USA-26 One Life J/99

Back in the Saddle, hopefully

I’ve felt bad not updating this site in months. For the first several months, it was because there was so much to say and it felt like too large an effort to try and fit into too little time.

Once we made the decision to do VanIsle 360 later in 2022, however, it was simply a matter of stress overwhelming any thought of writing. Add in the fact I was laid off in 2022, got a new job (that I love) in early 2023…. well, y’all are familiar with life getting in the way I suppose.

There are SO many things I’ve learned since I last posted here in April of 2022 I can’t even begin to think of them all so I’m not going to try — otherwise this will never get written as I would get mired in the task of trying to organize thoughts and outline posts and all the rest that goes with a serious writing task like that.

Everything that went on in the One Life program in the last 22 months since I posted here pales in comparison to the effort involved in making our VanIsle360 effort happen — so that’s what most of this post will be about.

This race is one of the racing world’s best kept secrets. It is a fifteen-day, nine-stage race counter-clockwise around Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The race is conceptually divided into The Inside and The Outside. The race starts and ends in Nanaimo, BC. A series of (mostly) day races takes the fleet up the east side of the island to Port Hardy, BC to comprise The Inside. After a layover day, the fleet takes on a series of overnight races out in the Pacific (The Outside) to Winter Harbour, then to Ucluelet, then to Victoria. Then one last race back to Nanaimo.

To place this race into perspective, racers who have done both VanIsle360 and the West Coast to Hawaii races all say VanIsle360 is far more challenging and grueling.

As the guy responsible for organizing the race for our program, I can say it very nearly did me in. Between the many, many B.O.A.T. units necessary to get One Life compliant with all the Offshore 2 rules and safety gear, to booking housing at all the stops, to securing shore support crew… To be honest, after getting it all done the race itself was mostly a blur.

When I thought about writing about all this in the first half of 2023, I wanted to write something to help other first-time programs. But there is just SO MUCH involved in the organization side, I didn’t get anything written about it even though the race was last June. I will say this, however: If you’re running a program and planning to do this race the first time, reach out to me here and I will be happy to share my experiences and learnings. The race is confirmed to be back in 2025 (it runs every two years), and One Life will absolutely be back and I CANNOT WAIT!

Here are some of my highlights from the race…

Passing Inspection
There is a multi-page safety checklist and corresponding dockside inspection. While J/99s are meant to be raced offshore, getting a previously inland waters boat compliant both with VI360 safety rules and Category 2 Offshore rules was grueling. My multi-month nightmare was to get everything ready and then fail the dockside inspection.

Our inspection was set for 3:30pm and, like every other night from about January to the race in June, I got maybe 3 hours of sleep due to the dark-of-night panic attacks I was forgetting something. A boat with an earlier slot failed to show, so we got bumped up and had the inspection time around 11am. We passed, and I immediately went looking for the rum. About 60 seconds later I was well on my way to being very drunk. Two of my crewmates supported me on the way to lunch, but the first hurdle was passed.

While the weather was beautiful (no rain the entire race was more than a minor miracle), most days didn’t have an abundance of wind. As one of the smallest boats in the race, these conditions made it really difficult for One Life to get to the finish line (or midpoints, in case of the Port Hardy to Winter Harbour leg) before the tide shifts. And the tides on The Inside RIP.

One finish required us to make more than 30 tacks in water depths of 9-15 feet (One Life’s draft is ~7 feet) along the shore for current relief. I was on the tablet and watching the readout from the (theoretically) forward-looking Garmin depth/fish finder gear I added to the boat while the crew did all those tacks without blowing a single one. Not one. Remarkable.

On the last tack to the line, we were so close to the two-story raised pier (well, two stories at that tide depth) the crowd “oooh”-ed and started stepping back a bit we cut it so close.

At one point, one of the crew was all, “Um, David? Should we tack?”

“Naw, we’re good for a bit.”

“Are you sure, I can hear a waterfall!”

Another race had the fleet sailing slowly with very little wind into a really, really dense fog bank. Whistle and horn signals all around. Most of the fleet went into shore, but the AIS made it clear they were getting nowhere in there. We followed the J/111 Flash (who I hit in a double-handed race just 5 weeks prior, ripping the bowsprit off the front of One Life) (yeah, that’s a whole other story and eternal thanks to Steve from Flash for being incredibly cool about the whole thing) through the fog to one of our three podium finishes. It was an incredibly memorable moment to enter the fog bank surrounded by the fleet and exit ahead of nearly every boat.

