Front Rudder - November 2019

Grand Blank Retro

Little of the excitement from the 55th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series has faded, even though lights over our city by the Bay have dimmed and September slowly gives way to October. The amazing memories are still there and as always there is much to share.

On the 3rd day of racing, as with the first two days, there was nary a breeze until well into the afternoon, and on the day of the Mt Gay Party, racing definitely gave way to Rum.

For me, this year was a bit different as the IndyCar’s finale has moved away from the wine confines of Sonoma Raceway to the Monterey Peninsula, so needless to say there was no more back and forth throughout the weekend, with the raceway dash down 101 and across the Golden Gate Bridge to the awards ceremony going the way of the Dodo.

It was nice to be back in San Francisco with warm sunshine and finally blustery breezes. Tearing across the Bay on a protector brought all the memories back and gave me pause to wonder, why I’m not back here on a permanent basis. Right now, family comes first, then Auckland, New Zealand next winter. You thought the Bay Area was expensive, try going down there for the America’s Cup. Woof!

I was fortunate that when I was on the water, we had not only a senior member of the yacht club as our driver, but an experienced racer as well! In several situations we were not only out there shooting pictures, but I felt like we were racing as well! There was one particular moment when we were right off the stern of one of, what felt like the hundreds of J105’s (actually twenty-something), and Chris actually put us in a tacking duel with a couple of them; plus we weren’t getting screamed at, which is a sure sign in you’re in the wrong place baby!

The first couple of days the races got off to late starts because our reliable, sure fire winds had spent the beautiful late summer days napping, leading to just one race a day for the first two. But, once the winds kicked in, it provided for great, typical RBBS action!

This year was different from the last several in many respects, first and foremost there was no IndyCar action for me up in Sonoma. There was many a day, where I could catch the compelling action on the water first, tear up to Sonoma for practice and qualifying then back again for after-race social events or parties.

The league moved the season-ender down to WeatherTech Raceway, better known as Laguna Seca. Unfortunately, as we all know, you can’t just race down to Monterey and back without getting bogged down somewhere along the way, if not around San Jose, certainly once you approach our fair city.

That said, it allowed for much introspection with all that was taking place! First, was the return of racing legend; Merlin, Bill Lee’s legendary game-changer Santa Cruz 70. Newly restored to its original lines, paint scheme and flying the rainbow-striped like no other spinnaker.

Though we miss all those big blooper spinnakers of actual big boats, with only a couple here and there for the last few years like when Kialoa 3 showed up or when hope sprung eternal with a burgeoning Pac 52 fleet which started at 6 with promises of more and more, leading to less and less.

Unfortunately, petty in-fighting and hurt feelings led the owners to break up the series, taking their toys home and in several cases putting their boats up for sale. More on their humorous demise another time.

But what was cool this year was the addition of a Classics fleet. Gorgeous, beautiful antique oaken, cedar and mahogany planked yachts which ruled the roost in the Bay area and other waters in decades past. Wouldn’t it be neat and complete if some of the real racers of the 80’s and 90’s resurrected?

Who wouldn’t get wet, metaphorically speaking to see Sorcery, Sayonara, Boomerang plus Ragamuffin turn up like ghosts lofting their massive spinnakers and blooper sails towards us with fog swirling in and around the Golden Gate Bridge creating an adrenaline rush, unparalleled in recent memory? They do it with race cars and in Europe! Why not here?

We can only dream.

What was also a treat this year, no not my girls gone wild friends from back home who joined me out here crashing events from Mill to Napa Valleys, but to finally drive the infamous ACC America’s Cup yacht which we all see sailing the Bay with its mammoth millennium mast gracefully gliding about usually minding its own business, but occasionally finding itself in the middle of the action. Grandly speaking, no blanks here.

I took part of my girl posse out for a ride on Saturday as the winds really kicked up. Jill and her sister Pam got to take turns steering the 80-footer with the breeze whipping way past twenty knots and approaching 30!

The AC Sailing SF experience is a bucket list experience out there for anyone to enjoy! Ex-OTUSA sailor Brad Webb pulled US 76 out of mothballs and purchased the yacht from Larry Ellison creating an amazing, unique opportunity out here on the Bay.

I will write more on this later as this America’s Cup sailing class turns thirty this year and we will have a retrospective look back at the boat which competed in the 2003 Louis Vuitton Cup finals before falling to Alinghi and what AC Sailing offers us now in thrilling tours for friends and corporate groups alike.

