Rolex Big Boat Series delivers

Words and photos by Martha Blanchfield

It’s a colorful run toward the San Francisco city front.

It’s a colorful run toward the San Francisco city front.

The annual seven race Rolex Big Boat Series was held in San Francisco September 15-18 this year. Contrasted to last year, where final day competition was aborted due to no wind and sailors opted for shirtless sun tanning and bottled brews, the final day rounded out things with steady 15+ knot sea breezes.

In 1958, Rolex was among the first premier timepiece companies to begin supporting yachting events. Rolex maintains a global alliance with twelve prestige clubs, including the St. Francis, the Royal Ocean Racing Club, Royal Malta Yacht Club, Yacht Club Capri and Kieler Yacht-Club. Among the events the company sponsors are the Fastnet in Cowes/Plymouth, United Kingdom, the Sydney Hobart Race, the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Puerto Cervo, Italy, and the Giraglia Rolex Cup. At each competition, top honors go to a select number of yachtsmen who are bestowed a coveted Rolex Submariner timepiece. The 52nd annual Rolex in San Francisco saw a record-setting 127 boat crews.

Welcome to San Francisco Bay Racing

Day one of racing rolled in with Mother Nature sending gentle westerly winds under 10 knots, plus flood conditions to all three scheduled 11am starts. By race two of day one, the tide had turned – literally and figuratively. The wind had picked up with the marine layer visible and hanging just outside the Golden Gate Bridge. Capturing images from a photo boat gives a great point of view when scooting around the Bay. From the first Treasure Island course start we tracked the multihull division with the massive Orion Mod70 dwarfing seven other same-fleet vessels. Moments later we lined up to photograph the next start, then cut cross-bay to follow the fleet near the city front.

En route, a report came in that one of the Marstrom 32 catamarans was in need of assistance: their mast had snapped. A little time later we observed an ORR A division boat motoring back to the club, sails down. Soon thereafter radio conversation revealed that Miller Racing, the other Marstrom 32, had been forced to retire from the event.

By 3pm the ebb was moving and winds had built to 20 knots. As a final hurrah that day, the photo boat moved to observe the downwind run for the J/105 fleet as they turned round the inflatable, set the spinnaker, then bobbled and surfed to the finish line west of Alcatraz Island. Skies were gray and wave motion was impressive. Day two will be spent aboard Deception, a Santa Cruz 50 owned and helmed by local racer William Helvestine.

Trimming through tacks on Deception.

Trimming through tacks on “Deception.”

A New POV as Onboard Race Photographer

This is Helvestine’s third year at the San Francisco regatta, and I was scheduled to shoot photos from his boat. Capturing images from aboard a race vessel requires awareness, knowledge of what’s to come, plus courtesy. Fortunately Deception has ample space at the aft, so for race one I successfully maneuvered to remain out of the way.

From a photographer’s standpoint a back of boat position makes it hard to put faces into frames. Under less competitive conditions I will hop up on the gunnel (side of boat) and hold the backstay. It helped that I know most of the crew, and that I also race – although on other boats. I understand a crew’s hesitation over having an extra body intent on shoving a camera smack into the action.

For race two I aligned to face the crew, shooting from the companion way as well as below deck. Great action shots happened when going through a tack or gybe – a few seconds energy burst with bodies scrambling, arms powering a hand-over-hand pull of the sheet, a rapid rotate on the winch to tighten, then (if heading to wind) a pronto hop to the high side.

Always inquisitive, a small observer was in good company aside racers and fellow mammals.

Always inquisitive, a small observer was in good company aside racers and fellow mammals.

Ecology, Wildlife & Racers

Photography on Saturday was completed from the club’s observation deck, then dockside for candid racer portraiture. Sunday was the final day on the photo boat. With winds taking their time to fill-in and a race start delay, we opted to kill time with a zip to GGB for 30-minutes of marine life observation; surprise acts at this year’s regatta included a few breaching whales – both adults and juveniles. Following the slight delay, we headed back for starts then trailed the fleets. Sunday’s boat driver, a talented racer as well as navigator, put us that much closer to the action at marks roundings and ocean runs, so there were a few sneers and wave-offs when racers perceived us to be too close. It also brings a smile when you look behind to see the yacht club full of race fans, cameras poised, but you’re out there on the water getting far better angles.

At this year’s Rolex Big Boats Series a guest’s comment called out how satisfying it was to see so much wildlife return to the Bay. According to him, twenty years ago there was far less focus on conservation and species preservation for local marine life. 2016 racers were treated to the usual visits by seals, sea lions, pelicans and porpoises, plus those whales.

Marstrom 32 catamaran 13Fifty is forced to retire for the duration of the competition.

Marstrom 32 catamaran “13Fifty” is forced to retire for the duration of the competition.

Full chute running cross-bay.

Full chute running cross-bay.