The Nahwitti Bar that must be crossed as you transfer from The Inside to The Outside of the race course is the stuff of legends. It can be incredibly brutal when strong winds against big tidal currents can stand waves up to impressive heights with slammingly short periods. In 2023, that wasn’t the problem. No wind was the problem.

We got to the bar right at the current change and couldn’t keep enough momentum to get through. Two hours of dancing with breaking surf over the rocks — and witnessing some incredible boat handling by one of the two Canadian Navy crews in the race to miraculously keep their boat from being dashed on the rocks — we finally broke out. To do it, I had to call on my memories as a kid of watching the tides in my home town of Hoquiam and how the water acted on the back side of big rocks to accelerate pieces of driftwood out and around them. My crew thought I’d lost it, I suspect, when I said we were going to dive into the back eddy on the back side of a big rock to shoot out the other side (the tide and wind would be pushing us away from the rock). But it worked and we escaped, finally, after the longest two hours I’ve ever spend on a sailboat. When we cleared the last rock, I handed off the tiller and collapsed into the bottom of the cockpit.

A huge weather system parked itself offshore for the Winter Harbour to Ucluelet stage. 30-40 knot breezes and 15+ foot waves were the norm. Blown spinnakers for many in the fleet. An extended knockdown (we learned later) for the double-handed crew of Raku — with Rolex Yachtswoman of the year Christina Wolfe and her other half Justin aboard — were just two of the many notable stories for that stage.

For our part, it was an example of how seaworthy the J/99 is. She handled the bad weather like a champ. We had our small, high-wind main on and reefed and the J3 up for about half the time. We elected to take our A4 down pretty early as the winds were getting into the upper 20s. We also hit our top speed ever on the boat, over 14 knots surfing down a wave… with a reef in the small main and no other sail up.

The scariest moment for me came around 3:30 in the morning. The waves were mostly on the starboard aft quarter, which wasn’t all that comfortable but manageable for the boat as long as we rotated drivers every 2 hours. (It’s also the only time I’ve ever wished I had the leverage of a wheel instead of a tiller.) We were sliding down the back side of a wave when a rogue hit myself and the main trimmer in the back. It flat-out knocked the wind out of me and the only reason it didn’t send me crashing to the other side of the boat is we were already braced against it since the port side was lower as we slid down a wave. After that, we kept looking over our shoulders every few seconds for the rest of the shift, I’ll tell you for sure. It wasn’t the only sneaker that morning, but it was the only one that surprised us!

We got into Ucluelet after dawn the next day, exhausted. We had planned our shore crew to skip Winter Harbour and meet us in Ucluelet, but a forest fire blocked the road. So we (and the rest of the fleet) were without most of our repair gear. We’d essentially blew out our J3 in the night, losing a batten and tearing two of the batten pockets to shreds. Great memories watching the entire fleet come together to share materials to patch the many, many ripped sails and repair broken gear. Below is part of the crew trying to piece the J3 back together.

By this time, One Life had made it to the podium twice on The Inside (a third and a second). I honestly think the folks in our class were as excited as we were for the accomplishment. I want to call out Charles Hill and his Different Drummer crew for all their incredible support. They were our anchor buddy boat for the one night we had to anchor out during the race and, in the months heading up to the race, Charles was really supportive. Drummer won our class and was name the Seattle Corinthian Yacht Club’s Boat of the Year for 2023 and it was very well deserved. Kirk Fraser and his team on the J/109 Eclipse were also amazing to us. Kirk and I messaged often as it was a rookie campaign for both of us and they were always really supportive of us the entire race.

Ucluelet to Victoria was a tough one as there was very little wind but the huge waves from the storm. The start was epic — picture 50 boats all starting at once, about 4 knots of breeze, and 12-foot seas. Unless your rig was over 70 feet, you stopped on the upswell, caught some wind at the top, and finally got steerage back at the bottom of the next swell. Memorable.

We pulled into Victoria exhausted and really glad to see our shore crew — which we hand’t seen since since six days earlier in Port Hardy. For most of the last week, all we could think about was great poutine, which was exactly what we did as soon as our chosen poutine restaurant/bar opened.

This is completely reasonable excitement for poutine after 8 stages of VI360.

