The Race to the Elephant
Saturday, the Rio Grande Sailing Club's Anniversary Cup Regatta took on a new format. Thanks to sponsorship from the company that operates the marinas on Elephant Butte Lake, the race also became the Race to the Elephant, designed to showcase the marinas by starting near Rock Canyon Marina, rounding a mark near Marina del Sur, and finishing at the Damsite Marina, with a circumnavigation of the landform that gives the lake its name as part of the grand finale.
I was sailing with Zorro, Twinkle Toes, Penzance and Space Invader on Twinkle Toes' boat, the Hunter 34 Windependent, the same boat upon which we had that peak experience in last year's Anniversary Cup. Gerald, recovering from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident the previous week and eager to play with his new camera, originally was going to go on the committee boat and take pictures, but at the last minute he was persuaded to join Yoda, Esther, and Cherokee on the J/24 Hot Flash, as Cherokee had a seriously injured shoulder that limited her abilities to trim the jib. Gerald joked that with his injured elbow and her shoulder, the two of them added up to one full crew member. That left Pat single-handing Black Magic, but as conditions were light, I figured he could probably handle the boat all right. He'd actually done fairly well two weeks before in the single-handed Joshua Slocum Regatta, aside from being OCS without realizing it at the start, so what would have been a third-place finish didn't count.
At first, winds were nearly non-existent, so we waited for nearly two hours to get some wind with which to run the race. Just before the deadline at which the committee would have called off the racing to try again Sunday, we got some wind – not much wind, but enough to have a race.
We had three fleets, racers, cruisers, and dinghies, with two starts five minutes apart – one for the racers, and one combined start for the cruisers and dinghies (there were only two dinghies registered for the race, and only one ended up starting; if someone from, say, Rhode Island had showed up with a Laser, he would have stood a very good chance of taking home a really nice trophy).
The racers took off with Pat on Black Magic in the lead; for most of the first leg of the race, he and Mother and Dumbledore on the J/24 Kachina would swap leads several times.
Windependent is not exactly a good boat for light air. But we had a very lightweight drifter for a headsail, sort of a cross between a genoa and a spinnaker. It turned out to be a very good sail for us. We totally nailed the start, and we were off. Soon we found ourselves catching up to the racing fleet, while most of the cruising fleet was indistinct in the distance behind us.
Then the wind came up. As the drifter was only good for wind speeds up to 7 knots, we took it down and unrolled the heavy headsail. For about 40 minutes, we had winds in the 10-12 knot range, Windependent's sweet spot. At one point, even with a start five minutes behind, we were ahead of nearly all of the racing fleet; only Black Magic and Kachina remained ahead of us – and those two boats were gradually pulling away from everybody else.
Then the wind faded. We rolled up the heavy headsail and set up the drifter again. But even with that sail, we couldn't go fast. For a while, we did keep up with most of the racing fleet, but a couple of the boats in the cruising fleet were catching up. Meanwhile, Kachina and Black Magic were vanishing over the horizon.
Unfortunately, disaster struck. Because the roller-furling heavy headsail was mounted on the forestay, we had been sailing with the drifter flying from the spinnaker halyard. It was working well for us, until the shackle on the spinnaker halyard broke. The official race photography boat was right next to us at the time, and thanks to serendipity, the photographer snapped a photo just as that shackle gave way. I ended up on the rail of the boat, hauling the sail onboard while Twinkle Toes and Space Invader got the other headsail working again.
Without the drifter, we were toast. The US 25 Viento Bueno and the MacGregor 26C Mac Goddess were right on our heels. Worse, with a retractable keel, Mac Goddess could take shortcuts through shallows. We had some exciting tactical encounters with those two boats as we did the loop around the Elephant, and we were the first cruising boat over the finish line, ahead of a couple of the racing boats even, but on corrected time, Viento Bueno was first, Mac Goddess was second, and we were third in the cruising fleet.
Still, it was an exciting race and a rewarding experience. The day turned out even better for Pat – after the first mark, he had lost ground to Kachina, finishing about 10 minutes behind her, but nearly a half-hour ahead of the next boat to finish. In the overall, corrected standings for all fleets together, Kachina was first, Black Magic second, and Viento Bueno third.
That night, there was a gala dinner and awards banquet. It was expensive (at least by New Mexico standards) at $25 a head, but the food was absolutely fabulous, at least for carnivores. The centerpiece of the meal was a massive, tasty, tender slab of beef – something on the order of 16 ounces of rib-eye. The Damsite has a new chef, and he really showed off his talents. (He had done some awesome dinner-plate-sized sweet rolls for the skippers' meeting breakfast that morning, as well.)
Sunday, it was time to return the boats from the Damsite (where race participants got free overnight slips) to where they live – we had to get Black Magic to the mast-up storage lot at Marina del Sur, while Cornhusker needed to get her boat, the Freedom 21 Free and Clear IV, which she has just bought, to Rock Canyon Marina. Gerald sailed with Cornhusker, while Pat and I took Pyrat on board Black Magic as crew. He's interested in buying an Etchells for himself, but first, he'd like to be crew for us for a few months to learn how the boat works. This works well for us, as our current loyal crew, Penzance, has just bought himself his own Etchells, and we were looking for a replacement.
Winds were much better Sunday than Saturday. They started light and switchy, and then they filled in to somewhere in the 10-15 knot range. Pyrat had a ball – he's been sailing all of his life, especially dinghies, and he was delighted with Black Magic and how she handles. He's super on mainsail trim, and he's going to be a great crew member for the fall racing series. Meanwhile, I hope we can sail together on a regular basis over the summer as well; we're leaving Black Magic at Elephant Butte this summer instead of taking our usual migration to Heron.