Just a quick note before we kick into our race reports. The St. Francis Yacht Club, with Rolex does an amazing job hosting this event every year and while we always wish for a return of more big boats, there are certain realities of the racing yachts and classes that are out here on the West Coast. It ain’t the eighties anymore. Owners just have their aces in different places these days.

With the demise of the Kenwood/Clipper Cups a couple of decades ago, there are few compelling reasons to bring their million-dollar boats all the way out here. If Hawaii, (are you listening Larry and others) could recreate the excitement of that era by creating a newly minted version of that event and give yacht owners a real reason to be out here on the West Coast or at least for the guys to bring their boats North from LA and San Diego maybe we can stir the pot again!

That said the St. Francis Yacht Club has brought on a new Communications Director in Scott Armstrong, who hails from and brings a great deal of history from the Delta. He along with his predecessor Amanda Witherell hosted us in a way that photographers and journalist should be taken care of! They did their best to provide us with all that we asked and more.

They hit home runs for us every day and with hats from Mt Gay Rum and Rolex nonetheless!! I don’t wear hats very often, my theory is that the grass doesn’t grow, where the sun doesn’t shine, but the hats from events are definitely my trophies, like my brother-in-law racks up deer and moose racks!

Well done guys!

55th Annual Rolex Big Boat Series

War is inevitably messy, but few battlegrounds are as civilized as St. Francis Yacht Club (StFYC) and the inevitable friendly skirmishes on the water as its annual Rolex Big Boat Series (RBBS) launched again with 79 teams and racing yachts have gathered here to fight it out on San Francisco Bay to trade nautical fisticuffs and determine dockside bragging rights.

But once the starting guns begin sounding for all sailors; from uninitiated midbowmen to seasoned skippers they will coat-check their yacht-club politesse for favorable starting-line positions, passing-lane opportunities and the chance to have their names etched onto the perpetual trophies of the West Coast’s most competitive regatta.

But first, of course, winning teams must stave off many of the country’s fastest guns on a historically windy and always-tide-torn racecourse.

Not surprisingly, pre-race tensions abound at this Grand Prix-level regatta, where no one cherishes also-ran status.

“There’s a little pressure to give her the best chance she can have,” said Chip Merlin, owner and skipper of Merlin (USA 8955), the Bill Lee-designed 68-foot sled that first redefined offshore racing in 1977, and which Merlin (fittingly) acquired in late 2017. “We know she’s very fast in light air, and this will be a test against some very stiff competition in heavier air and around marks. We could get crushed or we can win, you never know until you put yourself out there and try. It will be fun regardless.”

While Merlin explained that he upgraded Merlin well ahead of this year’s RBBS, other skippers plan to leverage hard-won lessons from previous years’ experience.

“We started our preparations for this year’s event before last year’s regatta was even completed,” said Dave MacEwen, owner and skipper of the Santa Cruz 52, Lucky Duck (USA 28729), adding that while the team enjoyed good off-the-breeze speed last September, they struggled to stay in the hunt when the winch drums started squealing. “I think we’ll have a new upwind gear for this year’s regatta,” he said, explaining that the team changed their sail inventory and rig setup to improve their upwind metrics. “We look forward to mixing it up with some of the West Coast’s best competition at one of the world’s best sailing venues, and of course, we look forward to StFYC’s incredible hospitality.”

This may well prove to be a smart strategy, given the sheer number of courses that are available.

“This year in particular, we’re focused on giving quality windward/leeward courses for our One Design classes, while offering up a total of six different ORR ratings to maximize the competitiveness in the handicap classes,” says Graham Biehl, StFYC’s Race Director. “We have an enormous list of courses available to us to accommodate all the different types of boats and wind conditions we expect.”

One big change to this year’s racecourse aesthetics will be the inclusion of the Classics class, which is populated with five yachts that were built before 1955 and measure at least 48-feet LOA.

“Many of us have sailed aboard friends’ boats in France, England, and the Caribbean during the established classic-yacht regattas in those areas, and we have returned home convinced that we should bring top-tier classic-yacht racing to San Francisco Bay,” said Beau Vrolyk, owner and skipper of Mayan (1947), a 59-foot Alden-designed schooner that was built in 1947 and was previously owned by David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young fame. “The Rolex Big Boat Series is the perfect event to showcase our growing fleet of beautiful boats.”

Though the giddiest joke of the weekend was that allegedly the former owner commented what it was like sailing onboard he was said to have boasted “it was hard to remember what it was like sailing above deck when you have 3 or 4 women below…” Not sure if this accurate or not, but what happened in the 70’s, stays there right?

