Monday, July 25, 2005
Chicago to Mackinac Race 2005
20005 Mac Race
This year’s race was aboard Charleston Yachting’s customer David Gustman’s new J109 Northstar. Our crew was David Gustman, David’s son Hunter, Lee Hutchinson and his daughter Alex, Robert Mathews, Joe Hummel, Brian Hickey and I.
Northstar is a new J109 that was delivered just before this year’s Memorial Day weekend. She has North Sails, comprised of a 3DL class mainsail, class jib, # 3 blade, 108 square meter class spinnaker, and a 121 square meter spinnaker for sailing PHRF. The instruments are by Charleston Yachting who selected Ockam Instruments with a Furuno GPS and Icom VHF with Command Mic.
To prepare for this years race it was important to change the set up of the stock configuration of the J109 to make it more efficient for changing sails. The J109 when raced around the buoys utilizes a Harken Unit 1 furling system allowing the crew the ability to simply furl the sail when changing from a jib to spinnaker making handling the boat much easier. Having sailed the J109 in other port to port type races I had found it beneficial to be able to change headsails with the conditions but by not using the furling system but utilizing the double grooved extrusion to hoist one sail up inside the other and avoiding making bare headed sail changes. To do this we added a second jib halyard, lowered the furling system halyard swivel down to the top of the torque tube, added a loose prefeeder, and a snapshackle to the Harken tack swivel. To allow faster spinnaker changes we added a second spinnaker halyard a third spinnaker sheet and a quick release tack changing line. We also added four Wichard foldable pad eyes for attaching barber haulers that would greatly improve our sheeting angles of our headsails for headsail reaching. In a long port to port race like the Mac the range of conditions can be huge so the ability to adapt the boat to these conditions becomes very important to maintaining the boat’s performance.
The mast’s rigging was adjusted to provide more power and gain some performance in the expected reaching and running conditions. The first thing we did was measure the existing rig tension using the RT-10 Loos tension gauge and recorded the measurements of the cap shroud, and the upper and lower diagonals with the backstay eased. We then eased the tension on the cap shrouds and the lower diagonal stays leaving the upper diagonal and the headstay at their original lengths. Originally I considered shortening the headstay by taking some turns on the headstay turnbuckle that’s an integral part of the Harken furling system but concerned that it would not get back to the original setting for course racing we set up the ability to pull the rig forward by using our extra jib halyard. We attached a 5/16” D-shackle to the stemhead fitting for a good strong attachment point for our rig pulling halyard. We would use the rig puller in light headsail reaching conditions and all spinnaker reaching and running conditions. To use the rig puller we eased off the backstay and ground the rig puller on using one of the halyard winches.
Northstar has a basic compass level Ockam system that provides accurate and consistent information. We took sometime to make sure we had our compass and boatspeed sensor were well calibrated so we would have good wind direction information. We had a total of six functions displayed at all times to help with our performance and race tactics. On the mast display we kept boatspeed and heading displayed and on the companionway hood we kept true wind speed, magnetic wind direction, true wind angle and we would alternate the final display with course over ground with VMC that would should us our ultimate progress to our waypoint. We like to use true wind angle and true wind speed instead of apparent it helps in sail changes, and especially our downwind jibing angles that can be fairly wide in light air with the asymmetrical spinnakers. For our performance indicators we used the J109 velocity prediction spreadsheet and kept a laminated chart in the cockpit that showed our target speed and optimum sailing angles from six to twenty knots of true wind in two knot increments. With this chart we could quickly see if we were sailing our proper angles downwind and achieving the appropriate boatspeed.
The Weather Forecast:
We had Commander’s Weather put together a forecast that provides the weather information that we use for our pre-race strategy. This year with the tail end of Hurricane Dennis extending into the region and an already unusually warm lake made the forecast extremely difficult. We reviewed the six page single spaced forecast several times it basically said very light winds or thermal lake breezes would overtake the weaker gradient winds. At night without the heat of the son breezes could be next to nothing. Everything was pointing to a very slow race but also conditions that the J109 performs very well.
The J109 was placed in section four among twenty one other Americap rated boats that ranged from on old IOR Kaufman 44 down to the thirty six foot J109. The section consisted of IOR one tonners, a Sabre 402, Beneteau 42.5 in other words a melting pot of older and newer designs. The boats are all welled sailed and going into the race it was hard to select who might be the boat to watch. For us it was very simple there were five J109s in the section and that’s who we would be focused on. Three of the J109s were sailed by very good one design sailors that included an Olympic medalist, a Star World champion etc.
