Round the County – America’s Greatest Sailboat Race – yeah, you know, it probably is America’s greatest sailboat race. There are some cool ones out there that bring in the numbers, the Mac, or the races to Mexico and Hawaii and I’m sure some others as well but as an admittedly biased Pacific Northwest Sailor there is just something special about braving the short days of November to tackle the challenging current riddled swirly wind waters around the San Juan Islands at a time of year most people in America are hunkering down for winter or waxing up their snowboards and making plans for their winter trip.
118 boats were entered by race day and something like 100 of em’ were signed up within 72 hours of registration opening. So there I am thinking about this, stuck in Everett traffic on Friday heading up to A-town. My eyes drift up and I’m looking at the bow of my boat in the rear-view mirror and pondering about all the boats delivering to the San Juans from every direction imaginable – on their keels and on trailers – from the Pacific Northwest, Portland, Hood River, the Great Lakes and more. The draw for this race is amazingly diverse. Top level sailors on stripped out high performance rockets on down the line to family and friends on heavy cruising boats to old wooden schooners and crazy fast mulit-hulls, Round the County brings em all out, and you know what, depending on how the conditions align, each type of boat has a chance at the podium.
In years past the party was Saturday night in Roche Harbor but as the entry list has increased and the party wore out its welcome in the now posh marina of Roche Harbor the revelry seems to have switched to Friday night leaving everyone especially chipper and ready to race come dock call Saturday morning – for many it’s shoving off at 6am to make it to Lydia Shoals for the 8:30 start.
This year’s forecast was for an OK Southeasterly on Saturday with the currents looking like they will line up well and a bit more breeze forecast for Sunday. So there we are, ready for the start with our bow pointed 180 degrees from the start line, nose into the current waiting to jibe around at just the right moment and swing up across the line on the moderate Southeasterly. Two minutes, wait for it, 1:45, 1:30…Ok, helms over, jibe around and come up directly into the new Northeasterly breeze! That’s how it works back there around Orcas Island, one minute a southerly and the next a northerly…it’s all about the timing.
Off everyone went, to weather now in a light northeasterly, the current behind us – mostly – running the front of the flood past the Peapods and off towards the Sisters and Clark Island. Little elevators of flooding current pushing random groups of boats out into the lead until the big fast ORC boats began working through the fleet of early starters moving so fast that they sucked the wind along behind them and pulled the southeasterly back onto the race course and the pretty colored sails popped up across the bay. Boats lined up across the waters from Clements Reef out towards the mainland looking for wind and positive current to give them that simple little edge on their competition.
As we came into Patos Island, now sitting somewhere mid-fleet, we watched the Santa Cruz 33 Muffin do a crazy round up away from the island with their chute flying high at the end of their sheets. When we arrived at the same spot we noticed the depth coming up and saw the rocks over the side in the clear water – so this is why they rounded up! Up and around it we went, no issues for us, but later, after the race, I learned that Muffin wasn’t as lucky and had actually hit the rock hard causing the roundup and had quickly found themselves scrambling towards safe harbor to deal with and assess the damage. Well wishes and prayers for the Mighty Muffin hope to see you out on the course again soon!
Rounding the halfway point at Patos Island brought everyone into Boundary Pass and what looked to be a nice little drag race to Turn point. Pole forward, wind over the port beam at 6 knots, fire up the bbq and have some lunch type of drag race. But that’s not how the San Juans work. About halfway down Boundary with the upwelling’s of the new ebbing current starting up the winds decided to crap out and we were back to the light weird winds and current elevators that had boats 100 yards from you shooting forward down the course – sometimes on both sides!
The fleet then stacked up again around Turn Point and it was decision time for everyone. Tack over and get into the bay towards Danger Shoal or lay hard on the starboard bow and hold out into Haro Strait and hope for the building ebb to push you along. Of course by this time the big fast boats had been tied up for an hour or so while their crews were enjoying the hot tub but us common folk were still out there trying to figure out how in the heck to get to the finish line inside Battleship Island with the building ebb on the nose coming out of Spieden Channel. Many worked up towards Danger Shoals in the now dying southeasterly while a smaller group sailed down Haro to Henry Island before tacking back in along the island and working the eddy and small puffs back North towards Battleship Island, shooting the gap between McCraken Point and Battleship then sneaking across the line in the now surprisingly strong ebbing current.
A bunch of boats made this work well but for my money I would put down for the efforts of the Moore 24 Bruzer, owned by Morgan Larson (you might have read about him in sailing rags), who made this move work so well that they finished 46 minutes in front of the next boat in their class and took 1st overall for the day in the rather large PHRF fleet. Stories went around Saturday night of attacking botmarks, finishing in the wrong direction and dodging current line debris but at the end of everything the days challenges left a smile on most everyone’s faces (except the poor Muffin’ers) as they dropped their heads on their pillows wherever they were staying on San Juan Island.
Sunday dawned much simpler for everyone. The delivery to the starting area is minimal, the winds looked to be a solid 20 knots out of the South East and all everyone has to do is find a lane out of the wind shadowed starting area and push their boats hard around the south end of the islands before popping the chute for the epic run up Rosario to the finish. Sounds perfect right? What are odds this will happen in the San Juans?
So off we went with the fleet taking two distinct tactics as they worked south into the building flood current. Most chose to short tack along San Juan Island in the eddies, tough work with all the traffic but I’m sure it kept the crew warm and excited. A few in the fleet decided to take it easy and lay on port tack from the starting line until they had to decide between tea at the Empress or tacking over to starboard towards the halfway finish line and on toward Iceberg Point. Did you catch that – one tack after the start at Snug Harbor and then lay Iceberg Point on the south end of Lopez. Now those crews were sitting there cold, legs falling asleep, minds and conversations drifting off towards work and that summer vacation they had in Mexico but you know what? That was the right way to go. As the legendary Master Bezwick is fond of saying “It ain’t a flyer if it’s the right way to go.” (insert Ian’s affectionate giggle here)
Catch the last of the ebb on the Canadian side of Haro Strait and then turn left into the eastward flooding current of the Straits of Juan De Fuca. There they were, this little red Chicken Coup Special Blade Runner, sailing out where they shouldn’t otherwise be – ahead of some much bigger and faster boats. Yet like everything else in San Juan Island racing it’s all about the timing. The Melges 32 and J/120’s were able to run this move all the way to podium finishes while the Evelyn 32 made it just as far as Lydia Shoals before the wind crapped out and they waited, waited, and waited… Changed sails, changed again, changed back, waited, found the current building against them and then see a little red chicken coup special ghost in behind them – crap – then look up and see a damned Moore 24 reaching in towards the pin from the right and with their momentum coast in around the pin, jibe and sail off into the building darkness of the east literally hours after they had arrived at the finish area. The emotions, the challenges, the ups and downs, the friends and foes, the conditions at 48 degrees North in November – put it all together and you have the Greatest Race in America.
Thank you Orcas Island Yacht Club for coming up with this crazy idea of racing around the Islands in November and then actually doing it and sticking with it over all these years. Each year is different, each year is challenging, each year a different boat has the conditions they need to step up on the podium. See you all next year.
Prayers to the Mighty Muffin.
Full results can be found at roundthecounty.com
Pictures by Jan Anderson can be found at janpix.smugmug.com