BeepBeepBeep... - it's 3:15 am on a Saturday morning, and my alarm is going off - Race Day. Because the forecast is for strong winds and Darren and Scotia have announced they will try to run downwind slalom if the conditions are right, the skippers' meeting has been pulled forward to 9am from the usual '10-ish.' I get in the car and start my 320-mile pilgrimage from Bellingham to the Event Site...
As I got there, it's clear that the marine layer had made a deeper push into the Gorge than forecast - it was windy, but a bit flukey and definitely not slalom conditions yet. As the morning wore on, Darren decided to set a formula course first instead of just waiting for wind. The course was a bit different - UW mark lower but closer to the WA shore than usual to undo some of the usual port favor, followed by a broad reach as opposed to a downwind leg, and then three jibe marks before the reach to the finish - Formula Slalom ;)
In the first heat, I started on starboard, with Bruce and Dale on port. The port starters had to duck a fair part of the fleet, but managed to take advantage of the current and the lift on the WA side; I had to let them go, as I had too much traffic following me on starboard to tack early and effectively cover them. Jay followed Bruce and Dale, and rounded out the top 3 at the mark, with me following. The reach down was pretty powered up and didn't give a lot of opportunity for tactics - basically hold on until you got to the first jibe mark. We had no position changes through the jibes, and at the bottom of the course it was Bruce, followed by Dale, Jay, and myself. As we took it back upwind for the second lap, Bruce had made a very good rounding and started pinching like crazy, controlling Dale's position. Jay tried to shoot out from under Dale but got himself pushed down too far for my taste, so I decided to tack off. This seemed to work great, because as I got up to the windward mark, I crossed Bruce (Dale had also tacked over, but later than me), with Jay being pretty far down). Checking out Bruce's angle, I put a few more boardlengths in the bank, then tacked secure in knowing I'd easily lay the line, figuring I'd round in 2nd. Unfortunately, we were both hit with a huge header and had to double-tack. We both got squeezed out by Dale, and Jac and Doug got me as well and kept their positions to the finish - proving again that this fleet is pretty tight these days (we all finished within seconds).
As the broad reaching had been quite entertaining, lots of racers lobbied Darren to switch to slalom now - I'm sure that a more traditional UW/DW course would not have evoked the same reaction. Darren obliged, and after a bit of a break with course resetting and a skippers' meeting, we switched to downwind slalom (as opposed to the box course we usually run). The fleet was split into four groups (plus the sport fleet, which had its own start), and we did a round robin, assuring each sailor would race each other sailor at least once in each round (each racer would have three races in each round of 9 races).
In my first heat, I had neither Bruce nor Dale to contend with, as they were in the other heat. I got a good start just below Doug and was able to push ahead of him with a good burst of speed, making it to the first mark in first and keeping the lead. We hit some soft spots around the course (other than that, I was nicely lit on the 7.2), but Doug and I were in the lucky position to have clean air as we were separated nicely from the fleet, which helped us extend the lead a bit. So that's what it feels like at the front of a slalom race ;)
My second heat paired my group with Dale's, and he managed one of his trademarked fully-lit starts at the leeward end of the line. I was just above him, holding speed, but he held me off through the jibe and kept his lead. Now the holes were getting bigger, and Dale demonstrated how leaders usually get the 'lucky' puff by virtue of getting there first - we kept planing into the third jibe, and as he pumped out of there, I fell off the plane in the disturbed air despite pumping hard. Sam and MacRae were right on my heels and managed to stay on the plane, rolling me out of the jibe while also pumping like madmen. I got myself going again before the fleet caught up to me, but there was another big hole waiting for us at the fourth mark, after which everyone slogged, even Dale who'd gotten their far ahead of us. We all caught some more breeze on the home stretch. Wow, this was turning into exercise.
My third heat paired me with Bruce's group. I got a good start again, and was able to follow him into the first jibe mark. He pulled away from me in the jibe, and we were nicely powered until after the second jibe. Then the holes re-manifested. Bruce was able to pull through it a bit better, opening the gap a bit. We were both a bit ahead of the fleet at this point, as we had benefited from clean air and undisturbed water around the first two marks. At the third mark, it took some frantic pumping to get planing again, and the fourth mark saw us both slogging for a fair amount of time. The fleet following was not fairing any better, though, and we got going again in the middle of the finish stretch, with Bruce winning comfortably and me in second with a good lead on #3.
After the first round robin, lunch was called, and afterwards the breeze got more solid and the holes at the bottom of the course got smaller and less severe. My fourth heat was again without Bruce and Dale. Jac timed the start a bit better than me and was below and ahead of me, but I managed to set up right above him, and got the inside track on the first jibe. Even though he rounded ahead of me, he was now so far below that on the second leg, as the breeze let up a wee bit, he wasn't able to pinch me up, and he barely made the third jibe mark and had to take it wide, allowing me to squeeze by him on the inside and rolling him. Jibes three and four were in relatively light air, but still fully planeable, and I was able to lead into the finish.
On the fifth heat, I got a great start and was able to roll Dale off the line as he had to bleed off a little speed to avoid going over early. I led him into the first mark and set up for a nice jibe, but for some reason couldn't figure out how to get my rear foot out of the strap - great timeing for my only bobbled jibe of the day. I could actually hear Dale laughing as he jibed right at the mark while I took a very wide turn around it, having initiated too late. Oh well, next time, buddy... ;) Dale led into the finish, with good breeze all over the course except a little weak spot right at the finish. My sixth heat I ended up following Bruce around the course.
So overall, my slalom placings were 1, 4, 2, 1, 2, 2, which together with my 5th in the Formula race put my comfortably in third for the day. Bruce and Dale were tied for points for the day after discards, with Dale winning the tie breaker. They had each beaten the other once and lost once in their two slalom heats against each other.
After the two round of slalom were complete, Darren called it for the day, as it was after 4:30 and another 9 heats would have taken us well into the evening. The round robin format certainly eliminated one of the major concerns about downwind slalom, as there was no waiting around for double-elimination ladders to finish. After you finish a heat, it's pretty much time to get back out there for the next one, and the RC can just click off the races. Very fun indeed - I can see why the Maui slalom series uses that format. The races are short, but definitely intense. Of course, unlike the box format, there's not much chance of coming back after a bobbled start or mark rounding.
So after a quick dinner with some friends and a caffeine infusion, it was back to Bellingham - falling into bed about 22 hours, 640 miles, two fuel stops, 1 course race and six slalom races after I had gotten up the previous morning. A good day, for sure ;)
Check here for complete results, and be sure to come out and join us for the next GorgeCup - Saturday, August 12.