Tricky Tides at Charleston Race Week - SailNet Community
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Tricky Tides at Charleston Race Week

The J/105s Masquerade and Merrythought get off the line in Charleston's tricky tides and whispering westerly.
The passing of a strong low-pressure system left Charleston, SC cool and clear with just a hint of northerly breeze as Day One of Race Week dawned. Except for the normal milling of tidal currents, the waters surrounding the peninsular city were calm, but the transitional weather meant that anything might happen out on the racecourse where 78 keelboats were set to vie for southeast regional bragging rights and a share of some highly polished silver over the ensuing three days.

For PHRF racers and a cadre of one-design keelboat enthusiasts, Charleston Race Week—now six years old—is the apex event along the Carolina coast. Just a toddler among established regattas elsewhere, this annual affair has nonetheless begun to resonate for sailors in the surrounding region, attracting a contingent of racers from Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina to compete against the usual suspects from around the Carolina Lowcountry. Joining them this year were competitors hailing from as far away as Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, and California, which prompted a nice uptick in the statistics—a 20-percent increase in out-of-town participation over the previous year.

What this meant was that more sailors would be analyzing their way through the harbor's uniquely puzzling labyrinth of tides where the confluence of the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers create a superb venue for short-course sailboat racing—superb, that is, if you don't mind tricky tidal currents, migrating mudbanks, and a preponderance of commercial shipping traffic. In many ways, Charleston Harbor is the East Coast equivalent of San Francisco Bay, without the tall buildings, the consistent sea breeze, and, well, the rolling hills and a number of things.

As always, getting a clear lane in the early going was a key factor to success.
For Race No. 1 the 10-knot breeze swung out of the southeast, an anomaly that seemed to perplex the race committee as much as it tantalized the competitors. After a lengthy postponement, the six spinnaker classes ultimately sailed a multi-lap windward-leeward course while the two main-and-jib classes worked their way around a triangular course. Avoiding the flood tide that enveloped the first half of the upwind leg appeared to be the key to gaining ground early on, but plenty of competitors worked the deeper water on the left-hand side of the course and made out well, despite ignoring conventional wisdom. Among those was Thomas Coates and his San Francisco, CA-based J/105 crew aboard Masquerade who jumped off the starting line and worked their way out to an unassailable lead in that 11-boat one-design group. Coates and company repeated that feat in the second race to log back-to-back bullets and lead the event.

Joining the J/105s as one-design groups at Charleston Race Week (a relatively new phenomenon at this event) was an 11-strong Melges 24 crowd, a half dozen J/24s and five S2 7.9s. Despite that congregation, PHRF boats continue to remain the focus of this regatta, which is staged by Charleston Ocean Racing Association (CORA), and the marquee class among those boats was a mixed bag of 14 entries where the ratings ranged from a negative 3 for Terry Smith's J/125 Rain Cloud to the a 123 for Brian Swan's J/27 Bazooka. In that group, Jack Vine's Antrim 27 Rasta Dog out of Winter Garden, FL, stole the show the first day by logging a bullet in the first race and a third in the following contest. It was sweet redemption for a team that made the trip to the Holy City last year only to lose a rig amid blasting breeze.

Dick McGillivary's crew aboard the Beneteau 8-Meter Adrenalin Rush showed great patience in the lighter winds of the second day.

Day Two came at the competitors with quirky westerly breeze streaming down the Ashley River in fits and starts. That day's first contest sent the competitors upwind with the flood tide and local knowledge paid big dividends. Bob Johnstone's team aboard the J/105 Tern V eked out a small margin on the first beat and held on for six laps in the single-digit winds until the committee saw fit to shorten course as the wind began to back quickly to the south. Among the S-2 contingent it was great race for Linton Lewis's Cloud Nine as that crew grabbed a close victory over Terry Rainey's Spirit 2. Meanwhile, Tom Black's Pearson 33-2 Bold Venture was having a strong regatta among the main-and-jib classes. Her crew had logged a 1-2 the day before and added another bullet to lead the regatta by five points over their nearest rival.

