Behind the Scenes, November 2019
Published on November 4th, 2019
Rarely are you lucky enough to have a major, iconic offshore race spring up in your back yard, but five years ago that’s exactly what happened. In 2015 organizers from five different California yacht clubs put their heads together and linked two established races – Spinnaker Cup and Coastal Cup – with the new-ish SoCal 300.
Coined the California Offshore Race Week (CORW), this incredibly challenging series starts in San Francisco, where the fleet passes beneath the Golden Gate Bridge to face the frothy seas of the Pacific en route to Monterey. There it restarts two days later, sprinting down the rugged and forlorn California coast 230 miles to Santa Barbara.
After an in-shore twilight race and beach party, the CORW culminates the next day with the SoCal 300: a 300-mile battle from Santa Barbara to San Diego – with a gnarly dogleg thrown in just for fun.
Imagine my glee when this circuit launched and gave me the chance to capture thrilling bluewater action like our November Ultimate Sailing Calendar image – just a hop, skip, and a helicopter ride from my home!
The calendar shot of the TP52 Invisible Hand was captured roughly 30-miles from shore during the SoCal 300. While the Santa Barbara start is usually very genteel, the fleet then tacks out on a 35-mile reach across the Santa Barbara Channel. As they venture into ‘windy lane’ conditions ramp up, giving sailors the full brunt of the strapping northwesterly breeze. This is just where I want to meet up with them!
Considering the light starts, it’s fairly easy for me to follow each division out to the first mark. But the starts are staggered every 20 minutes, so by the time the final class crosses the line, the first fleet has had nearly an hour-and-a-half head start!
So then it’s hustle, hustle, hustle back to the dock and drive to the airport; all the while following the fleet’s progress on the live tracker.
When I can fly out of Santa Barbara, we fly over the fleet, spotting as many boats as possible along the way and their proximity to other boats. But I have to make a good mental note of who’s where, before we get too far out … soon we’re so far offshore we lose cell service and trackers. Then it’s all eyes peeled, to spot the boats against the roaring seas.
Sometimes it’s an adrenaline-fueled rush. Other times we’ve had to wait a few hours to take off; to make sure we have enough fuel and flight time to maximize every moment. For those clients who’ve ordered photo packages, we spend more time perfecting our circles and compositions; but we time it to make it to as many boats as we can.
Several years in a row we’ve taken off very late in the afternoon and returned at sunset; one time we struggled through dense fog to try to boats in tiny gaps in the clouds.
Where I like to intercept the racers, at the west end of Santa Cruz Island, the boats are on starboard. I usually have the doors off on the left side of the helicopter and sit in the front so I can be on the lookout and shoot the bow-on shots: which makes for a really tricky angle for the pilot!
The stern shots are easier, which is why most of the compositions from the SoCal 300 are stern shots or overhead aerials – where we spin circles around the tops of the mast! Usually, I have three cameras with me: one with a long telephoto, one with med zoom, and one with wide-angle, to capture all the various angles and compositions.
In this image you can see the crew are fully kitted up for the ride, hiking atop sailbags stacked on the windward side. They have a long night ahead, as the wet and wild course takes them around Santa Cruz Island and south toward San Diego. Although we turn back to land before dusk, we eagerly watch the tracker all night long to see who’s ahead – and sometimes, who’s bailed and is heading for home.
With an overall distance of roughly 600 miles, we think the CORW will join the roster of iconic ‘bucket list’ events for offshore sailors, like the similarly distanced Fastnet Race, Newport to Bermuda Race, and Sydney to Hobart.
But at five years young, it’s already provided an exclusive group of sailors an unparalleled test of man (and woman) against the sea: with scores of images to prove it.
And Ultimate Sailing was there first, to document it. Score!