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Congratulations to Chris and Karen Lewis and the crew of their J/44 KENAI for being first to finish in the 2019 Miami Nassau Cup Ocean Race. This year the 176-mile race was mostly a beat into enormous waves as the wind was out of the northeast. The Gulf Stream was not for light boats or the faint of heart as the fleet bashed eastward. In this day of lightweight boats, the J/44 was the ideal boat to sail in these conditions. Many boats retired.
Beating into the wind for countless scores of miles in huge, Gulf Stream waves can be one of the most difficult, tiring, at times (ok, admit it) frightening, and memorable experiences in sailing. Some of us remember the 1976 Miami Nassau Race and that great photo by the late Tom Leutwiler of LOVE MACHINE 2 being blown off the top of a wave in the Stream. It was the feature image in the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED March 8, 1976 issue where the article was titled “Reaching and Retching to Nassau.” (Bob McAdoo on the cover).
Fast forward 43 years to this year when UK Sailmakers NY’s Emmett Dickheiser was aboard KENAI. Emmett wasn’t alive in 1976, but here’s what he had to say about this year’s version of “Reaching and Retching.”
“The seas were especially rough right from the start off Miami. It was so rough, in fact, the Race Committee had an extremely difficult time setting a line. The waves probably were averaging 15-feet. In those conditions, out boat was going well with a full main and #3. Just before the start, when the wind had built to the high 20s, we put in a reef to balance the boat. We found that twisting off the main and opening the jib leech a bit worked. Frankly, we were fortunate because the toughest conditions we encountered were during the day; by nightfall the winds had dropped to the high teens easing the loads considerably.
“All that being said, the Gulf Stream was pretty rough. We were tacking upwind the entire way to Great Isaacs – about three-quarters of the way. There’s one thing doing it for a 12-hours and another to be doing it for days on end.
“The UK Sailmakers’ Titanium mainsail on the boat did yeoman’s duty. It was originally built as an offshore main with two reefs…we only needed to use one. With the single reef, the challenge wasn’t so much the wind as much as the waves.
“Unfortunately, about two hours into the race #3, made by another sailmakers, blew-up. We pounded into the bottom of a trough and the sail split across the middle due to the shock load. When you’re at the high-end of the sail you need to be mindful of the stress you put on sails given the sea state is important. It’s also important to consider the halyard tension put on the sail in rough seas as that will exacerbate shock loads coming off waves.
“With no #3, we set the #4 whereby we were underpowered as the winds decreased the further east we got. When it became clear we were underpowered with the #4 our only alternative was to change directly to the Heavy #1, a big jump in sail area. Luckily, that transitional period of being under/overpowered wasn’t too long.
“From a helm’s perspective, it was key to drive across the waves effectively. We tried to keep the boat steering straight but, when some of the larger waves approached, you had to steer down, so you didn’t fall off the edge.”
KENAI corrected to second in ORC 1 and may had won on corrected time if their off-brand No. 3 had not blown out early in the race. Clearly was an exciting and “memorable race” for the crew of KENAI, and yes, there was some retching. Perhaps this article should have been titled, “Beating and Retching to Nassau?”