Post Date: Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Twenty-three years ago I participated in my first MHOR driving my Frers 36, Achiever. The fact that I am here writing this article is testimony to our surviving that race, but it was a close run affair. The misadventures of that maiden effort would make a highly humorous read on its own, but that is for another time.
Nine MHORs over the intervening years still leave me a neophyte among the real veterans of this race, but my experience is somewhat unique in that I have been a volunteer, event chairman, and BYC commodore, as well as a race participant. These are some of the people and experiences I have encountered over the years with this grand event.
The people who volunteer, work, participate, and plan continuously from race to race are what make this event the attraction that brings sailors back year after year. But where to start?
The Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron is as good a place as any. It sometimes seems that the entire membership is made up of past commodores, with each one nicer than the next. Their hospitality, good humor, and generosity are unsurpassed. As part of each race, renewing friendships with the members and staff of the Squadron is like coming home.
At the Boston Yacht Club, for several races, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the very large committee that is almost permanent from race to race. Volunteers who have donated their time for decades of races are common. The skills and experience they bring to each race are critical to its smooth running. As for the BYC’s cadre of past commodores, they are no less friendly and welcoming than the Squadron’s, albeit a bit crustier.
Every distance race has its own unique meteorological personality each time out. But the MHOR takes the prize for race-to-race and within-a-race variability. One race had 102 degrees of warmth for the skipper’s meeting and within three days, all on deck had full winter layers under their foul weather gear. That one was particularly dramatic, but that sort of change within the race is actually the norm.
There are glorious downwind sleigh rides or 300-mile tight reaches that have yielded some wonderfully fast races, but for each of those there are the light-air years hard on the wind, with VMC stuck at four knots forever. Those are the years that have some boats not making it to Halifax in time for the awards ceremony.
And there are the interesting little low-pressure depressions that spin up unexpectedly (usually at night, it seems) that make the extra time prepping the boat and crew worthwhile. Fortunately, these do not happen every time out. Regardless of whether it is a fast or slow year, however, there is always . . .
Getting around the legendary corner at Brazil Rock is, of course, the key tactical moment of each race. The water surging in and out of the Bay of Fundy and the way it treats your boat can make or break you. And despite all of the daily charts and weather prognostications, you really have at most only a six-hour window to predict your speed and possible location and change your course sufficiently to avoid disaster or take advantage of the speed boost.
We have had it both ways. I can recall losing the gamble and watching six knots of boat speed reduced to one and a half knots of speed over ground within a quarter mile of the whistle off Cape Sable. It seemed that it only took a week for the current to let us go. That race did not end well for us.
However, another time, we were caught north of the rhumb line as we approached Blonde Rock and took a chance cutting through close to Mud Island. We got lucky that time and did a slingshot around the corner going ten over the bottom.
And there are always the bracing and refreshing waters of the Labrador Current that can impact your visibility and comfort while causing you to reflect on your sanity. I had such a moment in the last race, when watching the light come up at 6:00 am (no sunrise to be seen) on the rail, hard on the wind, solid green water coming over the bow, I thought, “What in the world am I doing here?” But those thoughts go away quickly when the hospitality of the folks at the Squadron warms you on your arrival.
Generally the fleet spreads out after the first night, and you might see four or five boats at any given time, usually not in your class, so you are really competing with the wind and the racecourse. Before tracking systems gave information on where competitors were a few hours earlier, we had to wait until boats finished to see any results.
But in the 2013 race, we were involved in somewhat of a match race with PC Bill Greenwood’s Airborne IV, a sister ship of Southern Dream, our boat. As night fell on Sunday, we separated from them as we headed south of the rhumb line on a weather play. Two frustrating days later, after having been becalmed as much as 25 miles south of the rhumb line, we were pretty sure our weather gamble had failed, and we were certainly far behind. As we approached Cape Sable, the customary fog bank enveloped us just to add to the fun. While monitoring the radio and radar, I was amazed to hear Bill talking to a fishing boat. We figured he must be closer than we’d thought. While there was lots of traffic on the radar, one boat crossed just ahead of us; the fog conveniently lifted to reveal Airborne IV crossing a few hundred yards ahead. We then had a 100-mile beat to the finish with some very exciting racing.
Over the years the finish line has moved around quite a bit, from way out by the Chebucto Head to the current finish just off the entrance to the Arm. But regardless of where it is, there is always something interesting at the finish.
The finishing effort begins with a call to Halifax Traffic Control announcing your entrance to the traffic-controlled area. It is always nerve-wracking listening for your competitor’s call and hoping you don’t hear it before you call in. Halifax Traffic Control will tell you if there is traffic expected. In one race, fairly early in the morning after a very rough night, we were informed there was outbound traffic, but they were not too specific about what it was. When we saw the traffic, we thought we were hallucinating. A huge US Missile sub, or “boomer” blasted by us on its way out of the harbor. It was an unforgettable sight. Fortunately, there was good visibility that time. At other times, visibility is so bad you can be a boat length away from the finish mark before you can see it. Add in another boat finishing at the same time, and you can really wear out your last nerve after three days of intense racing.
The longer one spends strolling down memory lane, the more stories and experiences pop up. I will close by saying that the Marblehead to Halifax Ocean Race has been one of my most enjoyable and memorable sailing experiences. I am sure that after your experience with this year’s race, you will agree.
By Jim Flanagan