Making the Game Day Decision

Published on March 17th, 2016

When your 129.5nm race intends to send 23 boats offshore, straight into a well-forecasted storm, you have some thinking to do. That was the scenario in Southern California for the 2016 Islands Race on March 11.

Do you send the fleet out to sea and around Catalina and San Clemente Islands, or do you call an audible?

With the start in San Pedro and the finish in San Diego, an audible was called, changing the course to remove the islands from the Islands Race, and instead sending the fleet on an 80nm coastal route.

San Diego Yacht Club’s Jeff Johnson, co-manager with Newport Harbor Yacht Club, provides the details that led to the game day decision…

How far in advance did the Organizing Authority (OA) begin discussing the storm?
We began speculating on the timing of the front at about 2 weeks out. At this stage there were no reliable metrics other than “significant” rain and wind.

Who was involved in that discussion?
Two weeks out the discussion included the OA, which was a joint effort of race administrators and event coordinators within Newport Harbor Yacht Club and San Diego Yacht Club. But one week out from the start, numerous competitors emailed, called, or dropped by our offices to make their ideas and opinions known. This also included several highly experienced offshore racers that had done the race but were not entered this year. Three days out from the start the discussion also included professional weather forecasters from two different companies.

Were you following the significant chatter on social media too?
I did not participate or read directly any of the online commentary. I found it too emotional, but I understand from others that most of our concerns/options were tracking with the online discussions.

The shorter, coastal course was not in the original Notice of Race. When did this get revealed?
Four days prior to start, we posted Amendment 1, which introduced three very important details. A) Weather conditions that the OA was concerned about (namely wind/gust/swell/temp thresholds); B) the shorter course option; and C) The final course announcement would be made at 18:00 on the day prior to the start.

How had the forecast changed from when the discussion began to when the decision was made?
Conditions oscillated full cycle. Hype from two weeks (El Nino is back!) was diminishing up until 24 hours before race time. Commanders’ Weather information, from 72 hours out, was 20% higher than forecast conditions. Forecasts were disparate enough that the decision to announce per Amendment 1 was changed, with an amendment at 18:00 on March 10 stating that we would decide by 0730 on race morning, March 11. This allowed web weather centers and Commanders a full 12 more hours and 0600 EST cycle to update forecasts.

Was there an option to postpone the start?
This was discussed, and while it seemed ideal really (front goes by and leaves nice fresh conditions), there were numerous people that said there were obligations that occurred on Sunday (crew flying in and out, boat deliveries, etc.), so that was less than ideal in their minds.

So the morning of the race the course was changed. Did it prove to be the right decision?
I think so, but it raised numerous administrative questions:
• Should this race only go around the islands?
• Is a shorter course a valid option?
• If only some of the boats are willing/prepared/brave enough to go, do you stay the course, and leave other teams on the beach?
• How do you determine who is truly qualified for this little 129.5nm, coastal race (do we raise the level to requiring resumes, etc.)
• Does running outside course for big boats and inside course for those unwilling to sail outside (essentially 2 courses) increase your jeopardy with two areas of concern now?
• How to score two different courses?

The race already requires US Offshore level safety gear and a percentage of crew attendance at Safety at Sea seminars.

Is there anything that race organizers could have done differently?
We could have posted concerns and expectations for course altering weather in the initial Notice of Race so competitors were aware from the start about what alterations are possible. Also, as soon as dynamic weather (frontal systems) appear as a possibility, get professional forecasting involved (though we did this almost as soon as it was necessary-viable).

What involvement did the US Coast Guard have in this situation?
I spent a few minutes at the awards presentation explaining to everyone that there is now a significant involvement by the USCG in our events.

When we posted the change of course at 0730 on March 11, by 0800 I had an email and phone call from USCG Sector Los Angeles admonishing me that I had not followed the conditions of the Marine Event permit by informing them of a change of plans. We had notified Sector San Diego, and the SAR departments of both sectors, but not Sector LA. I wrote back at 0830 apologizing, but emphasizing that communicating with our competitors was our immediate priority.

