looking for bands of wind off the water. The sun is up and It’s starting to get hot!
Brooks is at the helm, and we are all trying to carefully distribute the weight around the boat to the barks of “LOWSIDE, LOWSIDE, LOWSIDE”
During the slow moving lulls, we muse about a boat version of the hunger games and who would win. This is typical macabre discussion material of sailors in light air to ward off delirium on long races! Is Steve poisoning us all with tasty pulled pork sandwiches and a side of coleslaw and a smile on his face!
It was now time to turn on the afterburners! We just rounded the mark and the wind died down completely giving us time to check the weather, other boat locations and plan our next big move. According to Predict Wind there is a giant dead air zone in the middle of the lake. We decide to head up a bit chasing what little wind there is and then plan to head south to avoid the large doldrums ahead.
Game on! We squeeze as much out of the air and into the sails as we possibly can and start south to the rumline. Paul, Alex and Steve go to sleep after dinner tired from a long day of blackfly genocide. The sun is going down and Brooks and I are on deck. We see a little low lying cloud that has a slate gray core just ahead. We slowly drift towards it and feel a slight temperature change with a couple of drops of rain. It rewards us with a gentle downward push of air. That is all this little cloud has in it but it’s enough! The boat gently accelerates forward. All is silent! This is our opportunity! Slowly the wind increases to the point where we can put up the spinnaker on a starboard tack! Will it work? Sixty miles to go and we are still in fifth place.
Break Free is now locked on to the rumline and moving fast! We shave off a degree here and there as the giant pumpkin orange spinnaker’s leading-edge curls slightly in and out
Brooks Occasionally checks the YB Races app that tracks all the other sailboats. We look at the positions and estimate our place. Break Free is on rails to the finish line and we are flying! The hours fly by and adrenaline pushes away any fatigue. We start passing boats and go from 5th to 4th over the course of the night.
The rest of the crew wakes up and we are all overjoyed at our recent progress during the night! Off to our starboard the familiar view of Toronto’s skyline is gently meandering by in the morning light. Our wind slightly diminishes but holds true as we glide over the finish line at PCYC. We have secured second place!
This was our third Ontario 300 race. We went from last to third to second in that order and it was fantastic! Who knows what the wind gods will deliver us for next year! Whatever it will be, we will be there!
-Rob Clark, THSC