Three Bridge Fiasco, 2010

Mark Missed, Mean Mouse, Much Mayhem

That was our Three Bridge Fiasco in a nutshell.  This is the biggest race of the year on San Francisco Bay — Saturday, January 30, doublehanded or singlehanded, 311 boats entered, 282 boats started, and 242 boats finished. 

The rules are unique: three marks — Blackaller buoy (near the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge), Red Rock (near the Richmond end of the Richmond / San Rafael Bridge), and Treasure / Yerba Buena Island (in the middle of the Bay Bridge).  The start/finish line is off the Golden Gate Yacht Club, on the San Francisco Marina district waterfront.  The starting line can be crossed in any direction, the three marks can be rounded in any order, and the finish can be crossed from left to right, or vice versa.

In this race, a boat’s handicap (rating) determines its start time, so the order in which you finish determines your finish position.  This is called a “Pursuit” race, in which the late-starting fast boats are chasing the early-starting slow boats around the course.  The slowest boats started at 9:30 AM, and VALIS, which rates at 126, started at 10:18:18 AM.  The fastest boat started at 11:38:16 AM.

Well, 10:18:18 was when Edward and I were supposed to start, but as we approached the line we were greeted by an impenetrable mass of hulls and rigging.  It looked like the entire fleet was trying to start:


We were worried about the wind, or lack of it, and very concerned about the strong currents, and as you can see the wind was definitely light that morning.  We slowly barged into the pileup, were forced out, tried again, and were driven back again.  We weren’t getting any closer to the mark, and with every near-miss the yellow buoy was looking smaller and smaller.  After about forty minutes of bumper-boats, we finally had our shot at the starting line — and missed!  The light wind, the current, and the fact that Edward was used to steering his own boat (one that actually points and maneuvers in light air) forced us to go around one more time.  OK, this time for sure!  We had a good line, were getting closer, but the current continued to sweep us down onto the buoy.  We couldn’t turn to port, or we would definitely nail the mark, but we couldn’t turn to starboard either because of the wind direction, and going straight would also have us going over the top of the buoy.  Finally, with a little steering finesse and a lot of luck, we cleared by mere inches with the windvane hardware on our stern passing over the heavy steel ball.



But we cleared it!  Our race had started. Forty-five minutes late.

OK, enough for tactics, now it’s time for some strategy.  Clockwise or counterclockwise, that is the question.  Last year we went clockwise: Blackaller, Red Rock, Yerba Buena.  This year, the currents were favoring a reverse route, and since the wind was light we felt that would be the best approach for us.  We could see about half the fleet congregating around Blackaller and going very slowly(last year Rich and I ended up anchoring there and having lunch while waiting for the breeze to fill in), so this reinforced our decision.  We headed towards Alcatraz, and prepared to tack towards the Bay Bridge.

But the wind was good, we were finally sailing fast, and Red Rock looked so inviting.  It would mean sailing a few more miles, but it’s hard to argue with a favorable wind and current, so we sailed between Alcatraz and Angel Islands, with the Richmond Bridge in our crosshairs.  Clearing Angel Island’s Point Blunt, I went forward to prepare for our spinnaker hoist.  Pole and guys ready, pulling the spinnaker out of the bag I reached in and grabbed this:


Crap!  This is what happens when I store the sails in the barn!  Mice!  Some rodent had decided that Air-X nylon was the perfect nest-building material.  And why not?  It’s light, fluffy when properly shredded, and there’s lots of it.  Of course this also means that there are now holes in the spinnaker, and I hadn’t brought a spare.  What to do?  Red Rock was now just about dead downwind now, and we were being outsailed by a Catalina 26!  I didn’t want to do it, but it was time for the secret weapon:


We’re doing this old-school!  Drop the spin pole, put up the whisker pole, and go wing and wing!

As we had so carefully predicted, the current at Red Rock was essentially slack when we got there.  We took the island to starboard, being sure to not get too close (last year we watched a racer stop dead when he hit a submerged rock near the island), and not too far (last year the strong flood current sucked us under the bridge — and it wasn’t easy clawing our way back).  This time the rounding was uneventful.  Now we get to go upwind again, off toward the Bay Bridge.

The current is starting to ebb, which gives us a nice boost as we sail away from Red Rock.  We have to tack several times, avoiding the restricted area around the Richmond Long Wharf, and staying in the favorable wind and current.  At this point we begin to see the boats that had been parked at Blackaller, and those that had gone around Yerba Buena first.  We slalomed through the fleet of colorful spinnakers heading for Red Rock, and the wind gradually lifted us until we could point directly at Treasure Island.

It looked like the ebbing current under East span of the bridge (the Berkeley side) wasn’t too bad, and the wind appeared good if we stayed away from the island (and there’s another restricted zone there), so we sailed mid-channel under the bridge, and turned to starboard.  With the wind forward of the beam, we headed for the swiftest current we could find, which swept us out under the West span (the San Francisco side), and out into the central bay in just a few tacks.  Now, Blackaller.

The current was ebbing fiercely, and a brisk wind was blowing from the Golden Gate, so we sailed to the far side of Alcatraz and let the current work for us for the time being.  We rounded the buoy without incident, and turned towards the finish line.  We had about nine knots of wind at our back, and over four knots of current trying to sweep us under the bridge, but we slowly crawled towards our destination.  We headed in close to shore for some relief from the current, and averaged about 2-1/2 knots to the finish line:


Finish Time: 16:53:23

Our preliminary ranking is #11 in our division of 36 (34 starters), and #127 in the fleet of 311 (282 starters).  Not too shabby for a heavy cruiser in a light-air race!  Of course the most significant factor is that we didn’t try to round Blackaller first.  Some years either direction can work, but this time if you didn’t go to the Bay Bridge or Richmond bridge first you were lucky to finish at all.

For an extremely well-written report about VALIS and the Three Bridge Fiasco, look here: 

Here is our track:


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