Speaking of things that are built to last, Rolex has long been a strong supporter of high-level sailing, and the 55th annual Rolex Big Boat Series marks the horological firm’s 14th year of sponsorship of this iconic regatta. This unflinching commitment is reflected in the four gleaming Rolex Submariner Date timepieces that will be awarded at Sunday’s Trophy Ceremony, which is set to unfurl on StFYC’s East Marina Lawn at 1600 hours.

Nothing would make me happier than to have a Rolex watch at some point in my life, though like hats, I have very rarely ever worn one and the only one I do remember wearing was out of a cereal box! But, for the sailing teams and especially their owners they absolutely want to leave the yacht club wearing one.

This year, the 23-strong J/105 class will be competing for the Commodore’s Cup, which is awarded to the class with the largest one-design fleet, while the ORR A class will be racing for the St. Francis Perpetual Trophy. The ORR B will battle for the City of San Francisco Perpetual Trophy, while the ORR C class will be vying for the Richard Rheem Perpetual Trophy. Those four trophy winners will each wear home a Rolex Submariner Date timepiece.

“Rolex isn’t just a sponsor but a valuable partner in hosting an amazing regatta,” said Susan Ruhne, Regatta Chair for the 55th edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series. “RBBS competitors look forward to the opportunity to win a Rolex timepiece here.”

Additionally, the Series has achieved Platinum Clean Regatta status, the highest-level achievable with Sailors for the Sea, the world’s only sustainability certification for water-based events. This was possible, in part, by partnering with West Marine who is supporting the regatta as the event’s official Sustainability Sponsor.

West Marine will be supplying the RBBS with two water-bottle refilling stations and refillable bottles, the latter of which will be given to teams on an as-needed basis (so as not to give more plastic to people who already own refillable bottles). In all cases, the goal of these water stations is to dramatically reduce the volume of single-use plastics that the event generates.

Unfortunately for these same sailors, Race Day 1 delivered one of the Bay’s rare, windless mornings forcing the StFYC’s Race Committee to make the difficult decision to downshift from the day’s two planned races to a single afternoon race, allowing the fleet to press gang the gathering sea breeze into service while dodging the unseasonably warm onshore temperatures enshrouding the city.

It was definitely warm out, I joked with Chris that we should have brought water skis, I would do it in a heartbeat! How many people do you see waterskiing around Alacatraz?

“The forecast is uncharacteristically light this week because of the nice weather,” said Graham Biehl, the StFYC’s Race Director, who explained that, typically speaking, high temperatures in the city equate to light airs on the Bay. “So, we have plans to run shorter races. It’s the reason that we have so many courses to choose from,” he said, adding that he and his team have 43 racecourse permutations available. “We don’t like to shorten courses, this is tricky for the racers so we choose courses that are on the shorter side.”

While the AP flag flew for several atypical hours from the RC boat, all competitors and organizers understood that the pain was ephemeral.

“Compared to a lot of other places that lose days to too little wind, too much wind or lightning storms, we have it really good on the Bay,” said Susan Ruhne, Regatta Chair. “But I always tell people that days like this are a really good test of a crew’s ability to shift into action when the wind fills in. Good boats are able to just go into race mode so that when the wind fills in, it’s game on.”

Once the sea breeze finally arrived, the Race Committee selected courses that were heavy on tactical challenges but relatively shy on miles. This smart move ensured great racing on an afternoon when the ebbing tide opposed the westerly breeze, making for sluggish upwind and downwind legs.

For the Classics, this meant starting off the StFYC’s beautiful Race Deck and sailing an 8.8-mile course between the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island. Mayan was first to cross the finish line, just edging past fellow Classics Ocean Queen and Water Witch. Terry Klaus’ Brigadoon (888) took first place, followed by Vrolyk’s Mayan (1947) and Dewey Hines’ Ocean Queen (USA 177), the latter being a yacht that competed in the inaugural 1964 edition of the RBBS.

Which is exactly what happened at approximately 1400 hours, local time, when the call was made to send the eight fleets gathered for this high-level regatta on a single race, which started in light airs that gathered to deliver great racing come mid-afternoon.

While racing was tight across all classes, spectator eyes were riveted to the five-strong Classics class, which is a new addition to this year’s RBBS. This class is open to vessels that were built before 1955 and measure at least 48 feet on their decks.

While the regatta’s NOR contains no language requiring the yachts to be visually stunning, all five Classics competing here this week easily tick the beauty box, especially as skipper Beau Vrolyk and his crew aboard Mayan (1947) flew a fisherman staysail between their sticks as the long-lined schooner set up for a great start.

