As explained below, I sailed in the Coastal Classic yacht race 10 years ago. Afterwards I wrote about it and tried to sell the article to the New Zealand Herald. Their rejection was very polite. So I'm publishing it here...
The Coastal Classic is raced every Labour Weekend from Devonport Wharf, Auckland to Russell in the Bay of Islands. It's a very popular race and I thought I'd like to take part at least once. My yacht is not a racing yacht and I don't have a regular crew so I advertised on the race web site as available to crew. The skipper of Winedown, Alistair Taylor, was brave or foolish enough to take a chance on me. His yacht is somewhat larger than my Air Apparent and has a considerably more complex rig.
We started on the Friday from Pine Harbour marina at 7am. Alistair was last to arrive and spent the first hour installing his brand new chart plotter, an electronic navigation device that worked very well and I want one! Our skipper was very safety conscious. Every member of the crew wore a life jacket and safety harness at all times.
We set off to motor to Devonport and arrived just in time to put up the sails for the start. Like most racing skippers Alistair is very keen on using his spinnaker, a difficult sail to control but which can deliver great speed. The start was chaotic, even though the fleet of around 300 was started in three groups. Boats were madly trying to sail fast, not hit each other and to demand their right of way. After 5 minutes we sailed around North Head and all the spinnakers came down. They must have gained all of 20 seconds over a more conventional sail setting.
The fleet then spread out along the 120 miles to Russell. We had many miles of reaching (with the wind coming from the side), which is Winedown's least competitive point of sailing. So we were well to the rear, and possibly last in our division. However, there was a strong, steady wind and every vessel made good progress during the day. Winedown was averaging 7 to 8 knots. At 8 knots 120 nautical miles will take 15 hours, which would mean arrival at twenty past one in the morning. The chart plotter estimated that we would arrive nearer 3 am.
That, of course, assumed that speed was maintained but shortly after dark the wind dropped entirely and we were becalmed. It was quite pretty, with the boats' navigation lights dotted around us. Where the water was disturbed phosphorescence shone. Alistair now proceeded to demonstrate light airs sailing technique of a terrific order. So long as there was a tiny bit of wind he would harness it. The trick is to get moving, in any direction, and then build on that to create wind by the boat's movement. It took a lot of patience to start creeping over the water. A quarter of a knot became half a knot, then a bit less but eventually we were moving at 2 knots. This is very slow, but since no-one else was moving at all it moved us up the fleet many places. For a couple of minutes we actually recorded 7 knots, apparently moving in a private breeze in defiance of all logic. Then the magic faded and Alistair started all over again. It took ages to repeat the trick, but 20 minutes at 5 knots moved us almost 2 miles, not directly in the direction we were headed, but close enough to be very, very useful.
To work this miracle Alistair was using one of three spinnakers that he carries. In case of a real wind arriving suddenly, as was forecast, he needed hands on deck to be ready to take in the tricky spinnaker. So only one person at a time got to go below and get some sleep. Going short of sleep is part of the Coastal Classic experience, but this was severe. My ration was 1.5 hours. Alistair got about half an hour below, but he didn't actually sleep.
Dawn on Saturday found us with Cape Brett in sight with a genuine wind pushing us along at 2 to 3 knots, but it strengthened as the grey light grew stronger. And the sea was mostly empty. There were yachts dotted about, but very widely dispersed. Most of the lights-in-the-dark we had passed were nowhere to be seen. The wind direction had changed from that which prevailed on the first day and we were now sailing as close to the wind as we could. This was where Winedown showed to best advantage. Unfortunately, with the yachts so spread out, we didn't "overtake" in the conventional sense of catching up and passing a competitor. We mostly had to be content with the knowledge that we were approaching Cape Brett faster than our opponents.
Beyond the Cape we were in the Bay of Islands, but it was still a good few miles to Russell. And the wind changed again to very light and dead against us. We still had an advantage, but it was dreary, hot, slow work as we tacked under a strengthening sun. Our ETA in Russell was pushed further and further back. At least there were opportunities for more naps as we toiled towards the finish. Courses converged as all the yachts got closer to Russell and a flotilla of race boats ahead were pursued in slow motion. Around a headland the angle of the wind now allowed spinnakers to be flown. One competitor was passed and we were close enough to see that the next two yachts were in our division. By taking the last corner on the inside, while the other yachts went further out to be sure of more wind, we managed to sneak ahead of one more vessel before the finishing line. It was now roughly 1:30 in the afternoon, 27 hours and 10 minutes after the starting gun.
