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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

13 January 2014

❖ THE SWIFTSURE LIGHTSHIP CLASSIC ❖

The Swiftsure and those who sail it have earned distinction in the world of offshore ocean racing. The course, set against the rugged American Northwest, offers a rare blend of treachery and challenge, opportunity, and ambiance.        
      Here is an article from Yachting that appeared in May 1982 by one of the late, great sailors of the Northwest, Phil Johnston.


1937 Alaska Steamship Company menu
From the archives of the Saltwater People Historical Society.
      "On a good day, the scenery is grand. You pass from Victoria's beckoning foreshore to the Strait that passes between the 10,000-ft backbone of Vancouver Island and the equally high Olympics to the south. Then you race into the ocean, with its backdrop of shrouded, rocky shores. Enough of this and you can easily imagine the silent passage of a Haida Indian war canoe, or the sailing ships of early traders.
The strong tides encountered in the area alternately smooth the water or set up hideously sharp breaking seas, under-run by substantial swell in the outer part of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Westerly airflow, encouraged by a strong, thermal gradient, produces afternoon winds to 25 or 30 knots, usually flowing in opposition to a strong ebbing tide.
The Swiftsure Bank, named after a British survey ship of the late 1880s, is the turning mark for the race, that has developed into a premier Northwest racing event––neither our longest nor always the most challenging tactically, but taken in sum a most ideal off-shore test.
The race began in 1930 and was contested only three times before the start of WW II. But that was enough to set a pattern. Racing began again in 1947, attracting from 10 to 25 boats. Until 1947, most of the competitors came from the Seattle-Tacoma area, joined by a few Canadians. William Buchan, Sr, sailed in the 1947 Swiftsure. The Buchans have dominated the racing ever since.
After 1957, the Canadians began to take a serious interest again, particularly Ches Rickard, Pat Leslie, and Bill Moore, from Vancouver. During these years, two fine old boats came to stay and compete successfully. Olin Stephen's world-beater DORADE, owned and sailed by Franklin Eddy, and MARY BOWER from England, possessing a similarly stellar history. In 1958, the entry list doubled, and doubled again, approaching 100 by 1967.
Through all these years, the Swiftsure has built upon itself, each race intertwining in an endless voyage. Friday evening before the race, Victoria's Inner Harbor is filled with the bulk of the racing fleet. Boats of all sizes form a solid raft. There is a pervasive, but slightly subdued, carnival air about it all,––subdued, I think, because of the anticipation of the start the following morning. By 11 o'clock, the harbor is still.
Planning for a nine o'clock start, we are up at six to eat, probably at the Crest Motor Inn coffee shop, or the Empress Hotel Garden court, both of which open early this morning as an accommodation to the racers. The raft breaks quietly sometime after eight o'clock in order to motor and sail the three miles to the starting area, with skipper and crew waiting for the first true taste of the morning winds.
These mornings are typified by flat, protected seas and rippling breezes to 15 knots. While Race Rocks is not a mark of the course, the passage inside it is closest to the rhumb line. Toward the middle of the afternoon, or a bit later, the ebb will have turned to flatten the sea, and the winds become light and puffy. For the next three hours, there is hard work, with little progress against a two-knot flood.
Past the middle of the Strait, the roll from the Pacific becomes more evident. By sundown you hope to be off Cape Flattery, making a departure for the Swiftsure Bank. You begin to sense the northerly pull of the counter-current coming up the ocean beaches of the Washington Coast. Typical rounding time at the Swiftsure Bank is between midnight Saturday and four to five o'clock Sunday morning. Often, as the fleet waits in light air, widely scattered between the shores of the outer strait, the race seems to start again.
Often after rounding, there is a good chance that a strong westerly will build slowly. The fleet picks up speed.  It's more comfortable now. You settle into it. Soon, the boats are beginning to surf. The wind continues to rise, as does the excitement. The tender boats with tentative helmsmen experience knockdowns.
For the few hours it takes, the sailing receives your full attention. Now the boats pass into an area of cross-rips as they approach Beachey Head, three miles west of the Race. Knockdowns are more common in the confused breaking seas. As the current picks up and the boats get farther into the race, the water smooths and you brace for the next event––a wild reach and run to the Victoria breakwater and the finish. There have been many classic duels here. In 1966, John Long's MARY BOWER picked off Henry Kotkins's DIAMOND HEAD by less than a second at the breakwater, capturing the prized "City of Victoria" trophy. Several hundred spectators cheered him on, and seemed to duck the spinnaker of the MARY BOWER as she drove across.
Impressions are built up over the years and trigger recollections. I retain a strong, very physical impression of the power of the sea, gathered in 1964, while driving Bill Baillargeon's 31-ft MISTRAL through the ten-ft breaking waves off the mouth of the Strait at night. And one night aboard my 39-ft SQAIP, in moderate conditions with much phosphorescence on the water, I spent two hours lying on the bow, fascinated with the star streaks of the hundreds of dogfish darting at random across the bow as they raced the boat through the water.
And I remember the crew. Larry Clein saw me through two of my boats and into the third before retiring. He was a provisioner, general supervisor, ship's morale officer, and sometimes cook, if he was treated well. He was a man who could nap all day and stay awake all night; an indispensable man. Jack Cahill sailed with me for several years before he knew that it was time to do it himself. Jack now sails his Cal 40 SPECTRE, and with each rising dawn who's there? SPECTRE and Jack. The youngsters from the Seattle YC, Rick Martin and Ro Pearsall, started sailing with me in their teens, lending me their well-honed dinghy skills. All of them are individuals, but they share one characteristic––to give themselves wholly to the ship, asking nothing in return except the opportunity.
Despite the common strain that has characterized Swiftsure, there have been some changes. The Juan de Fuca Race for smaller boats was inaugurated in 1962, and is now almost as large as Swiftsure. And a broad sweep of varying yachts––in size and design––sail through the memory. In 1976 Kim Kilroy brought KIALOA. In 1978, it was Mark Johnson's WINDWARD PASSAGE. Throughout the seventies, the 12-Meter WEATHERLY has sailed out of Tacoma with Alan Buchan at the helm. Also in 1978, we were treated to a match race between DRIFTER and MERLIN, the ultralights. Each year, new boats like the 101s, the Olson 30s, and this year's expected crop of Santa Cruz 50s can make their mark in the race.
It is all a kaleidoscopic image of competition, people, boats, sea conditions, dinners, parties, and imaginings. It's a few sails home to Seattle the day after the race under an easy-riding spinnaker, across the Straits and down through the inlets forming our inland sea, with rum, funny stories, and a relaxed crew. I keep coming back. We all keep coming back."
The 1982 Swiftsure Lightship Classic marked Johnston's 20th.

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