The winds as predicted were light and from the northeast. Our first waypoint was set for three miles off Point Betsy approximately one hundred and eighty miles away at a bearing of twenty degrees. With the wind expected to shift more east we thought it was important to start at the east end of the line. We weren’t the only the only ones and in the six knot breeze everyone was slightly early. We held our position well but came off the line slowly and fell in behind the Sabre 402 (Wooton). Lesson one long distance race start set for clear air and forget about trying to win the start. We were now hard on the wind sailing in about four to six knots of breeze with heading swinging from as far left as 340 degrees to as far right as 10 degrees. Within the first two hours several of our class boats tacked onto port and headed out into the lake. Later I found out they had gone out to avoid the chop that we were experiencing. I am from the ladder rung school that keeps us always on the tack that is getting us closer to mark. This method kept us on our starboard tacking working are way right as the wind direction and velocity would allow it. The majority of our class was to our West and footing in the light air up the coast line. We continued to battle with the Wooton finally losing out when she got a nice puff and took off to about ½ mile lead. Lesson number 2 in light air sailing huge gains can be maintained by keeping staying focused on surrounding conditions looking up the course keeping a keen eye out for changes in velocities. After several hours into the race we were starting to sail through some of the slower boats that had started prior to our class. With the wind still being so light it was very important that we anticipate our passing of these boats to avoid getting in there bad air or getting us in the position of having one of these boats on our leebow. We had such a situation when a bigger boat was attempting to pass us close to windward. We simply trimmed in headed up slightly and tucked ourselves up under their bow stopping them dead in their tracks. We kept going but it took the larger boat a long time regain its pace and by then we were long gone. Our third lesson is as you sail through a fleet keep a close eye up ahead and also from behind to avoid getting tangled up with other competitors that might hinder your progress up the course. In these light conditions we were sailing with no backstay tension lots of twist in the main and the genoa approximately three inches off the top spreader. The J109 is this condition was very fast and we were using our speed to keep us as far east as possible without tacking. As the day progressed as predicted the wind started to swing into the southeast allowing us to sail up to course. Several of our competitors chose to sail low keeping themselves closer to the coastline we held our course first by genoa reaching then eventually hoisting our 121 square meter asymmetric spinnaker. The wind was still low at 6 knots so we were able to use this sail effectively set it at 105 degrees true and used up to 95 degrees true to keep us rolling. Ideally we would liked to have a used a sail designed for reaching as boats around us were using code zeros but that’s whole other issue. We were rolling along now and boat was in its element hanging with much larger boats that had come up from behind. We knew we had made huge gains on the boats to the west but worried about the boats that tacked out earlier with them being on the inside of the shift. Just before dark we got our answer as one of the J109s that tacked earlier reached down across in front us. We continued to separate to windward while the other J109 was sailing lower and maybe touch faster. We continued this tight reaching through night only stopping once for about ½ hour. You always hate it when you stop because you know someone else is moving but I felt we had good night by only stopping once when our forecast had predicted wind speeds of nil. The first morning is always an anxious time and we were relieved to find us with mostly larger boats. During the night we had lost track of the other J109 but later in the morning we found the other J109 that tacked earlier coming back out from the east. The wind had continued to shift more to south and we were now running downwind sailing our target angles and speed and now having to sail above our current bearing. Remember in distance racing the only guarantee is change. The wind velocity had increased up to ten knots, we now sailing about 144 degrees true keeping speed through the water at 7 knots a better. The water was starting to build slight chop and found it fast to sail up slightly building speed and sailing down on the new apparent wind angle and the occasional wave. We had the rig puller on hard and focused on keeping our speed up heading toward the Michigan shore’s Big Sable Point. We now had the other J109 down to leeward to the west and we were keeping tabs on our progress relative to their position. As we got closer to the Michigan shore we found the other J109 coming out on port jibe from the shore. We thought the wind might be getting lighter inshore and took the opportunity to jibe back to west covering the J109 to the west and keeping ourselves with the other J109 as well. We now three of the J109s all close by with about ¼ mile of each other. Even though our port tack took us slightly away from our mark it proved to be a good move the breeze did lighten up near shore and we passed several much larger boats that were inshore of us. The wind continued to oscillate between south and southeast and after about forty five minutes we needed to jibe back to starboard heading