Both sectors were watching our website, had read our documents, and were utilizing our YB Tracking to follow our progress. They are very involved, so making changes is challenging to do so in a fully vetted way.

Here is Jeff’s synopsis to the US Coast Guard after the event:
As we roll into Saturday, March 12, The Islands Organizing Authority (Newport Harbor Yacht Club and San Diego Yacht Club) are pleased to report that the final boat is passing the finish line, and the remaining 20 boats are safe in port. Two boats retired early in the competition and returned directly to Long Beach/Newport Beach. They each reported gear failure and all aboard were fine.

The first boat to finish was the 60′ ocean trimaran “Mighty Merloe” which covered 96 nm in 3 hr 41 min and a few seconds, often exceeding 30 kts. They finished at 5:40 pm. In contrast the next boat to finish, the fastest monohull, 70′ Andrews design “Pyewacket” owned by Roy Disney, took just about two additional hours, for an elapsed time of 5 hr, 49 min. The Lanterne-rouge (for last to finish) award goes to “Cabernet Sky”, a Beneteau 48′ finishing Saturday morning (Mar 12) at 1:16 am.

The event got underway on March 11 in a disappointing 4 kts southerly and sunny skies. OA and RC were holding their breath and banging on the radar / Sailflow wind reports for outlying areas to verify that the front was indeed coming. Indeed it was. After all fleets started, the Race Committee boat, traveling back to Newport Harbor from Alamitos Bay motored through a gust of almost 50 mph! That was the initial squall line. Some lighter winds followed, but the steady build followed as the backside of the front passed into the region.

Even on the inside course, with smaller sea states (6-8′ swell w/ significant wind chop), winds were low-20s to 30, gusts above. Meanwhile, where we didn’t go – the outside course sailing west of Catalina and San Clemente islands, were experiencing solid high 20s to mid 30s with gusts well into the 40s..not the place to be.

Our decision making was based on the following:
We delayed decision making until just 6 hours before the race. This was due to a wide spread in offshore weather models. Most of the ‘online’ forecasts were downgrading the forecast with 24 hrs to go, but one weather service, Commanders’ Weather, based in New Hampshire and used by Olympic and professional sailors around the world, was identifying significant squall lines and the solid backside velocities we eventually saw. Additionally, professional service Buoy Weather was writing custom forecasts not far off from that.

On the morning of the race, three things had changed:
1. Sailflow, which reports data from a variety of wind data points – had upgraded its velocities for San Clemente and Catalina to include gusts in excess of 40.
2. San Diego International Airport posted aviation warnings of winds in excess of 40 mph.
3. All the NOAA sites added Small Craft warnings for all the coastal zones instead of just the 60+ outer range.
And, Commanders did not change or diminish their forecast.

That gave the OA the forecast alignment we needed to believe that conditions would be severe, and remain so for the duration of the time period we were planning to be at sea. The shorter course, while direct and not tactically challenging for sailors, was exposed enough that everyone was glad to be done when they were. At least that is what they were saying by text and emails…probably some good stories ashore as well.

Many thanks to Jenn Lancaster, NHYC Race Director, Daniel Geissmann NHYC member chair, Wayne Terry SDYC member chair, with special thanks to Betty Sherman, SDYC member and Co-Chair of US Sailing Offshore Safety Cmte for all her consult and guidance, And Bob Steel of Buoy weather, and to Ken Campbell at Commanders’ weather for their expertise. A warm thank you to Christine from USCG Sector LB who graced NHYC Thursday night to speak with competitors on hand about safety and the USCGs role in that.

A three day collaboration with all these people produced the correct decision amidst a blizzard of ‘go for it’ bravado, alternate course ideas, and race withdrawals. Whew!

Fair winds,
Race Committee out
0130, March 12, 2016

Jeff Johnson,
Waterfront Director, San Diego Yacht Club

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