Monday, July 26, 2010

LO 300 Fever

©2010 Darren DeRidder
The LO 300 is a 300 nautical mile race around Lake Ontario.  Starting in Port Credit, Ontario, the course makes its way to Toronto islands and then heads east to Main Duck Island, carving ever so slightly southward to avoid the shoreline that juts out at Point Petre.  From there the course heads south across the lake to Oswego, west to Niagara, and finally back up to Port Credit.  The sailing is continuous, day-and-night sailing with no stops along the way.  Crew have to take watches and sail during the night.  It can take three days for the fastest boats, and generally four or five days for most competitors.

This was race held a lot of firsts for me.  The first LO 300, first time sailing overnight, first time sailing any significant distance out on Lake Ontario.  As it turns out it was also the first time to experience strong gale force winds, waves so high that the boat was literally falling down the surface of the wave, and sea sickness so bad that I thought I would turn myself inside out.

The race got off to a great start with winds close to 20 knots and a fast broad reach to Toronto.  We sailed wing on wing and lost some distance to the boats flying spinnakers, but it turned out to be a wise decision.  Just after Toronto Islands a squall hit us.  The winds picked up a bit, and we furled in the headsail as much as we could. It was so tightly wound on the furler it looked like a toothpick, and we still had a fair amount of canvas out in the wind.  When the squall hit, it brought rain and large hailstones that pelted the top of our heads and made me thankful for the bimini on the C&C 32 yacht "Boann".

As the winds settled to a more manageable 20 knots we unfurled the headsail again and were making good speed when a second squall line crept up behind us.  In the last few moments we realized it was moving surprisingly quickly, picking up spray off the surface of the water and thundering down on us like a black wall.  We barely had time to furl in the headsail (again, only as far as the furling line would go, so leaving about half the sail out) before we were engulfed in a maelstrom.  The winds were just unbelievable, and Liam sat in the cockpit shouting out the readings from the windspeed indicator.

"30 knots!  34!  37!  40!"

We were in a full gale, the water was black and the tops of the waves were blown flat, turning to horizontal spray, and the boat heeled violently over.  Steve shouted to ease the main and someone released the sheet, letting the mainsail flog.  Even so with the wheel hard over Steve fought to keep the boat from rounding up.  Just when it seemed we had lost control of the vessel Liam called out the windspeed again.

"39!  37!  33.... 20 knots!"

It was over almost as quickly as it had started.  We looked around and saw many boats with blown out sails streaming from the tops of their masts, genoas hopelessly wrapped around forstays, and high-teck kevlar sails worth thousands of dollars that simply exploded under the intense pressure of the wind.  Listening to the VHF we soon learned that one boat had lost its mast.  A trimaran had capsized and we followed the rescue procedures on the radio.  We passed the overturned boat and saw it's crew members sitting on the hull as a coast guard rescue boat prepared to bring them to safety.

For the remainder of the day the waves were heavy but the wind returned to reasonable 10 - 15 knots.  We sailed on a broad reach for Point Petre.  Late at night I took the wheel and logged about 25 nautical miles in lighter air.  A bright star in front of the mast served as a point of reference for steering, and fragments of a poem drifted through my mind.   We found ourselves well out in the middle of the shipping lanes, and freighters plied the waters, massive engines rumbling in the distance.  Lights like a city afloat approached and we hurriedly adjusted course to stay clear of a massive barge heading straight for us in the dark; it slipped past our stern about a half-mile away.  At last I gave over the helm to Paul and Steve who carried on mile after mile till the first light of dawn began to faintly illuminate the eastern sky ahead.

A spinnaker run the last several miles to the Ducks was fast and enjoyable sailing, but after rounding the islands we once again found strong winds and high, turbulent waves.  We didn't finish the race but we did 200 miles.  In the end we were all too sick to contemplate weathering another storm.  There had not been enough motion sickness medicine on board to go around (my herbal remedies didn't work at all!) and I was the worst of the bunch, lurching for the rail to chum the waters seven times in as many hours.  But it was a good learning experience, and with a bit of additional preparation, I hope to compete in the LO300 again soon.

"Sea-Fever"


I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.

By John Masefield (1878-1967).

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