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Three Bridge Fiasco: Long Live the Counter Culture

Published on February 1st, 2016

by Erik Simonson
Three hundred sixty-nine singlehanded and doublehanded entrants signed up for the 2016 Three Bridge Fiasco on January 30, an iconic event on San Francisco Bay that lays testament to the support of shorthanded sailing in the Northern California area as well as the pursuit race curriculum.

This year’s fleet eclipsed the previous record of 368 boats signed up in 2011, but considering it’s an El Niño year with epic rain totals already measured, attracting a crowd of this size is a big accomplishment. Long live the counter culture!

With starts strung out from 0900 to 11:12:10 AM for PHRF ratings ranging from 264 to -102, the 21.7 nm reverse pursuit course has become a must-do for sailors from all walks of life and all areas of the country. For many, it might be the only race they may sail shorthanded all year. For others, it’s another of the fun runs combined with long distance and offshore events fulfilling a busy competition schedule.

The start and finish off the Golden Gate Yacht Club can be done in either direction and the marks of the course – the Blackaller Buoy representing the Golden Gate Bridge, Red Rock Island representing the Richmond San Rafael Bridge, and Yerba Buena Island representing the Oakland /SF Bay Bridge – can be rounded in any direction and any order. Playing the currents, the wind, and out foxing you competitors is the name of the game. Along with a little luck.

This year’s winner, Bill Erkelens, agrees wholeheartedly on the luck aspect. A 3-time winner in previous years with wife Melinda on a Mumm 30, a turboed Hobie 33, and a Moore 24, this year Bill and Keith Stanke sailed on the Erkelens’ Wylie Wabbit Jack. Melinda, who was already hobbled with a foot injury, had to pull the plug when a nasty cold started coursing through her veins the day before the race. Keith had sailed with the Erkelens for decades, and as luck would have it, he was available at short notice.

Start times for the 3BF can also play into your luck card, and this year Bill admitted they hit the jackpot. Starting somewhere in the middle of the fleet, just behind a large contingent of Express 27’s and Moore 24’s, Bill and Keith saw enough pressure left in the dying northerly to get to Blackaller, staying in the stronger breeze and current and away from the masses which went to the beach and wallowed.

Catching a lucky puff, the Wabbit was able to round Blackaller and get to better breeze and ride the current up to Raccoon Strait where a gaggle of Moore 24’s had stalled at the entrance. They were able to use the bad luck of others and navigate around them, catching a couple additional puffs in the process, laying the eddies up to Hospital Cove before heading into the Richmond Channel.

Watching the boats ahead, mainly keel boats which were sailing close-hauled towards Red Rocks in a 5-6 knot northerly, the Wabbit was forced to crack off a bit to maintain VMG, which as luck had it put Jack into the cone behind Red Rock and they were able to slingshot past a horde of boat riding the back eddie up to the western shore. The ebb was still in force at the island at the time, and with the breeze easing, many boats found themselves on a treadmill, attempting to round the rock. Another lucky break came in the form of a puff that gave Jack just enough pressure to slide up and over and into favorable current again.

Just after Jack began riding the Richmond Channel Current back south, the now transitioning breeze began to die, leaving many boats sputtering in its wake. Riding the remaining ebb for all it was worth, Jack slid slowly toward Point Blunt, noticing many of the boat ahead had sailed much lower to avoid the opposite ebb on the Berkeley Flats. Now higher than most other boats, Jack was in position to set the kite again as the new breeze from the south west filled.

“The timing was pretty spot on, as far the forecasts predicted,” Bill said “And we were just lucky to get to where we could take advantage of the transition.”

Bearing down around Treasure Island and Yerba Buena, Bill and Keith chose a tad closer route than some of the other boats, then tacked up the City Front in 10-12 knots and were then able to lay the cone behind Alcatraz before tacking back to Gas House Cove for more current relief and to lay the X buoy with just one tack, crossing the line at 14:09:24, 7 minutes and 36 second ahead of the closest competitor, Stephen Bourdow and Nick Halmos on the Moore 24 Moooregasm.

The 20163 Bridge Fiasco provided yet another legendary day of fun, challenges, camaraderie and variety of weather for all participants, the majority of which completed the course before the daylight faded, and enjoyed a robust breeze for their final legs and ride home. And for a day on the bay in the middle of an El Niño winter, that makes us all lucky!


Photos by Erik Simonson:

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