The Unintended Yacht Racer

When I bought my Bristol 35.5, Grand Cru, I hadn’t given much thought to racing it.  It was, after all, a cruising boat built for comfort and not speed, and my previous racing experience in Lido 14s and Lasers was so far in the past as to have never happened.  The B35.5 was, however, designed by a very successful yachtsman and racer named Ted Hood, and it bears many of the design characteristics of successful racing designs of the 1970’s and 80’s.  Reviews of the boat in various sailing magazines made mention of the fact that it was a relatively fast boat in moderate winds and could easily handle heavier winds that would send other boats back to the dock.   So, what impacted all that history to turn Grand Cru into a contender in the SWFL True Cruising Class?

A good friend of mine and enthusiastic sailor from Washington, DC just recently moved to Naples.  Jim contacted me before Christmas last year and told me that a very good friend of his from DC  was coming down in January and asked if we could go sailing, more directly racing, since his friend was an experienced racer on Martha’s Vineyard.  Turns out, his friend, Tom, has raced sail boats all his life and was thrilled by the prospect of racing in January in Florida, even if it was just on a cruising boat.  That was all the motivation I needed to get a PHRF rating certificate for Grand Cru, file my entry forms and send in the check to enter our first regatta.

As the race date approached, I made all the preparations to the boat that I could think of in readiness for our practice sail the day before the race.  I studied the published Sailing Instructions for the race and reviewed the Racing Rules of Sailing, paying special attention to the right of way rules on the starting line.  I also sized up our competition and quickly determined that we would be among the slowest, if not the slowest boat in the fleet based on our handicap.  But not to worry, the B35.5 has a very high handicap rating and every boat in the fleet would be giving us time in determining the corrected finishing times for each race.  I began to think that we might have a decent chance to at least finish in the middle of the fleet with an experience racer at the helm of a solid boat with a high handicap.

Race day started for us before dawn at 6:30 am with a temperature in the low 50s.  A falling tide forced us to leave the dock before dawn in order to avoid being stuck at low tide.  We motored out of Doctor’s Pass with another boat behind us and headed south to the starting area southwest of Naples Pier just as the sun began breaking over Naples.  The sky was clear and the winds were steady from the east, which promised a good day of racing.  We had plenty of time to kill since the first start wasn’t until 10:00 am.  We sailed down to the starting area and began to meet other boats coming up from Naples and Marco Island for the regatta.  We were soon joined by the Race Committee boat and its chase boats, which began checking wind speed and direction, and setting the buoys which would mark the race course.

We checked in with the Race Committee boat as required, and began plotting our starting strategy based on the location of the first mark buoy and the wind direction.  We picked our desired spot on the starting line and and began our pre-start maneuvers that would bring us back to our position on the starting line just as the starting horn blew and the flag dropped.  Sounds easy enough, but there were also a half dozen other boats doing exactly the same thing and vying for the same spot on the starting line.  You can imagine the scene as all boats jockey for favored positions and try to avoid crossing the starting line early.  The last 30 seconds prior to the start are the most exciting as the potential for right of way conflicts escalates quickly.  The starting horn sounded and we found ourselves too far from the starting line to make the quick start that we had planned.  We sailed on as our nearest competitors slowly pulled away from us toward the first turning mark.

Being the slowest boat in the fleet, our goal was to sail the boat better than its handicap rating to minimize the actual time difference between our finishing time and the next closest boats’ finishing times.  If we were successful, the time adjustments provided by the handicap system would improve our finishing time over those of our competitors, even though they crossed the finish line ahead of us.  We finished the first race immediately behind our nearest competitor, so we knew we wouldn’t be dead last in that race. No sooner had we crossed the finish line though, than the Race Committee posted the course for the next race. 

We sailed three more races that afternoon in near perfect weather conditions.  Each race had its share of mistakes, lost opportunities, and successes.  But when it was all over and we were back at the dock enjoying our celebratory beer, we felt like we had acquitted ourselves pretty well for our first regatta.  All that was left was to wait for the final results to be posted. 

Later that evening, we got the news that we had finished third in a class of ten boats that had entered the regatta.  We even won the last race!  We surprised a lot of people including ourselves.  It was a proud day for Grand Cru and I decided at that moment that maybe this was something that I wanted to continue doing.  In the meantime, we have raced in two more regattas and placed second in both of them.  One of them was a distance race from Naples to Ft. Myers that finished in driving rain and the other was a round the buoys race in Naples, similar to our first success.  The last regatta of the season is coming up at the end of April and we’re shooting for a first place finish to close out the season!


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