Saturday, November 8, 2014

2014 Watertribe North Carolina Challenge

Last year we attempted the Watertribe North Carolina Challenge, but it was cancelled due to strong winds.   In late September, we tried again with our latest boat, a Core Sound 20 mark II newly christened Wren.  This time we made it. 

The North Carolina Challenge is a 100 mile race through the rivers and sounds of the North Carolina Outer Banks near Beaufort, NC.  It is attended by a motley collection of kayaks and small boats from all over the US.  Watertribers adopt "tribal names" (I am Sharpie and Julie is Hillkiller) and in this post I will refer to the participants by their tribal names. In response to last year's cancellation (the first and only) the race organizer, aptly nicknamed Chief, updated the rules to account for severe weather conditions.  Thus, at the 7:00am captains meeting, when faced with a small craft advisory and 20+ mph winds pounding the beach, we were discouraged from starting but could use our own discretion.  We were also offered an alternate starting point that was more protected than the open surf.  About half of the boats decided to launch from the beach. 

Core Sound 20, Wren, leaving the beach
Julie and I decided to go for it.  Unfortunately, I had made the mistake of watching SOS and DancesWithSandyBottom (Alan and Paul Steward) in their Core Sound 20 Dawn Patrol  sail off same beach in similar conditions in 2013 - they made it look easy.  By contrast, it took us three tries to get off of the beach.  We almost made it on the first try, but just as we were making it into the open water the rudder bottomed out on a sand bar and popped out (I had forgotten to put in the retaining pin).  Back at the beach, SOS suggested adding a bit more sail so we could power through the surf, but I was reluctant.  Second try, we took a less favorable eastward tack and the waves kept pushing us backward.  On our third try, the wind picked up a bit and that was enough to get us out.  In retrospect, I believe SOS was correct in suggesting more sail.  We may also have had our sails a bit too flat.  Some of the smaller monohull sailboats (Class 4 in Watertribe lingo) used oars and paddles as an assist but I think this probably would not have worked for us.

Wren on the beach, ready to start.

Sawhorse (a.k.a. Meade Gougeon with his beautiful sailing canoe)

Race start

Kayaks ready to start, ferry in the background

Oyster Pirate and Commodore with their lapstrake dory

Once we got out past the breakers we sailed upwind for 10 miles into the Neuse River.  We overtook SkinnyGenes and SkinnyJeans in their tricked-out Thistle which they had reefed down to a tiny triangle on the mainsail.  They were getting so much water over the side that they had to bail continuously which made us appreciate our self-bailing cockpit.  Once we hit the Neuse river, we settled down for a leisurely 25 mile downind ride to the mouth.  The Jeans/Genes, now a mile or two behind, raised a spinnaker and started to overtake us.  Our average speed was about 7 mph, but I knew from experience we could be averaging closer to 10 mph if we were to shake out a reef.  But Julie and I were a bit tired from the exertions of getting off the beach so we decided to relax and enjoy the ride.  We waved and cheered as the Thistle overtook us and sailed on.

SkinnyGenes and SkinnyJeans passing us 
in their Thistle in the Neuse River

Every Watertribe event has a set of built-in filters that limits the size and shape of boats that can enter.  The beach is the first filter - everyone must launch from the beach with no outside help or equipment.  The Harlowe Canal is another filter.  It is seven miles long, as narrow as 20 feet, overhung with a canopy of trees and spanned by three low bridges.  Boats traversing the canal must be able to lower their masts and row or paddle the entire distance (sometimes against the current)  The first bridge is the lowest and this year the water was so high from rain that there was only about 5' clearance.  We soon found out that even with our masts down, we couldn't fit under the bridge.  After further dissassembly, we still stuck out about 2" too high.  I was able to lie on my back and push the bow down so that we slid under the bridge with only the occasional scraping sound.

Going under the first bridge in the Harlow Canal

Once past the bridge, we were lucky to have the tide with us the whole way.  The quiet and stillness were a remarkable contrast to the earlier wind, waves and spray. Julie took over rowing right after the first bridge and as DeadCat passed us in her Kayak she made a comment about women doing most of the work.  I smiled gratefully.

