Puerto Vallarta Race

J/160s Finish 1-2 in Comfort in Puerto Vallarta Race
March 8, 2002

Usually the last thing on anyones mind when contemplating a 1000-mile ocean race is the notion of crew comfort underway. Reading the daily logs from the Volvo Race around the planet makes one think weve made no progress since explorer Ernest Shackleton ran his famous (and surprisingly effective) classified ad in the London Times in early 1900:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, Honor and recognition in case of success.

Most sailors, as Gary Jobson humorously puts it, would love to be airlifted onto a Volvo 60 surfing at 30 knots in the Southern Ocean, only to be plucked off two hours later before things got too uncomfortable. The ongoing living conditions are just too extreme for any but the most hard core of sailors to thrive in.

So where does that leave the rest of us who want the thrill without the misery, who want the memorable real-life experience that goes way beyond the vicarious but shallow satisfaction of armchair sailing? In our opinion, its hard to get any better than the recent experience by two J/160s (STARK RAVING MAD & INNOCENT MERRIMENT) who finished 1st and 2nd Overall in the 1000 mile San Diego to Puerto Vallarta International Yacht Race.

Reports from both crews boasted of extensive wine cellars, gourmet prepared food, music, DVDs, fresh showers every day, crew rotations with more time off-watch than on; not to mention the thrill factor of sailing head to head for 6 days with Jim Maddens STARK RAVING MAD edging out Myron Lyons INNOCENT MERRIMENT by only 51 seconds to earn top honors in class and fleet.

While most of the fun was found in sailing against each other, the J/160s couldnt forget about the other excellent boats in their PHRF B class, including 3 Santa Cruz 50s, 2 SC 52s, a Sprint 50, Andrews 56 and Dennis Conners STARS & STRIPES (Ex Morning Glory RP-50). The general pre-race strategy was to stay within touch of the faster rated boats, and when in doubt, stay as far from land as possible. The western Mexico coastline is mountainous, making coastal sailing a risky proposition, if youre looking for wind.

The race starts off San Diego and then heads south, down the western Baja coast, passing near by western points of Isla Cedros, Cabo San Lazaro and finally Cabo San Lucas, before sailing about 270 miles across the California Gulf to Puerto Vallarta, on the Mexican mainland.

PHRF B started at noon in a light westerly with boats quickly splitting to all sides of the Coronado Islands. The early gains were away from land and boats like M Project (Sprint 50), STARS & STRIPES and LENA (SC 50) jumped to an early lead. After the initially squirrelly conditions dissipated, the breeze finally settled in, and boats logged good time through the night surfing down waves in the 15-20 knot conditions.

The first night highlight onboard INNOCENT MERRIMENT came while converging on opposite jibes at about midnight with STARK RAVING MAD. Rather than cross behind, IM executed a beautiful jibe on top of SRM and both boats sailed for several miles together on starboard.

The J/160 crews settled easily into a comfortable onboard routine of 3 hours on-watch, followed by 4 hours off-watch. This continued round the clock, except when extra hands were needed for changing sails. By rotating one person on and off deck every hour, everyone had a chance to sail with each other. Most of the race, only 2-3 people were sailing the boat at any given time, even in the windier conditions.

Top speed hit on IM was 15.8 knots with the oz Code 2 running spinnaker in about 20 knots of wind. Slowest speed much later in the race was 0.5 knots (no elaboration needed).

For the first half of the race, the J/160s were alternating between 5th and 6th in class with the SC 50 LINA not only winning (as the slower rated boat) but also ahead boat-for-boat, having been faster in the moderate downwind surfing conditions of the prior days. The key that would later set both J/160s for big gains, came about 500 miles into the race, when with the wind oscillating between NNW and NW, both boats twice took jibes to starboard (away from shore) in an effort to get into better breeze and more on LINAs line. There was a period of about 48 hours when both 160s and LINA were always within site of each other.

As it turns out several of the faster boats that were ahead ended up getting lifted into the coast near Cabo San Lucas, a parking lot if there ever was one. The J/160s converged with LINA and STEALTH CHICKEN about 20 miles off of Cabo San Lucas. In very light winds, INNOCENT MERRIMENT finally jibed away and picked up a breeze line that propelled them into an 8-10 mile advantage over SRM that would stand for most of the rest of the race.

The race organizers time the PV Race to correspond to a full moon, and the sailors, if not blessed with steady wind, at least could enjoy the several clear moonlit evenings with spectacular sun and moon sets. A flashlight was only needed for the hour or so, after the moon set and before the dawn broke. When you couple this with the warming temperatures, mountainous coastline and abundant marine life, its no wonder the PV Race is a west coast favorite.

After averaging over 200 miles per day for the first four days of racing, and feeling as if the weather gods had been thwarted from their dire light air forecast; the J/160s and the rest of the fleet had to finally deal with winds shutting down across the California Gulf. Fickle 3-7 knot zephyrs that were shifting as much as 40-50 degrees in the space of minutes tested the resolve of all the crews, more so the ones with $300 rooms reserved in PV. Both SRM and IM, with matching North inventories, had a chance to play with an assortment of light air weapons to coax the most out their cruising equipped boats. Inventories included a drifter, LM #1 genoa, Code 1 oz reacher, and Code 2 oz runner. With the winds so light, all the sails stayed on deck ready to change in an instant.

Of particular help on spinnaker changes was the addition of spinnaker snakes; something Keith Lorrance from San Diego came up with. Here, the spinnakers are zipped into long snuffer like tubes, enabling the sail to be hoisted in control in a tube, and then when ready, the crew pulls the bottom tabs apart and the zipped seam breaks apart and the sail fills. The old spinnaker is then tripped at the tack shackle by using a fid on extension pole (Eric Rogers invention), and the spinnaker pulled in by the lazy sheet, over the boom (and under the loose footed main), through the companionway.

The amazing thing was that, even with carrying heavy optional equipment like a generator, watermaker, large inverter, and enough food and wine to last two weeks, the target boat speed in 4-7 knots of wind was EQUAL to the true wind speed. So in 6 knots of wind, the J/160 was sailing at 6 knots. With an easy rotation schedule that allowed maximum concentration from the helmsmen and trimmers, not to mention the incentive of beating the other J/160, both IM and SRM managed to hold their good positions through the light stuff.

After a few days of the doldrums, where in one 12 hour period IM only managed 40 miles, the breeze finally filled in pre-dawn on Day 7 with only 20 miles to the finish. IM and SRM had been out of sight of each other for two days and the previous days 0830 position had SRM about 20 miles further offshore and 10 miles back. Sailing at 8.5 knots with the LM #1 genoa sheeted to the rail on a course for the finish, the IM crew was feeling upbeat. At 8 miles to the finish, IM made the mandatory VHF call to alert the committee. Upon hearing the call, and calculating they were only an hour and 10 minutes from finishing, the SRM crew dropped breakfast and started hiking hard. Thirty minutes later, just as the sun was rising, both boats converged from opposite sides of the Gulf, with SRM crossing IM with a 10-length advantage. After sailing 996 miles, mostly reaching or running, the final burst was going to be upwind in 10-12 knots of wind.

With 3 miles to go, IM and SRM began a tacking dual that would last 20 minutes before both boats settled in to the final close reach into the finish. The final result was a 51 second difference after 1000 (probably closer to 1200) miles of sailing, or the equivalent of only a second difference for every 10 miles sailed! To top it off, Chuck Johnsons beautiful new J/160, cruising in the PV area, served as the official finishing boat. And with the wind shutting down just as quickly as it had built up, the J/160s cemented their 1-2 finish, and the crews enjoyed two days of shore leave before the final awards ceremony.