Racing the Spinnaker Cup from San Francisco to Monterey
By Paul Allen
The sound of the wind fills my ears with a roar interrupted only by the boat slamming into the next wave. The 70-foot trimaran rises nearly completely out of the water, as the speed of this extremely light and powerful racing machine accelerates to speeds over 35 knots. The boat then descends from its apex, violently reuniting with the surface of the ocean and a loud crash. Dispersed water blasts its way upwards, exploding through the trampoline netting we use as our deck. The water has the consistency of pebbles, sometimes rocks, as it impacts my body. This is a glimpse of normal sailing aboard a modern offshore racing multihull.
The California coast has some of the most amazing conditions in the world for offshore sailing. Several annual races take advantage of this spectacular playground – yet the wild Pacific Ocean, with its high winds plus colder offshore temperatures, tends to lower the number of participants. Stories from most epic adventures go untold, but they’re happening nearly every weekend in our backyard.
Hitting the Start
On May 27, the 70-foot offshore racing trimaran Orion and its seven person expert crew, Hogan Beatie, Zan Drejes, Rodney Daniels, Charlie Ogaltree, Matt Noble, Peter Isler and myself, hit the start line for the 80 nautical mile Spinnaker Cup race to Monterey. The Spinnaker Cup starts at the west end of Angel Island in the heart of San Francisco Bay. The Bay is a place of constant movement with fierce tides and relentless winds that funnel through the narrow Golden Gate.
The morning offered fog and a strong ebb tide that rushed out the Gate. The ebb tide is magnified in the spring due to snow melt and run-off from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers. The combination of fog and wind is frigid, and the wet breeze blew through the 6-ply Gore-Tex foul weather gear, fleece and thermals straight to the bone. At 11am our adventure began, and we were soon pulled out from under the Golden Gate in what feels like a river. For most, the race takes between 12 and 20 hours; seven hours would have been a long race on the Orion, and we are capable of sailing the course in 3.5 hours given favorable winds.
Orion is now fully powered up with only one of her three hulls in the water. We blast upwind in the flat water at 19.5 knots. As we make our way out of the Bay, the funneling effect of the wind weakens and the wind strength decreases. Our speed slows as we make a turn south past coastal cities Montara then Pacifica, and we’re greeted by numerous Humpback whales. I’m usually happy to see whales, but on a fast trimaran anything in the water becomes a dangerous obstacle. Big race boats can bring the sensation similar to a runaway freight train. These boats are very light, very powerful and very difficult to control. In fact, so powerful that you cannot turn the vessel more than a few degrees left or right without requiring major changes to the sails.
Whales become a very scary sight, so diligent care and attention is spent tracking them. In addition to whales there are thousands of crab traps with their marker floats and lines which can easily become caught on a rudder. Sunfish, dolphins, sea lions, kelp, trash, birds and turtles are also potential hazards. We take great caution to not damage the ocean or its habitants. I believe the reason we go sailing is to be with the spirit of the ocean and its animals; it draws us to this most wild place that, fortunately, is right in our backyard. If we plow through or damage the environment, we kill our connection and our activity becomes pointless.
The wind slowly builds through the day as fog and marine layer yield to the sun. With the wind comes waves and higher speeds. My position on the boat is to trim all sails, excluding the mainsail. I stand in thick rubber and Neoprene sea boots on a tiny piece of solid deck, holding the rope that controls the forward sail.
I stand in my position for the entire race, ready to ease the power of the sail if the boat becomes overpowered. I stand between the mainsail (back sail) and the jib (front sail) in an area that funnels the breeze from both. I’m essentially in a wind tunnel, holding onto the accelerator aboard a bucking bronco while being blasted by a firehose of 53-degree saltwater. Our team works in unison to tame this wild beast as the wind picks up to 25 knots.
Halfway across the Monterey Bay and we’re flying at 36 knots boat speed when we spot strange whitecaps ahead. “They’re not whitecaps. Those are dolphins!” Hogan shouts. We are on the edge of control, hanging onto our bronco, while a pod of 2,000 make their way across our bow. We knew we were sailing faster than they could swim, and our hearts sank thinking about a possible collision that could wound and kill many. To our good luck, the dolphins knew exactly what they were doing. We did not hit a single one, and soon all parties were back to their high speed adventures racing in different directions.
Monterey Canyon Bliss
The waves are typically short and steep along the California coast, but in one place this changes – over the 2,000 to 10,000-foot deep Monterey Canyon. Here, swells lengthen and smooth out into long rolling mountains of water. Normally along the California coast the boat will sail into a wave by launching down the steep face which ends in a violent slam into the back of the next wave.
Over the Monterey Canyon, the boat lifts slowly – even if you’re hauling ass doing 20, 30 or 40 knots. The drop into the wave is not sudden, but is constant and smooth. The speeds are very high on this type of swell and it feels like the boat is descending for a very long time. It’s a beautiful sensation to be flying downhill on the water for an extended period of time.
Our time here comes and goes quickly, before heading along the Monterey Peninsula to a finish tucked in the corner of the bay. We glide gracefully over the line, setting a new course record of 6h5m42s. It was a day full of mental and physical challenges and we enjoyed being back on land. The rodeo was over, for the time being, and we relished the rest from constant concentration and physical exertion.
The Spinnaker Cup was the first event in California Offshore Race Week; the 270nm Coastal Cup from Monterey to Santa Barbara and the SoCal 300 race round out Race Week. The Coastal Cup is notoriously windy and difficult, challenging sailors to manage the unforgiving trio: Pt. Conception, Pt. Sur and Cape San Martin. This year, the marine layer was present and killed the wind for both the Coastal Cup and the SoCal 300, making them relatively tame.
The biggest wilderness in California is the ocean and its spirit is strong and thriving. There’s an endless number of ways to experience this wet wilderness; take the time to get to know it. It’s your backyard.
A Northern California sailor for more than 30 years, Paul Allen has experience racing all types of high performance boats, from small Olympic class to large offshore race boats. He’s also an avid rock climber, windsurfer, skier and surfer.
Photo: Paul Allen works the jibsheet, remaining at the ready in the same spot for the duration of any race (Ocean Images/Richard Langdon).