I woke up alone in the big bed of the Royal Suite at the Empress. There was a note on the bed beside me.
“Thanks for a wonderful night. See you on board. Gina.”
I had forgotten that I was supposed to sail on Aphrodite in the Swiftsure Race. It was just before eight. I jumped out of bed, found my duffel bag, and pulled on my sailing clothes. No breakfast for this boy.
I barely made it to the boat before it left the dock. Somebody had brought a box of Timbits on board, so I gobbled a few, along with a cup of coffee in a foam cup. Then I helped the rest of the crew run the sheets and ready the headsails.
The Swiftsure International Yacht Race is the premier long-distance sailing race in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia area. Starting and ending in Victoria, BC, Canada, the Swiftsure is international because the midpoint markers for the four long courses are in U.S. waters. Organized by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, the race occurs during the Memorial Day weekend in May with staggered starts on Saturday morning. The race is most popular with sailors from British Columbia and Washington, but it has drawn boats from as far away as California, Hawaii, New Zealand, and even Russia. -Wikipedia
At 120 feet, the Aphrodite—the crew called her Afro—was the biggest boat in the race. Gina wasn’t aboard, and the skipper told me she got an urgent call and took off for Rio in her private jet. I had never felt so disappointed in my life. I tried not to think about her as we got ready to sail. The big diesel rumbled to life, and deckhands freed the mooring lines. The bow thruster whirred loudly as it pushed us away from the dock. We threaded our way out of the long narrow harbor, dodging tugs, seaplanes, and dozens of other yachts heading for the starting line.
“All Cell Phones off.” someone said. No distractions during the race. I switched mine off.
The skipper, Billy Taylor, took the wheel at the start. The tactician, whose name I didn’t get, called the position time to the line. Two lookouts watched for crossing boats. The warning signal went at 8:51 AM. It was nine minutes to the start. Billy held back until one minute before the gun, so it seemed most of the boats in our start—the first—were ahead of us. Then he spun the wheel and shouted.
“Go for it!”
The crew sprang into action. Two gorillas cranked the coffee-grinder sheet winch at amazing speed. The big carbon fiber genoa filled with a crack, and Afro leaped ahead, exceeding ten knots before we crossed the line. The wake hissed and roared. When the starting signal blew, we were about third, but moving faster than the other boats, all of them much smaller except the Oriole, the Canadian Navy’s antique training yacht. Within a few minutes, we were leading the race.
We beat to windward toward the Swiftsure Bank, a shallow area off the west coast of Vancouver Island. There used to be a Lightship there, but it had been replaced with an automated buoy.
Despite the strong wind, Aphrodite heeled only about ten degrees. Changing tacks, which we did every five miles or so, the huge electric sheet winches reeled in the sheets at great speed. The crew worked together like a well-oiled machine. On deck, the apparent wind—the wind you felt onboard—was fierce as we sailed into it at over twelve knots. We easily led the fleet all the way to the buoy.
We rounded the windward mark at Swiftsure Bank at about 8 PM. There were no other boats in sight, so Billy left plenty of room. The jib furled in smoothly, and moments later, the colorful spinnaker filled with a snap, and billowed out ahead. It was the biggest sail I had ever seen.
Billy asked me to take over the steering on the downwind leg. Afro had twin wheels, each well to one side, so the helmsman could see the sails. I was holding the port wheel. Billy was at the other wheel, hands-off. Steering took all my concentration, and other thoughts left my head. There was a tremendous feeling of power as the big carbon fiber wheel slid through my hands. Each time there was a gust of wind, I had to apply more rudder to compensate.
At sea, steering the yacht, nothing else existed. The wind, the waves, the shape of the sails, and the rudder’s tug in my palms became my entire world. Even Gina fell to the back of my mind as I gave it my full concentration.
As we raced to the finish, the wind increased steadily. Halfway back, Afro was making nearly 25 knots over the bottom in a wind of 35 knots or so. The sky ahead was aglow with the promise of early dawn. As we passed Race Rocks, there was a sudden gust of wind, and the boat began to round up to port. I spun the wheel, but she heeled so far over the rudder stalled and lost its grip. As we broached, all hell broke loose. Lines were flailing around. Shouts of fear and advice rang out. Waves were washing into the cockpit. I was paralyzed and useless, hanging on for dear life since the wheel did nothing.
The tactician shouted. “Let the sheets fly!”
When the mainsheet was let go, it whistled through the blocks, and the boom crashed against the rigging. The boat was so far over the lee winches were underwater, and the crew couldn’t free the spinnaker sheet.
My senses returned, and I shouted, “Let the guy off.”
Letting the spinnaker guy fly in those conditions could bring down the mast when the pole hit the forestay. That would cause devastating damage, and probably some injuries or even deaths. The crew member on the line looked at Billy.
“Do it!” he screamed.
When the line let go, the huge carbon spinnaker pole flew forward and crashed against the forestay, where it splintered and bent in two. The spinnaker lost its wind and flew flapping from the masthead. The boat came upright, slowly, water pouring off the decks and out through the open transom. When the rudder regained grip, I steered back to the proper course, and the crew trimmed the main. Soon we were sailing at a sedate ten knots or so as the crew wrestled the torn spinnaker down and shoved it through the hatch.
Billy took over the steering. Soon they brought out a smaller asymmetric spinnaker, which set without a pole. With that up, we continued to the finish line at speeds up to 20 knots. A glowing wake streamed out behind us as we sailed toward the dawn.
I figured that carbon fiber pole must have cost as much as my boat, but the crew wasn’t upset about breaking it. It wasn’t their money.
When we crossed the finish line, the committee boat fired a gun and blew a horn. People on board waved and clapped. Our crew shouted with joy, and high-fives were exchanged. It was just past 2 AM Sunday. The next boat in our division was still three hours behind. The other boats would be finishing throughout the day.
It took about 15 minutes to get the sails down and stowed, and start the engine. By 3 AM, we were tied up in the empty marina in front of the Empress. The crew took off their foul weather gear. The sound of champagne corks was heard.
I tried to call Gina, but her cell phone was off. Rio was a long way from BC, so I thought she might still be flying. As the onboard victory celebration party was winding down, Billy came over with an anxious look on his face.
“The pilot just called me. My phone was off during the race. He waited all day at the Victoria airport, and Gina never showed. I just assumed that she was well on her way. I called her cell, but it’s off. I left a message, but so far, no callback. Did she say anything last night that gives you an idea what happened?”
I took a moment to think over what she had said, but I kept remembering what we’d done. “No. I didn’t see her yesterday at all.”