Full range for Block Island Race

Published on May 27th, 2018

Eighty boats crossed the starting line in big breeze on May 25 off of Stamford Harbor (CT) to begin the 73rd edition of the 186 nm Storm Trysail Club Block Island Race. The good times lasted until most of the boats had rounded Block Island, but on the return leg conditions became increasingly variable.

Massive holes appeared at seemingly random times and places; a veritable mine field that the fleet had to pick their way through carefully. The winners attributed their victories to skill, and the non-winners cursed their bad luck. Such is human nature.

With wind conditions ranging from 30+ knots to zilch (a technical term), the gods favored those who picked the right path, and those who paid the most attention to making the adjustments that the constantly evolving conditions required.

Highlighting this variability is the number of boats that retired from the race; some with damage from the high winds, others with their patience exhausted after seemingly endless hours of drifting in circles. After 186 miles, even the last mile presented challenges. Leads in several classes changed hands on the final approach to the finish as fickle winds and a strong ebbing tide frustrated many a crew.

The 90-mile leg from Stamford to 1BI at the North end of Block Island was epic. The wind was a steady 20 knots or so, resulting in many boats flying down the Sound, setting “personal” speed records as the waves built, and providing the surfing/planing conditions that are the most exciting (at least in in a good way!) conditions in the sport.

The easterly side of Block Island saw the most rugged conditions with high winds complemented by impressive seas as the open ocean came up into the shallow waters around the island. Steve Benjamin – owner/skipper of the TP 52 Spookie (winner of the IRC Class 7) and veteran of countless Block Island Races – described the conditions: “We saw gusts close to 30, oh boy! BIG wind on the backside of Block with warm gusts coming off the land. On the first leg, we were seeing boat speeds of over 20 knots.”

The navigator of Christopher Dragon (winner of IRC Class 5 and perennial race entrant), Larry Fox, pointed out the wide variety of conditions: “It was the fastest Block Island Race I’ve ever done, and I’ve done around 30. It was a great ride overall. We even beat our most optimistic computer projections.

“As we were approaching the Race exiting the Sound, we were doing 14 knots and we didn’t have to worry about the foul current. We were seeing mid-20 knot gusts. But then, back in the Sound off of Norwalk, we had the exact opposite. We even had the anchor ready and almost put it down in no breeze and foul current. It was pull-your-hair-out stuff…with the holes here and there, and breezes filling-in front of us, and then behind us.”

Experience definitely helped some of the winners, but many faces on the podium were fresh, and several winners were first-time entrants. The ‘freshest face’ might be Lindsay Gimple, a watch captain on the Swan 48 Dreamcatcher (Second Place – IRC Class 2). Dreamcatcher was recently donated by Steve Kylander (who won his class on this boat in the 2017 race) to The Mudratz – a 501(c)3 youth sailing team focused on getting kids unique racing experiences.

Lindsay is a recent graduate of Cornell. Although she was on the dinghy team, this race was not only her first Block Island Race; it was her first big boat race. “I had an overwhelmingly positive experience. We had a lot of different conditions out there. It tested our knowledge of the boat and the ability of the crew to make adjustments.

“I was a dinghy sailor, and was always crew in junior sailing. A lot of that is body placement, but that’s not nearly as important on a boat like ours. You have to have your head out of the boat, looking at the sky, the water, and the competition, talking to the helmsman, trying to keep the boat going fast.”

When asked how distance racing applies to her budding professional career as a mechanical engineer at Electric Boat, Lindsay noted that an important aspect is “learning about situational stress and handling people in those situations. Like work, you have deadlines, you have to navigate relationships and different perspectives and backgrounds and mesh all that together.”

Another Block Island Race ‘newbie’ was Rory Cummings. An experienced inshore racer, Rory bought a Dehler 38 last year – which he named Rascal – as a performance cruiser. But the fact that it was the competition model drove him to try his hand at a different facet of the sport.

“I learned a lot about organizing and managing a distance racing crew,” noted Cummings. “We also pushed the boat hard and there were a few surprises. We stopped counting our wipe outs at 20! We realized that the rudder was just a suggestion, and the sails are what keep it on course.”

Asked about the contrast between offshore and inshore racing, Cummings replied, “Distance racing gives you a lot of time to tweak and learn what makes your boat go fast.” Would he do it again? “I will absolutely do it again! But if you had asked me that at 3 o’clock Saturday morning when we were drifting around, I might have given you a different answer!”

Rascal finished Second in PHRF Class 3, a great start for a first-timer.

Another winning Skipper, Chris Lewis of the J/44 Kenai and winner of IRC Class 3, has competed in the race twice before. After campaigning the boat on the Gulf Coast for almost 20 years, he decided that the waters of Long Island Sound offered new challenges. “The Gulf Coast is nice sailing but not really challenging for distance races. They are mostly straight-line, with much less current and more predicable weather. The added complexity of the Block Island course and the wind ¬– not to mention the rocks! – makes it more exciting.

“We’re still getting to know the Sound, so we need to go with our guts because we don’t have the experience and don’t know all of the ‘conventional wisdom’, but we’ve learned when to put up which sail in different conditions. We were neck and neck with Vamp (another J/44 owned by Storm Trysail Commodore Lenny Sitar) for a long time, and just one sail selection choice gave us a mile lead. That made the difference.”

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “It was the best of winds, and it was the worst of winds…it was the gusts of adrenaline, and the holes of despair.” Had he been a modern sailor, Mr. Dickens would have found himself in very familiar waters in this year’s Block Island Race.

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Source: Ron Weiss, Storm Trysail Club


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