Swiftsure yacht racers catch winds after slow, rainy start

About 165 yachts drifted over the start line off Clover Point for the start of the 76th edition of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race on Saturday morning.

The first of six course starts began at 9 a.m., and after the postponement of two races due to lack of wind, the final races began at about 10:30.

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The racers were despondent at the start but buoyed as the winds picked up, said race director Mike Cowley.

“It’s going to be a good race,” Cowley said.

By afternoon the boats were catching eight- to 10-knot winds.

“If that continues, it should be a very respectable race for all involved,” he said.

With light winds and currents, it becomes a very strategic race, Cowley said. “That’s all part of a great sail. We don’t expect a record-breaking race at all.”

But with “good luck” and the wind holding overnight Saturday, boats on the longer courses should return early this morning and throughout the day, he said.

“It’s a little slower than what a lot of people want, but the fact that they are moving [Saturday afternoon], is a pretty good sign for the racers to have a good race,” he said.

Alex Fox, who has been sailing Swiftsure since 1978, was cheering the sailors on from a whale-watching catamaran. The rain and lack of wind at the start of the race wasn’t a deterrent pschologically. “You have to accept what you get,” Fox said of the general philosophy of sailors.

“Swiftsure is known for being really windy or a ‘driftsure’ and everything in between,” he said.

“Last year, the wind was not good, but it picked up and turned into an excellent race.

“The Strait of Juan de Fuca is this volatile thing. The weather changes constantly,” Fox said. “You have an idea of what the wind is going to do, but you can’t be sure, so you just go and take what you get.”

Principal race officer John Abel said this year’s Swiftsure couldn’t be called a driftsure on Saturday afternoon as light winds picked up and held steady through the day, but things could change again.

Two or three boats had dropped out by Saturday afternoon, he said.

The yacht race, organized by the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, is the largest on the West Coast and a qualifying event for the Vic-Maui race from Victoria to Hawaii.

Swiftsure sees sailors race in Juan de Fuca Strait and beyond, before returning to Victoria.

At the mouth of the strait, the yachts head to the open Pacific Ocean, then turn around at Swiftsure Bank — once marked by a U.S. Coast Guard lightship — about 20 kilometres off Vancouver Island’s west coast.

That race is called the Swiftsure Lightship Classic, the longest and trickiest of the races, an overnight event that covers 138 nautical miles or 256 kilometres.

Organizers have added several other race events, each one offering different levels of time, distance and challenge.

The HMCS Edmonton fired its gun for each of the six starts before motoring out to anchor at Swiftsure Bank.

The Cape Flattery Race saves racers the need to venture out onto the Pacific. The Juan de Fuca Race is a fast race from Victoria to Clallam Bay in Washington state and back. The Hein Bank is a longer course, but takes place entirely within Juan de Fuca Strait.

The shortest and easiest, the three Swiftsure Inshore Classic races, are family affairs designed to get a boat back to the Royal Victoria Yacht Club in time for supper.

Swiftsure Week, which runs until Monday, depends on the work of about 200 volunteers.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

>> Race results are at swiftsure.org

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