On Saturday, April 14 I was supposed to be a crew member on a 21-foot Pogo 2 and sail around Catalina Island for a race hosted by the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association called Catalina to Port.
The boat is small but is designed for offshore sailing. I was looking forward to the trip during the week leading up, but as the day got closer, the forecast was beginning to give me the spooks.
During the week, there were weather fronts coming in and out and while predictions said the last of the rain would be gone by Friday, the winds would remain. By April 13, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was posting gale warnings and small craft advisories for the following day. Steady winds of 25 to 30 knots, gusting to 40 was the order of the day — I did not want to do that.
While most organizers and, for that matter, most racers would have looked at that forecast and made the easy decision to postpone or cancel the race, the Pacific Singhanded Sailing Association rarely goes in that direction. The mild mannered, stoic membership pride themselves on sailing, very often alone, straight into the lion’s den. They run a number of very challenging contests throughout the year, including the recently held Marina del Rey to Guadalupe Island Race, a 600-mile offshore marathon.
Prior to the race I learned that the skipper of the boat I was going to be on was opting out – only a handful would choose to sail into gale-force winds. As it happened, seven boats left the docks with four eventually finishing the course that took them around the west end of Catalina, near Avalon.
On Saturday, the forecast was accurate and the competitors, four of the seven singlehanders, saw very challenging conditions. At times winds were well over 30 knots and wave heights were said to be as high as 15 feet.
“Seas were getting really big, 12 to 15 feet on the bigger ones,” said Gil McGuire, sailing Tenacity. “I hit one that was very, very big and abnormally steep. I didn’t quite make it over, and the top two to three feet of green water came aboard and blew through my dodger like it wasn’t there, shearing pins, ripping fabric and plastic, pulling loose one-inch tubing, blowing the panels out and pushing it back into the cockpit – instantly flattening me in the process.
“Fortunately I was hooked onto my lifeline and had the storm hatch board in, but the hatch was half open so a fair amount of water went below. The wave filled the cockpit, the engine ignition key floated away; all lines went overboard or into the steering wheel well. Even the man overboard horseshoe float ripped loose and floated away, and it was mounted up on the stern pulpit.”
Jerome Sammarcelli, owner of Open Sailing in Marina del Rey that builds the stout but small Pogo 2, was sailing singlehanded, practicing for a solo trip across the Pacific later in the year in the 21-foot boat.
“The way to the island was brutal,” he said. “For the first time, I had three reefs in the main and the reefed jib. Most of the time, I was able to slide down the waves without slamming the boat down, but a few times, the boat would drop hard behind a wave and I was being moved around like a cork.”
Only Sammarcelli and three other boats made it around the island and up the backside to the finish line. During that stretch it’s all downwind, and Sammarcelli said he saw speeds as high as 19 knots while he flew his spinnaker.
Near him during some of the race was James Baurley, sailing another somewhat diminutive boat for the conditions, a J/24 called Critter. Like the rest of the skippers in the fleet, Baurley, who did the race double-handed, told the tale of being tested in these extreme conditions.
“Mark and I had different points in the race when we were frightened,” Baurley said. “For Mark it was soon after the race started and he was at the tiller. There was a set of monster waves. In the trough, the top of the wave was about as high as Critter’s spreaders – about 15 feet?
“We handled the first one beautifully, surfing down the back but as we were going up the second wave, the top [of the wave] broke off sending a wall of whitewater towards us. I was in front and ducked into the cockpit, holding my breath. Critter kept going and we fell off the other side. The cockpit was full of water; we lost some battens from the main.”
Whitall Stokes won the race aboard Slacker. Stokes, sailing solo, also won the 600-mile Guadalupe Island race in March. His calm and humble demeanor belies his rugged, durable constitution, but when asked what it takes to willingly sail into such conditions, he paused and said, “we call it ‘intestinal fortitude.’”