Distance Racing on the S20 - Delta Ditch Run Race Revisited

Interview with Lance Purdy

By Andrew Kerr

 

AK:  Give us a little back ground to this race Ė itís a wild one isnít it? !

LP: The Ditch Run is not your typical, S20 round the buoys race, thatís for sure.  Actually, it is about the exact opposite.  Literally described it is a 65 mile, all downwind, race through the Bay Area and San Joaquin River Delta.  The race begins in Richmond, runs through San Pablo Bay, Carquinez Straits, Susuin Bay and finally up the San Joaquin River to Stockton.  OK, so it sounds like a long day, but that is not the half of it.  Throw in the fact that you have to deal with 4+ knot tides, narrow channels with shoals everywhere, constant commercial traffic (big ships) and routine wind speeds of 20-30 knots and you begin to understand that maybe this is not a sunny cruise.  In fact, as you bob prior to the start with 20 knots of breeze blowing the tops off the 4ft. chop directly into your face, you wonder what kind of fool is out here in the S20, instead of one of the Santa Cruz 50s or at least an Olson 30.

AK: This race is one heck of a tough test; tell us about your teams experience on Sea Bear and what motivated you to do it:

LP: The motivation for the race was simple.  Racing the 20 in PHRF back home in Stockton, we were killing the fleet every time.  Typical breeze in Stockton is about 8 knots and the water is totally flat.  Obviously, these are great 20 conditions.  Anyway, we were cleaning up every time and old guard in the club was starting to grumble.  They were giving Patricia and me no credit for our skill and telling us our PHRF number was bogus given the ideal light air and flat water.  I figured entering the 20 in the Ditch Run might shut them up, particularly if I could beat them in a S20, a boat that clearly is not supposed to plane.  Obviously, a 20 should have no chance against boats designed to plane in an all downwind race.  That is the kind of challenge I like.  Plus, the Ditch Run is one heck of a great adventure, especially in a 20 ft. boat, so why not?

We began the race in about 18-20 knots and the aforementioned described 4 ft. chop on a broad reach with the kite.  The big sleds were bridging the gaps between the chop and were getting us on waterline.

 

The smaller planning boats like the Olson 30s, Express 27ís and Moore 24s were barely pulling away.  They did not yet have enough breeze to plane over the waves and we were surfing down the fronts at 8-9 knots and hanging with them really well.

By the time we got to the Carquinez bridge, about 20 miles into the race, we were still in the top third of the fleet boat for boat.  At this point, the channel is protected by large hills on either side of the course and the wind temporarily dropped down to 10 knots with huge shifts and big current eddies.  I know these waters well and we kept with most of the group even though it should have been a cinch to waterline us.

 

   

Popping out of the straits and heading into Suisun Bay the wind built to 20 knots again and turned exactly DDW.  It was not long before we were back into 4 plus foot chop.  Susuin Bay is 20 miles long, but the dredged channel is narrow, less than 100 ft. wide in some places with shoals everywhere.  Because it is a big bay with a long fetch, you canít hide from the wind or waves, and because the channel is narrow, you canít head up much to keep the boat from rolling.  The chop was the biggest problem because the short wave fronts were pushing us all over the place and really screwing with the apparent wind.  As the wind built to 25 knots things really got hairy. 

We could not trim to the breeze because it was changing too quickly, swinging from 5 degrees up to 5 degrees by the lee every few seconds.  I just had our middle, Paul Talcott, really over sheet chute and then wait for my command to blow it completely if we were about to lose it.  I then chased the chute for all I could and we all threw our weight back and forth constantly to stop the rolling.  We were hitting about 10 knots coming down the waves and the checking up to about 5.5 knots as we bashed into the steep troughs.  Things were so crazy; I could not even sit down and had to drive in this sort of half crouch.   

Fortunately, Patricia is a great foredeck and we picked our gybe spots well.  Maybe we got lucky, but we pulled off 4 or 5 perfect gybes and somehow survived the entire length of the bay without dousing the chute.  The couple of times I did manage to look around, I noticed that we were doing OK, but steadily losing ground to the fleet of boats that could easily plane.  Truthfully, by the time we reached the end of the bay, I didnít really care too much about competition and was just doing my best to keep the mast up and the keel down. 

At the end of Susuin bay the course enters the San Joaquin river through a series of narrow dredged cuts through the surrounding bottom land.  As you enter these cuts you take a right turn moving the breeze form DDW to anywhere from a broad to a beam reach.  Inside these cuts, the water is always flat, but the wind can do anything.  This is when things really got interesting.

 

After a brief break in the wind in the lee of a power generation plan, we suddenly got nailed by 30 knots and it wasnít just a short puff.  The bow immediately went 2 inches under water.  If I had been trimming I would have blown the kite, but Paul and Patricia both moved back about two feet at the same time and the bow just popped up.  The next thing I know the helm is light as a feather and we were just screaming.  I have no idea exactly how fast we were going but the knotmeter was pegged at 12 knots and stayed there for about 10 minutes.  A couple of time we almost lost it, but the breeze stayed generally over our aft quarter which kept the boat from rolling and with some good trimming and weight movement we just kept going and going.  After awhile, we even relaxed started whooping it up.  After all, we were going at least 12 knots on perfectly flat water.  If that is not a full plane, I donít know what is.  During this period, we passed a couple of boats in yard sale wipe out mode and we saw a few boats ahead of us carrying well, but everyone behind us seemed to disappear.

Eventually the wild ride did come to an abrupt end.  After about 4 miles of moving through the dredged cuts, the course crosses under the Antioch bridge where the water widens into a more open area called the Big Break.  With the knotmeter still pegged we blasted into this open water and started to hit chop again.  I tried to hold it but I was getting really tired and we got walloped with a super puff just as we reached the top of the wave.  In two seconds we spun about nearly 180 degrees until we were heading almost exactly the wrong way.  Fortunately, my trimmer was ready and blew the kite just about the time I started screaming.  The rail went down hard, but the keel stayed safely under the boat.  We had the kite peeled off the rig and the genoa up in less than a minute.