“I’m thrilled that we are finally bringing Classic racing to the highest level on San Francisco,” said Vrolyk. “Our Bay is the best place to race these old beauties, they enjoy strong winds and crush chop.”

Crushing chop might not have been the game of the day, however Mayan is no stranger to big conditions. “Mayan’s reputation was earned cruising, something she is truly wonderful at,” said Vrolyk. “I think my wife Stacey and I were the first to ever race her. We’ve done our homework to bring Mayan up to speed, but the competition is not only beautiful, it’s fast!”

Generally speaking, Fridays that fall on the 13th don’t enjoy a strong reputation for events unfurling smoothly, and when it coincides with hot, onshore temperatures in San Francisco, the situation on the Bay can become light, patchy, or even downright breathless.

Actually, Friday the 13th’s are lucky days for me and this one was no exception! What a day and I did get lucky with some great stories and pictures that is.

The morning dawned bright, blue and warm, with barely a cat’s paw aggravating the Bay. While this certainly wasn’t the lucky start that many competitors were hoping for at a regatta that does not drop races, the day’s silver lining was a weather forecast that promised breeze by mid-afternoon. The AP flag remained hoisted with sailors idling ashore until 1400 hours, when enough sea breeze arrived to allow the race committee to score a single race.

“The high temperatures ashore make it difficult to run races,” said Graham Biehl, StFYC’s Race Director, noting that the day played out much like the first day of racing at this high-level event, with a single, albeit high-quality, race scored in all eight fleets. “But the good news is that Saturday and Sunday look to be typical San Francisco Bay conditions.”

Competitors made the most of the onshore postponement, but perhaps no crew earned as many style points as some members of skipper Dave MacEwen’s Santa Cruz 52 Lucky Duck (USA 28729), who took turns cruising past the clubhouse riding a surfboard towed astern a power yacht flying the team’s colors.

Once the AP flag dropped, however, all tomfoolery ceased and the Rolex Big Boat Series race-faces emerged from dry storage. This was especially evident in the ORR handicap classes, which saw action on the Alcatraz Island starting area sailing a 10.1 nautical mile course, specifically selected from StFYC’s library of 43 different Rolex Big Boat Series courses based on its modest distance.

“The ORR-C class competition always changes a little each year,” said Thomas Furlong, skipper of the Swan 42 Elusive (USA 4216). “There are always well-sailed boats in the class. Some of these boats have proven themselves in Bay conditions, and, as well-sailed boats that are optimized to the Bay’s challenging conditions, they’re stiff competition.”

Others agree. “We’ve got two very competitive J/120s and a SunFast 3600 that’s well-sailed,” said Gerard Sheridan, skipper of the Elan 40 Tupelo Honey (USA 28908), about this year’s ORR-C class. “And it’s nice to see the new addition of Raven, Brice Dunwoodie’s C&C 115, they’re welcome in the fleet, and they’re pretty fast downwind.”

When asked about his thoughts on racing sailboats on a rather inauspicious calendar date, Sheridan made clear that he would happily sail offshore with bunches of bananas aboard. “I’m not superstitious at all,” he said with a smile. “If someone wants to believe, maybe they can make that work for or against them, but I don’t believe it!” After all, it should be noted that Sheridan and crew blew up their kite yesterday, Thursday the 12th, not Friday the 13th.

After two days of light-air racing, Mother Nature finally flipped the fun switch on Day 3 giving all 79 competing teams the kinds of big-air grins that make San Francisco Bay a truly world-class sailing venue.

The unseasonably warm conditions that plagued the first two days at this Grand Prix-level regatta mercifully gave way to cooler temperatures and a solid 10-knot sea breeze on the Bay that built during the day’s two races. By the time the Race Committee’s finishing gun fell silent, gusts of 25 plus knots were reported by the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The breeze came back!” said Biehl, the relief from the last two days of AP flags and wind holds visible on his now-happy face. “Thankfully the forecast materialized, and we got in two races in a row.”

While breeze-on conditions are especially helpful to the heavily ballasted Classics class and the larger ORR-A and ORR-B boats, the same relief visible on Biehl’s face was evident on the expressions of J/70, J/88 and J/105 sailors, all of whom were more than happy to abandon their cerebral, light-air skills for the kind of heart-pounding, adrenaline-filled downhill rides that draw these One Design teams to this regatta, year-on-year.

Sadly, for the crews of Phillip Laby’s Godot (USA 44), Steven Gordon’s Inconceivable (USA 9) and William Woodruff and Sergey Lubarsky’s Russian Roulette (USA 85), the gusty conditions during the second race proved stronger than their rigs, which succumbed to classic West Coast air loading.