Leaving the first Bridge
Julie at work
ALittleDinghy and Ozone passing us in their Shellback Dinghy
DodgebirdII passing us in his Laser II
Once we got past the trees we raised our mast and glided silently through the marsh into the Newport River.  We followed DodgebirdII's sail into Beaufort on a comfortable beam reach in protected waters and as the sun set we approached the Beaufort drawbridge.  As we waited for the next opening, the bridge tender radioed me to ask a question, "Captain, all of these little bitty boats have come by today.  Is there a regatta or something going on?"  I tried to evade the question, because we Watertribers don't like to draw the attention of the authorities, but he persisted and I eventually admitted that "yes, we are together".  When the bridge opened, the tender warned an oncoming boat "be careful, there is a little bitty sailboat coming through before you."

We drifted in to checkpoint one on the Beaufort waterfront at around 8:00pm just as DodgebirdII was heading out.  After chatting with Chief and BeastOarman for a while we sailed over to the other side of the creek to anchor among the cruising sailboats.  An hour later, with a hot meal in our bellies, we settled down in our comfy cabin, lulled to sleep by the songs of the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Buffet wafting across the water from a nearby bar.  

Anchored outside of Beaufort, beach music in the air 

Watertribe NCC 2014 - Day 1
We awoke at 5:30 AM but took our time getting going.  I thought I saw WildBlue's yellow Sirocco sailboat pass by, but decided it couldn't be him because there were two people onboard and he was sailing solo.  I later learned that he had taken Panidias at the last moment as a crew member and there were lots of good stories arising from that collaboration.

Dawn came warm with 15mph breezes from the north.  After a 10 mile beam reach we entered the core sound and began our long, 25 mile upwind beat.  It was thrilling to see at least eight Watertribe sails on the move.  We didn't know who all of the boats were until we swapped stories after the race, but from what I've pieced together, the field was roughly as follows:  Hugging the western shoreline were WildBlue and Paindias, Sawhorse in his canoe, Ozone and ALittleDinghy in the Shellback, CleanSlate in his Triak, AmaBouy and DockWater in a Hobie Tandem Island, and a few kayakers.  Taking longer tacks across the sound were ourselves, Dodgebird II in the Laser II, GrumpyCat and TweetyBird in their Hobie 16, VagueRogue and TlaloqueScramblonic in their Jet 14 racing dinghy.  We looked for the Jeans/Genes but we later found out that they were out of the race because of a rudder failure.

We started the day with partially reefed sails but by 3:00pm we were double reefed and pounding through short, steep chop.  We had sailed the previous day without water ballast, but had decided to fill the tanks in the morning before setting out.  It was good to have the additional stability and we never had to hike out on the rail, even when the boat was heeled hard over. As the day wore on and the wind picked up, our upwind performance grew worse.  

Tacking up the Core Sound
I later spoke about our tacking performance with Roo (aka Graham Byrnes, the designer of the Core Sound 20), and SOS.  I learned that I still have much to learn about sailing this wonderful boat.  For example, one problem was too much weather helm.  Roo told me that I can raise the centerboard a bit in order to pull the center of resistance farther aft, thereby relieving the weather helm and giving us better VMG (velocity made good).  

Around 5:00pm Julie and I had a long discussion about what we would do if we didn't get out of the Core Sound by dark.  We decided that we didn't want to risk getting caught in one of the numerous pound nets at night and would have to spend another night at anchor.  We really hated this idea - the next day would be exhausting because we would have to get up early, finish the challenge and then drive home all in one day.  Also no hot showers that night!  Luckily we just barely made it.
Pound nets in the Core Sound
At 6:15 we clapped and cheered as we we passed the last pound net and entered Cedar Island Bay on a six mile tack to the finish.  As we approached the dock with the last rays of sunlight, we passed SeaHawk in his kayak finishing up the 300 mile Blackbeard Challenge, which by all accounts had been a brutal race with lots of difficult weather.  He was so set on making it those last few hundred yards to the dock that I don't think he even saw us.

When we touched, we were cheered on by waiting Watertribers and I let out a whoop of joy.   

Approaching the finish

Help from welcoming Watertribers
Dockside stories - I want one of those beers!
We were happy to have finished without any serious mishaps.  Many of the smaller boats and kayaks were not able to finish because of equipment failures, large waves in the Neuse River or strong winds in the Core Sound.  The weather had favored large boats and we were the largest of the bunch.
Watertribe NCC 2014 - day 2

We slept very well that night.  The next morning we had a great time swapping stories and then made the 11 hour drive home, glowing with pride of accomplishment and strength of new friendships.

Cedar Island Sunset
More pictures can be found here