It was at this time that we made the one mistake that probably cost us a win or at least a top three finish in the race.  After over 5 hours of nearly constant high adrenalin sailing we needed a break.  The only problem is, we were approaching the one spot on the course where the channel bends left and the wind goes forward onto a hard reach. 

 

 

   

Because we were so tired, it did not cross our mind that you generally donít want to go to weather with the genoa up in 25-30 knots.  As we headed up we were drastically over powered.  Not only did we have the wrong sail up, but we just were not ready to deal with going upwind at all.  I put the backstay on hard, but we never got the cars back and we did not realize until later that we never even put on the aft lowers. 

For 10 minutes we hung on, going dead slow and beating the sails and the rig apart.  Finally, the channel curved and swung the wind went aft again.  We took a couple of deep breaths and shortly we had the chute back up.  Unfortunately, we had lost about half the time we had gained on the screaming plane.

The rest of the race was fairly uneventful.  After a couple of more big puffs, the wind dropped down considerably as it usually does at you get farther upriver.  The last 20 miles were refreshingly easy.  During this time we were kind of our own section of water.  We could see a couple of Moore 24s in front of us, and we knew there were at least some boats behind us that should have beat us by miles, but I was expecting a mid fleet corrected time.

It turns out that we sailed keel off the boat.  The bulk of the fleet of planning boats had finished only about 15 minutes in front of us, just out of our site, and even the big sleds had only just finished stowing their boats and cracking their first beer.  We ended up 6th overall out of more than 150 boats.  The only boats that beat us on corrected time were 3 Melges 24s against which we should have had almost no chance, and a couple of J22ís whoís crews I take my hat of to.  We beat all the big sleds and every Express 27, every Moore 24, every Wabbit, every Olson 30 and every Hobie 33.   I would say this isnít bad for a boat that is not supposed to plane.  

 

AK: How did the S20 cope with the conditions?

LP: I had sailed this race many times before on bigger boats so I knew what to expect.  We did not change any of our basic gear in anticipation of the difficult conditions but we did do three things in preparation.  First, we decided not to go light on crew as you might expect would be beneficial for a downwind race.  Since a good deal of the race is spent power reaching, you really need some weight on the rail.  Specifically for this reason I recruited a 250 lb. friend of mine to hold down the middle.

Second, I we did not use our typical class running chute.  Instead we chose a much more stable all purpose chute.  It was a full size chute, not a shy kit at all.  It was just designed specifically for the bay area conditions by Kami Richards of Pineapple Sails.  The shape is such that shoulders do project quite as much and the camber is deeper and more rounded from luff to luff which makes it much more forgiving.  If we had used our regular round the buoys chute I am sure we would have crashed early and often.

Third, we adjust the rig considerably from the normal S20 tune.  We wanted to stand the mast up as much as possible, so we took out all the rake.  Most people realize that this is a good move in light to moderate air, but it is also really important to move the center of effort forward to keep the bow down and help with steering while reaching with heavy air under the kite.  I think if we had not moved the mast tip forward, we would never have been able to hold the boat on a plane while reaching from Susuin to the Antioch bridge.

 

 

   

However, moving the mast tip significantly forward creates some stability problems with the rig because the aft lowers have to be essentially released to keep the mast from inverting with the chute pulling like crazy on the masthead.  We knew we wanted the mast tip forward, but we still wanted a tight rig to handle the breeze.  We made two adjustments to try to keep the mast from failing.  First, we tightened the uppers and the inline lowers a good 100 lbs past our normal moderate air settings.  Second, we set up a strong fractilator that tied into the jib halyard which we tightened with a winch.  This way we could keep tension on the rig fore and aft so it did not bounce around in the puffs.

By moving the mast tip forward I am sure we gained minutes on the course.  The bad news was, we still bent the mast backward and we are lucky it did not completely fail.  As near as we can tell, the damage was done when I jammed on the backstay with the genoa up, but forgot to put on the aft lowers.  This probably created a situation where the mast was pumping wildly in every puff, with the center of the mast going forward and the head and the step trying to get closer together.  If we had damaged the mast with the kite up, the tip should have bent forward.  Since it bent backward, I have to assume that we did it going upwind.

AK: Any specific things your team learned on this race?

LP: I think the team had a blast but was darn glad to finish without anybody going for a swim.  I learned that you can do amazing 20, if you really know the boat and push it to the limits with great crew.

I donít know that we really had any great revelations, but I was constantly impressed by how easily I could counteract a roll with a good pull on the helm. 

 

 Obviously the 20 has a hull shape that would rather roll over than plane.  However, this problem is counteracted by a perfectly balanced relationship between the keel and the rudder which really gives you the opportunity to keep the boat upright in some really difficult conditions.  The biggest thing I took away from the race was confidence.  Now 20 knots on Fern Ridge seems like nothing.

Just so you know, I doubt we will ever do the race again just for the fun.  We have nothing left to prove and no matter how far we push the boat we are not going to beat the modern sport boats like the Melges 24.  However, if any other 20 sailors ever want to have a great adventure, they could probably talk me into it.  For a couple of years I tried to talk the Folsom boats into doing it as a fleet, but I was met with silence and raised eyebrows.  You see, most of the Folsom crowd has done the race more aptly suited boats.  I think they think Patricia and I are crazy, though they never say so to our face.  They might be right, but they may never know what it is like to hop on a plane and stay there for minutes on end.

AK: Thanks Lance. We all look forward to seeing team Sea Bear this season.