The race between Vancouver and Nanaimo was epic for the crew of One Life. We ended up on the wrong side of the line for the start (my fault), and my tactical braintrust decided to throw our tactical plan out the window and make for a tiny (and I mean TINY) sliver of high-tidal volume water on the left side of the start area instead of going the longer way around an island where we thought there would be better breeze.

After another of many do-it-clean-or-we’re-screwed douses by our rockstar bow Andy (who also organized our boat meals), we blew through the 30-foot wide (maybe) channel and committed to the “inside” path.

This was a huge gamble, because the exit at the end of the “inside” path up the west side of the Gulf Islands is the notorious Dodd Narrows. No sailboat is going to make it through there under sail against the tide, so you have to time it right. There was no way for us to time it right, actually, as the wind was from the north and Dodd Narrows is not tackable. We knew we had to pick one of the other gaps to get outside the Gulf Islands and avoid Dodd Narrows.

To say the wind was fickle would have been an understatement, but we were keeping ahead of the boats who went outside. We made our dash to the last channel available to us, and banged the rocky shore once again until we got free of the tidal current pushing us backwards. Several other boats around us didn’t make it.

We closed in on Nanaimo in the middle of the night with the breeze dying, pretty sure we were ahead of our class. Then Eclipse and their big white spinnaker comes loomig up out of the dark right on our tail and another one of our classmates appears just behind and to port. Dodging ferry and commercial traffic in the busy Nanaimo harbor, we managed to cross the finish line first — screaming our heads off all the time. When we stopped screaming for a moment, we could then hear the earlier class finishers on shore ALSO screaming for us — as well as the crew of Eclipse.

“Magical” doesn’t really begin to describe it and I’m tearing up (again) just thinking about it.

We bagged first in class on the last leg, making it three podium finishes across the nine stages.

Best. Crew. Ever.

I talk a lot about how great my crew it, but that group above held One Life together. It wasn’t until months later, really, while hearing stories from these folks of things I flat out don’t remember that I really realized how out of it I was during the race. The organizing necessary to get us ready really took everything out of me.

I love these men and women to death and back for many reasons, but them stepping up and taking care of me and One Life stands out.

A shout out to the big guy back center, Mike Scribner. He was our shore crew and was amazing. I handed off all the shore-side operational circus to him and he turned it into an amazing experience for all of us. It would have been a very different experience without him taking care of us between stages and I’m eternally grateful to have been able to lean on him before, during, and after the event.

The 2023 edition of VI360 was supposed to be the last one unless the organizers found a buyer for the race. We got some hopeful news during the awards ceremony on the last day of the race, and it has since been confirmed there will be a 2025 edition. I’ve booked our favorite housing already for the 2025 edition and cannot wait to do it a second time — now that I know what I’m doing, I expect it to be a lot less stressful.

The remainder of the 2023 season was nothing to write about. I was burned out and the boat was slow. We missed a number of key points races due to the aforementioned bowsprit issue and VI360. For the first time, One Life did not make the 48 North Top 25 ranking. It wasn’t unexpected given our overall focus on VI360, but it was still disappointing to me.

I’m incredibly excited for the 2024 season. We’re working with Alex Simanis and the team at Ballard Sails going forward after the local Doyle shop closed. We’ve got new rig geometry to try and fix some of our consistent speed and point issues — and I’m really excited about this. Our first race was supposed to be yesterday, but some idiot (me) left the sail battens in his basement and since the start was 50 minutes one way away from my house — we were DNS.

We pick it back up next weekend, though, and the battens ARE on the boat for sure! I’ll leave you with a couple more pictures from VI360 and wish you and your crew a fast and safe 2024 season!

The banana duck is a Canadian phenomenon and quickly became our (off boat) mascot.
There is no way to adequately express how amazing all the small communities along the race course treated the fleet. This was a stirring and touching display by local First Nations groups to help convince the spirits and animals to keep the fleet safe.

2 thoughts on “Back in the Saddle, hopefully

  1. Curious to hear about your new rig geometry. I’m a J99 owner in Buffalo NY, and we haven’t really had much time to fine tune, so any insights would be appreciated. Love the Blog! Good luck this season.

    1. Given I think we’re the only J/99 in the fleet with a flat-top, oversized main, I’m not sure our numbers will help your program. If you’re not a member of the J/99 owners Google group, let me know and I’ll get you an invite (email me). Many of the other owners have shared their tuning guides there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.