Thankfully, no injuries were reported at press time, however, there’s no question that this mishap will sadly prove detrimental to both teams’ hopes of seeing their names etched onto the Commodore’s Cup.

Cool onshore temperatures, ebbing fog, flooding waters and a gathering sea breeze greeted the 79 teams gathered on San Francisco Bay for the final day of racing.

Despite a slow start to the regatta, courtesy of higher-than-usual onshore temperatures earlier in the week, longer-form Bay Tour course gave teams a chance to whip their horses around the West Coast’s most competitive racecourse one last time. Better still, the day’s course selection allowed all teams to strut their big-air skills while enjoying a stadium-style finish in front of cheering fans ashore on StFYC’s Race Deck.

All this was taking place while we were wistfully sailing by on US 76 with Jill at the wheel and we didn’t die! I don’t think she has ever steered a sailboat, let alone sailed on one. Anyway, back to the story.

Given the regatta’s proud history, it’s not surprising that many StFYC members pride themselves on racking up a series resume. “The regatta’s culture has changed as the general culture has evolved,” said Steve Taft, who is celebrating his 45th RBBS this year by serving as tactician aboard MacEwen’s Santa Cruz 52, Lucky Duck.

“Back in the day, there was more tradition than now, but you had more tradition in society back then. It’s about keeping up with the times it’s not like you’re going back in time 30 years when you come sail this regatta.”

This evolution was especially obvious when one considers the high-level, high-performance racing on the Bay this week. “The sport has evolved and sailors are evolving with it,” continued Taft.

“As regatta chair, I respect the regatta’s history and continually look for ways to improve and to continue to deliver the West Coast’s best, most competitive regatta,” said Susan Ruhne. “For example, this year we brought in the Classics class, and we continued developing ORR to make the handicap rule work better for our competitors on San Francisco Bay. And we continued to enjoy strong and faithful participation in the One Design classes. It was great to see the J/88s, the Express 37s and the J/105s return to the Rolex Big Boat Series.”

While racing was tight across all classes, there’s no question that the five-strong Classic class commanded plenty of optical attention during the four days of racing. “A great addition this year is the Classics,” said Paul Cayard, two-time Olympian and StFYC’s Chairman of the Board, who sailed aboard Dewey Hines’ Rhodes 54, Ocean Queen (USA 177). “We’ve finished overlapped practically every race. It’s really good competition.”

The J/88 made its RBBS debut in 2018, and the newly launched class returned this year with even more polished skills and tactics, not to mention racecourse strategies honed during last year’s regatta. Ultimately, David Britt and his Split Water (USA 78) took first-place honors, followed by Gary Panariello and his Courageous (USA 77) crew and Jim Hopp and White Shadow (USA 23), who took home second and third-place finishes.

The venerable Express 37 class has been a true staple of the Rolex Big Boat Series since their 1990 debut, and as always, the class featured tight racing and well-choreographed maneuvers. While the class mark-rounding’s were congested, Kame Richards and his Golden Moon (USA 18488) emerged after five races with the lowest number of points to take first place. Bartz Schneider and his Expeditious (USA 18478) and Jack Peurach and his Elan (USA 87700) completed the Express 37’s top-placed trifecta.

Finally, while all of the Classic yachts competing this year were built before 1955, 2019 marks the first time that these elegant ladies have raced in this prestigious regatta. All told, five yachts ranging in size from 50-feet to 59-feet contested this year’s regatta, with Terry Klaus and his 50-foot Herreshoff-designed schooner Brigadoon (888) taking top prize.

Beau and Stacey Vrolyk’s Mayan (1947) and Ocean Queen completed the winner’s circle, however it’s fair to say that all sailed away richer for the experience of having watched these elegant ladies pressing their canvas and leaded ballast against San Francisco Bay’s tide and breeze.

While all racers care about their results, they also care about sailing on clean, plastic-free water, and StFYC took some significant steps to make their signature regatta a more sustainable event.

“I was proud that the StFYC received Sailors for the Sea’s Platinum-level status for this year,” said Ruhne. “Seeing refillable water bottles and the West Marine-sponsored water bottle stations was great. We significantly reduced the amount of single-use plastic waste at this regatta, which is a win-win situation for everybody involved.”

And with that I fly back, with many memories intact and unlike my landing in Oakland the wheels working this time, the first time.

Thank you to the Rolex media for filling in some of the blanks here and to all of you readers out there let me know how we’re doing at

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