While it’s tough to win a high-level regatta on Day One of racing, it’s possible to lose the series right away, especially in a highly competitive fleet racing on a challenging body of water. Such was the case today at the 53rd edition of the Rolex Big Boat Series (September 13-17, 2017), which is being hosted by the St. Francis Yacht Club on San Francisco Bay’s wind- and tide-riven waters. Throughout today’s two races, all 89 teams battled for strong leaderboard positions to set themselves up for the rest of the week’s racing. Fortunately, the Bay played nicely, at least at first, delivering five-to-eight-knot winds at the Treasure Island starting area. By the start of the second race, however, the breeze had built to a solid 20-plus knots, with a strong flood tide, as the sun marched west.
All eyes were riveted to the five brand-new Pac52s that were built in the one year time period since Rolex Big Boat Series 2016, all with the intention of claiming the top-shelf hardware at Sunday’s award ceremony. While many of these skippers and crews are old hands at sailing—and winning—their classes at the Rolex Big Boat Series, this is the Pac52’s first appearance at this storied event. “I’m extremely pleased with the progress the Pac52 class has made,” said Manouch Moshayedi, owner/driver of Rio (USA 3545). “The class’s design rules are easy to abide by, and the boats came out to be really fast, so I think all the owners are happy.”
Designing and building fast boats is one thing, but sailing them to high standards on a patch of brine as tricky as San Francisco Bay is entirely different, even for teams whose core crewmembers have been sailing together for decades. “The two things that are challenging about these boats is that they’re fast downwind and things happen quickly,” said Gavin Brady (NZ), a former America’s Cup sailor who serves as tactician aboard Karl Kwok’s Team Beau Geste (IVB 1997). “If you were building a stadium to sail Pac52s, you would just copy San Francisco Bay.” Brady explained that the nature of the Pac52 completely changes when anemometers start reading 15 knots. “It’s almost like an NFL program with an offensive and defensive team—it’s that different. Our playbook and maneuvers change, and the teams that can adjust quickly have a real advantage.”
At the end of Day One, Karl Kwok’s Team Beau Geste is leading the Pac52 class with two bullets, followed by Tom Holthus’ Bad Pak (USA 60052) with two second-place finishes and Frank Slootman's Invisible Hand (USA 5202) with a third and fourth-place finish.
While there were only two multihulls competing in this year’s Rolex Big Boat Series, both boats—Tom Siebel’s MOD 70 Orion (USA 02) and Peter Stoneberg’s Extreme 40 Shadow X (USA 49)—are well-versed at threading their way through crowded racecourses. “At Orion's speeds, the Bay is a small place, and every four minutes or less we’re making a maneuver that entails a full contingent on the coffee-grinder handles and lots of bouncing over the nets to cross to the new high side,” said Peter Isler, a two-time America’s Cup-winning navigator and Orion’s tactician. “We do our best to avoid the gaggle of a tight fleet because it slows us down, but if we’re all headed to the same mark, it’s game on!”
It was “game on” for most of the day for these two multihulls, but after an unfortunate shroud breakdown in Race Two, Shadow X was forced to end their regatta early. All aboard are reported safe.
Meanwhile, the boats in ORR-A (41 to 68 feet) spent the day whipping their horses around the course as their bowmen skillfully tripped spinnaker poles and ran sheets—a serious handful when dogs are getting blown off their chains. “The elite West Coast regattas—Yachting Cup, Long Beach Race Week and the Rolex Big Boat Series—attract a high level of competition,” said Skip Ely, owner and skipper of the Santa Cruz 52, Elyxir (USA 28474), who sails with a talented crew that includes three of his family members. “However, the conditions on San Francisco Bay require that all competitors be at their peak performance. All sailboat racing requires shifting gears to meet conditions, but the Bay requires gears that are not used often in other venues. Sometimes the toughest competition is the Bay itself.”
Ely’s words proved prophetic as today’s breeze-on conditions culminated in some racecourse carnage. As racing wrapped up, ripped headsails and wild-looking broaches battled their way toward the finish line. At the day’s end, the Schumacher 54 Swiftsure (USA 16) leads ORR-A with 4 points. This is Swiftsure’s 36th Rolex Big Boat Series and the crew are sailing with particular heart, as they lost their beloved skipper, the 96-year-old Sy Kleinman, earlier this week. Swiftsure is followed in the rankings by Ely’s Elyxir and Lorenzo Berho’s Peligroso (MEX 55555).
Racing is set to continue through Sunday, September 17, so stay tuned at rolexbigboatseries.com.