The fourth race of the series, and the final contest of that day, was staged in a 12-knot southerly that sped over the water from nearby James Island, putting a premium on shifting gears near the upwind mark where the wind regularly changed angles and velocities. Success in this contest also required proper negotiation of the strengthening ebb tide and staying in breeze as well-defined puffs and lulls strayed down the course. Among the closely matched leaders in the Melges 24 class, it was time for Routt Reingarts' Suzanne to lead the hunt, and her crew managed to find sufficient jets to get around the four-lap course with enough of a lead to secure the win. It was also a good end of the day for Rick Moore's J/30 J-Moose. The Mooseketeers made it look easy grabbing their lone win of the regatta by finishing two seconds ahead of Henry McCreay's sister ship Samson.

On the final day, the wind swung out of the east-northeast with a vengeance—the competitors congregated out on the water for the finale in winds upwards of 20 knots and a strong flood tide. For John Porter's Savannah, GA-based Melges 24 team aboard Roo, it was time for redemption. The crew had launched out of the gates, logging two wins on Day One and then faltered, posting finishes of 7 and 10 on the middle day. But the heavy air was their element, and they blasted around the three-lap course to finish more than a full minute ahead of the next Melges, securing a lock on second place overall. Rick Peper and his crew aboard Spank Me Again won the regatta despite scoring a sixth in the final race when they lost and then retrieved a man overboard.

David Browder's crew aboard the Cook 40 Wahoo takes a break between races. This team ultimately won the Palmetto Cup as the most competitive PHRF boat in attendance.
For local boatbuilder David Browder, whose Cook 40 Wahoo waged war amid the 14 mixed designs in the largest PHRF class, the key to surviving the regatta's varied conditions was sailing consistently. His team posted finishes of 2-7-3-3-6 to walk away with the coveted Palmetto Cup, signifying overall honors as the regatta's most competitive PHRF entry. "We sailed three perfect races and two races that were a little flawed, but that was on a day when we didn't have our sewer women [Lucy Browder and Leslie Hennigar]. We have the best sewer women in the country—the chute never goes up twisted when they're down there."

Browder agreed that local knowledge was an important factor, but said: "The way the courses were set up, the tides really weren't that much of a factor all together because everybody had to face the same conditions. What gained us places was good tactics and boat handling."

Except for the final awards party, Race Week was all over. The racers put away their steeds and those who had fared well celebrated by hoisting a few libations, courtesy of newfound sponsor Mount Gay Rum. And those who didn't come out on top found plenty of solace at the bar as well. Consolation for Eddie Evans, who finished last aboard his Beneteau 381 Naut-on-Call in the non-spinnaker fleet, came in the form of a free trip for two to Paris, France courtesy of presenting sponsor Beneteau USA. Not bad for three days spent out of the office. (For full scores, log on to the CORA website at

The Reconnaissance Game

Racing sailors active in coastal regions have a slight advantage over those who sail inland when it come to understanding tidal currents and their effects on the racecourse. And sailors who compete in areas where there's greater current usually have a slightly better handle on such phenomenon than those who sail where the tidal range isn't quite as great. In Charleston Harbor, tidal currents can exceed three knots, regularly shifting the silty river bottom to create a mutable venue that is often tricky and always challenging.

So what's traveling competitor to do? Conventional wisdom dictates that you gather as much information you can on the venue and its peculiarities in advance of racing, and get this information from as many sources as possible to average out the error. Remember, everyone's got a theory, but much of what you collect can be drivel—well-intended, but drivel just the same. Usually the best sources for information regarding current behavior are the people who work on the water—harbor pilots, fishermen, and commercial captains. Even recreational fishermen can be good sources of information if they're regulars in the given area. And don't overlook the sailors who call the region home, it's likely that the most senior of them have had a chance to observe the area's tidal activity over a long period of time.

Of course you can buy published tidal charts and check on-line sources, but this information is rarely as accurate as actual on-site observation. Come race day, rely on your own observations by getting out on the water early and spending some time sailing where the course will be set. After you judge what the current is doing you can factor that—along with all the other information you gathered beforehand—into your game plan for the race.


Suggested Reading:

Spring Break for Scow Sailors by Dan Dickison

Racecourse Lessons from Key West by Dobbs Davis

Current Events at the Melges 24 Nationals by Dan Dickison


Buying Guide: Spinnaker Poles

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