towards our waypoint off Point Betsy. The predicted southwesterly that had been forecasted had not shown itself yet and preceded on starboard jibe just squeaking by Point Betsy and then Sleeping Bear Dunes. With one J109 just behind us and the other J109 along side it was going to be a very important night on the water. We went to pass to pass the J109 along side but with night and asymmetric spinnaker making them hard to see after a couple of attempts we decided to separate to leeward and pass them to the west. We were now downwind enough that our optimum sailing took to a heading of fifty five to sixty degrees when our destination was thirty four degrees. We continued through Sunday night with al three J109s staying roughly the same positions Realt Na Mara ahead but to windward of us Northstar and Lucky Dubie about a ½ mile directly behind. It was becoming obvious that we were going to eventually have to jibe to reach Grays Reef but we were unwilling to do so until the very last portion of the fifty five mile leg. Realt Na Mara became impatient and jibed over to port onto a possible heading of due north. We continued on in northeast heading and within hour received a header out of Grand Traverse Bay that brought both Lucky Dubie and ourselves down to our direct heading to Gray’s Reef. With Realt Na Mara hung out to dry in the west it now became race between Lucky Dubie and us. The breeze was now up into the high teens with puffs in the twenties and we were starting to take off. Our little header went away as we pressed north of the Grand Traverse Bays but the sailing was exceptional as we are now surfing at speeds consistently in the low teens. With the wind shifting to south Realt Na Mara was back in play and Lucky Dubie was first to jibe and we followed both boats successfully jibing in winds that were now consistently in the low twenties. Unfortunately both of our laylines had us going directly over Ille Aux Gullets a small pile of rocks that sit in the middle of lake eleven miles south of Gray’s Reef we both had to jibe back to starboard for fifteen minutes to clear the reef. With the wind now in the mid twenties we were have a great surfing contest between us Lucky Dubie with both side by side hitting sixteen knots on the surfs. Gray’s Reef is narrow ½ mile channel that is the entrance to the Straights of Mackinaw and makes for great consolidation point and fleet funnels into the channel. We still couldn’t see anyone in our class other than the three J109s and with our little detour around Ill Aux Gullets and the shift back left Realt Na Mara was now back into picture as well but maybe ¼ mile behind us and the Dubie. We covered the five miles of channel very quickly with the wind now finally clocking into the southwest. We now had to round one of few marks of the course and turn to a heading of ninety five degrees, Lucky Dubie rounded first about a minute ahead of us by hoisting their class jib, dropping their asymmetrical and jibing onto the new course, we followed suit and started our final twenty five miles to the finish. We were comfortably beam reaching with our number 3 up at 7.5 knots until Realt Na Mara rounds behind a couple of minutes later but to our surprise they jibed their asymmetrical instead of dropping and changing to the jib. The breeze was still in the twenties but now at about 110 degrees true. Lucky Dubie was quick to respond and hoisted their 108 sq. meter we followed suit but the damage had been down Realt Na Mara was just ten boat lengths behind and Lucky Dubie was now fifteen boat lengths ahead of us. The 108 sq. meter spinnaker was the perfect size and we proceeded to blast down the straights at 10 to 13 knots. Realt Na Mara meanwhile was hanging with us with her 121 sq. meter spinnaker they did a text book job of sailing low in the puffs while working up when the could in the lulls. They gradually pulled ahead and to leeward of us and as we approached the Mackinac Bridge the breeze subsided down to ten knots allowing Realt Na Mara to pass us and close in on Lucky Dubie. Lucky Dubie did a bear-headed change to their 121 sq. meter spinnaker while used a tack line and extra halyard to pull off a very fast peel change to our 121 sq. meter. With four miles to go we were all once again together with anyone one us capable of crossing the finish line first. We jibe first over to port and headed towards the Mackinac Island, Lucky Dubie follow us while Realt Na Mara continued out on starboard. This new breeze was now almost due west making the finish line dead downwind. We found a little more breeze on the left and with Lucky Dubie in the lead we went to jibe onto starboard towards the finish line. A famous quote is that it’s never over till it’s over well what a statement! After jibing successfully this morning in the big breeze we blow the easiest jibe of the day and wrap our spinnaker so badly that we have to completely lower the sail and in re-hoisting the sail the foot gets in the water and we are now shrimping!! (at least that’s our term for it Charleston). Lucky Dubie finishes first boat for boat with Realt Na Mara second and Northstar third. The J109s all rated slightly different due to sails used etc. which allowed us to correct ahead of Lucky Dubie and we ended up losing to Realt Na Mara by fourteen seconds.
It was one of more enjoyable Mac races I can remember. Warm nights, no thunderstorms and the versatility of the J109 made sailing fast look easy. Good competition allowed us a group to excel with the three lead J109s all in the top of the fleet standings. Remember take you time when jibing and if you have any questions regarding Northstar’s set up don’t hesitate to contact me.