The sails had to be stowed and the yacht anchored before we could have a beer to celebrate finishing this major race. John, one of the crew, had arranged to stay in a hotel so we were joined by John's wife Judith for a very quiet beer. We were all too tired to party. I had an earnest conversation with Judith and John on GST for non-profit enterprises! Errands ashore had to be run before we snatched an hour's sleep. Then we took the ferry to Paihia to join John and Judith for dinner. The meal was very good but I'd have swapped it for a hamburger and 2 more hours sleep. I hope Judith didn't think the zombies she was dining with were rude.
After some negotiation, we agreed to start back at 8am on Sunday morning. The main consideration was some very nasty weather forecast for the Monday. Alistair didn't wait for favourable winds. We were not racing so the motor was used to make sure we made good progress. At Cape Brett we admired the famous Hole in the Rock and watched a couple of tourist boats go through before taking photos of ourselves with the Hole in the background. I fear these may be produced as evidence that the brave sailors went through the natural tunnel, although there is clearly not enough height for a mast.
From Cape Brett our course was many miles in a straight line past Tutukaka to Bream Head and Sail Rock. An ugly rain squall passed over us and left a strong wind blowing us straight towards Auckland. These were ideal conditions for spinnaker use and Alistair was in his element. The boat performed excellently and it wasn't long before a cheer was raised when the log (boat's speedometer) registered 10 knots for the first time ever. This very long course could have been extremely tedious, but time went quickly as we urged our vessel to even greater speeds. We exceeded 10.5 knots and then, as we willed the magic of 11 knots to appear on the screen we surfed down a wave and saw the digits flash to 10.98 before dropping again. That was the best for some hours, but Winedown wasn't through with setting records. When the wind was strong enough to generate good speed at the same time as the sea would give an extra push the peak speed finally broke the 11 knot barrier and at the end of the run we had logged 11.51 knots twice.
As if this was not joy enough, during this exhilarating sailing we were joined on two occasions by pods of dolphins. They played around the pressure wave at the bow before darting ahead or to the side, cavorting apparently for the sheer pleasure of being alive.
At Bream Head the weather changed again and we had to use diesel power to make worthwhile progress. For all the speed of the spinnaker run it was half past five and we were only about half way back. Winedown has an oven, so the skipper heated up some pizzas for the crew as the motor pushed us through the evening. Running under power requires a different arrangement of navigation lights under the rules of the sea and Alistair had to jury rig a couple of coloured bulbs to make us legal.
Yet another wind shift by Kawau Island permitted a return to sail power and brought a chill to the air. Maybe it was the time of year, but I've never seen dolphins so often. In the dark their approach was marked by a diffuse white trail in the water as their passage stirred up the phosphorescence. Two groups played for a long time around the boat. The shimmering haze of phosphorescence around each dolphin was a gorgeous and ethereal effect. It was like the airflows around a model in a wind tunnel but even more perfect. Since the phosphorescence is a product of agitating the water I can tell you with absolute certainly that a dolphin is hydrodynamically most efficient over its body. The greatest disturbance, and thus the brightest phosphorescence, is around the head and behind the fin. And, of course, when it flexes its tail there is a burst of light as it accelerates. It's an effect more lovely than anything Weta Workshops has yet produced.
Eventually we had to return to motoring for the last of our journey back to the marina. At least we arrived in line with expectation a little after 3am. Packing up took time and so it was around 5:30 when we set off to drive home to make good the sleep deficit and for a long-overdue shower.
The race web site records Winedown's times and rankings. She was the 35th boat of the 51 in division 3 to cross the line and placed 30th on handicap. Before Alistair owned her she had raced the Coastal Classic and come last or one from last. Handicapping is not precise and the weather and sea conditions can make a great difference. I hope Alistair is well pleased with his achievement. The statistics are all that history will remember, but I will look back on ghosting through the night past yachts with baffled skippers, the elation of new speed records and dolphins riding the bow wave clothed in a beautiful, luminous shawl of phosphorescence.