Sailing Swiftsure with a three-year-old as part of the crew

One crew in the upcoming Swiftsure International Yacht Race will be changing diapers between hauling down sails and handling the wheel.

Gord and Michelle Galbraith will be sailing their 30-foot boat, Lekker, next Saturday along with Maia, their newly turned three-year-old daughter.

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“She’s still a toddler, so we have all the challenges that go with that,” said Gord. “We’ve taken her out sailing before, but this will the first year we’ve tried to get her out racing.”

Gord, a marine architect, lifetime sailor and formerly serious sailboat racer, said he and Michelle always agreed to make sailing and the ocean part of their daughter’s upbringing. So Maia’s first time on a boat was at the age of two weeks.

But Gord said when he and Michelle started their family, it was time to put aside the hard-core racing. So the Galbraiths turned in the high-performance Melges 24 for a more stately Santana 30/30, suitable for light racing but comfortable for family cruising, which they named Lekker.

The Santana is also a perfect competitor for the Swiftsure Inshore Classic, the shorter event designed to get sailors out and back in time for supper. Its course depends on weather predictions and current conditions. As an event, and Swiftsure has a total of five, the Inshore Classic is a good example of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club’s determination to expand the attractions of Swiftsure.

“It has all really turned around in the past 10 years,” said Galbraith. “It used to be only about serious yachting, but not necessarily about families who just happen to like yachts.”

The Swiftsure International Yacht Race is embarking on its 76th race. It’s ranked as the largest competitive yacht-racing event on the West Coast of North America. This year, it is expected to attract 175 boats, including all the competitive yachts from the Western U.S. and Canada.

Swiftsure Week, this year May 23-27, has also become a prominent Victoria celebration. About 200 volunteers turn out to make it happen. People flock to the Inner Harbour to look at the sleek yachts, and spectators crowd Clover Point and Dallas Road on Saturday morning to see the races start.

Organizers have devised Swiftsure’s five events to present conditions to suit various skill sets, boats and levels of commitment. Events range from the most sedate, such as the Galbraiths’ Inshore Classic, to the most gruelling and tricky, the overnight Swiftsure Lightship Classic, the one that started it all.

The 138.2-nautical-mile (256-kilometre) Lightship Classic was named for a U.S. Coast Guard vessel once kept anchored offshore on the Swiftsure Bank before the Second World War. Decked out with lights, the vessel was a marker for mariners looking for the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait.

It also offered a convenient challenge for Victoria yachters to test themselves. The Swiftsure Bank sits outside the strait, with its wind-funnelling and protective land masses on either side. When leaving the strait, sailboats can be buffeted by ocean wind or find no wind at all.

“Once you get outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca, it can be either too much or too little,” said Andrew McBride, Swiftsure event chair.

So McBride said that years ago race officials devised the shorter 102-nautical-mile Cape Flattery race, which follows the Lightship course but turns around at Neah Bay on the Washington side, still inside the strait.

Also devised was the 79-nautical mile Juan de Fuca Race, a more straightforward and speedy dash across the strait and back to Victoria.

Four years ago, Swiftsure added another event called the Hein Bank Race. It’s longer than Cape Flattery, 119 nautical miles, and forces sailors to round two markers, Neah Bay then eastward to Hein Bank and back to Victoria.

Importantly, the Hein Bank race saves participants from entering the open Pacific. So smaller vessels can safely take part in a challenging, overnight event.

Safety has long been a principle of Swiftsure organizers. All racers are required to have on board about 100 safety devices, from flotation devices to GPS tracking devices. Each racer is spot-checked at the finish for those devices, and failing can mean time penalties, even disqualification.

Keith Beange, Swiftsure inspections co-ordinator, said every year, all finishing boats are checked for five safety items randomly selected by the race committee.

Last year, one of the spot-check items was a “man-overboard pole.” It’s a floating pole, with a light and electronic position beacon, to be tossed into the water when a person is overboard. The device is meant to move with wind and current just like a person.

But Beange said two boats didn’t have one. One even tried to insist a flotation ring tied to a gaff would do.

“It was actually pretty funny,” he said. “But it was sufficiently serious that we had to say: ‘No, we can’t let you get away with that one.’ ”

Beange and Swiftsure inspectors are around until 6 a.m. on the Monday, the official closing moment of the weekend race.

For some, just coming in under time becomes a victory. Last year, a boat called Gemini Dream, with an all-woman crew and skippered by a cancer survivor, managed to squeak in with only about 20 minutes to spare. With all of them racing for the first time, the finish was especially sweet.

The U.S. Coast Guard no longer keeps its lightship. Instead, the Royal Canadian Navy offers a vessel to mark the turnaround spot. This year, the honour falls to HMCS Edmonton, which will fire its gun to start the race before motoring out to anchor at Swiftsure Bank.

The annual race has also become part of the Royal Canadian Navy’s own Pacific tradition. The Swiftsure Lightship Classic presents a great chance to train navy sailors.

RCN Lt.-Cmdr. Chris Maier, commander for sail training at the Pacific fleet school, said this year the navy is entering two 36-foot boats, each crewed by eight.

Maier said half the crew members will be officers in training and half will be new sailors not long out of basic training. Learning how to handle a sailboat in a race offers the fundamentals of navy life, teamwork and seamanship.

He said the ways of wind and wave are important for sailors on all vessels, whether it’s small boats or gas-turbine-powered warships displacing thousands of tonnes.

“Everybody has to have some baseline understanding of the ocean, the environment that we work in,” said Maier. “It’s part of being a mariner.”

But he said sailing and racing in something such as Swiftsure also provides another vital lesson for Navy life — solving problems as a team under pressure.

“Everybody will have to pull together, literally and figuratively, to have success,” said Maier. “They will compensate for each other and help each other out.”

“It’s a microcosm of what these sailors are going to experience when they get to the big ships,” he said. “Swiftsure is a great race for that.”

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