Lake Ontario 300, July 17-20, 2010

gbowdish - August 2, 2010



Lake Ontario may be the smallest of the Great Lakes, but I found the LO300 the most challenging. During the weather briefing at the skippers meeting the night before the race we were warned about the possibility of squalls and thunderstorms with gusty winds. Two hours into the 300-mile race I noticed storm clouds approaching from the southwest. I went below to put on foul weather gear, and upon returning to the cockpit I was alarmed to see a boat off my starboard beam with its spinnaker in the water! Then I noticed another boat closer to shore with her spinnaker in shreds. I had elected to start the race with the genoa because of the forecast, and I was in the process of furling it when the gust reached me. The wind whipped the sail violently, twisting the sheets around each other tightly and leaving the clew flogging. I eased the mainsheet and headed off about 30 degrees, hand steering until the gust passed. I noticed the full main plastered against the spreaders and wondered if the battens would still be in one piece. Wind driven rain soaked the cabin as I had no time to replace the companionway hatch boards.

The squall passed in a few moments that seemed like an eternity. I checked the wind indicator and noted the maximum wind was 40 knots. I had gone up the mast the day before to lubricate the wind transducer because it had been getting stuck, and I’m still not sure that I’m getting accurate wind speeds. Other boats reported much higher gusts.

I went forward to check on the genoa. The leech line had come undone, but the sail appeared to still be in one piece. I untied the sheets one at a time, untwisted them, then retied them. I had to take a few wraps off to untangle the mess, and when I returned to the cockpit to unfurl the sail, I noticed that I had a lot more tail to the furling line that I was supposed to have. I went back to the foredeck to put more wraps on the furling drum, just in case I would need to fully furl the sail for the next squall.

I reefed early for the next squall and had the hatch boards in, so it was a non-event for Shanti. Unfortunately for other boats, it was a different story. I heard on the radio as several boats contacted the Canadian Coast Guard to report they were dropping out of the race. I heard one boat relay that they were going to assist a trimaran, Cheekee Monkey, which had capsized, and I was relieved to hear that a coast guard vessel had picked up the four crew. Another boat reported an accidental jibe with a broken boom, and fortunately the preventer had prevented the boom from hitting the skipper in the head! By the time the night was over, 60 of the 200 boats that had started the race had retired.

I continued sailing on starboard tack with reefed main until the wind shifted to the west as predicted, which was my signal that the front had passed. I jibed and followed the wind shift toward Scotch Bonnet Island, the turning mark for the short course. I enjoyed a beautiful sunset over Toronto and after a hot supper I settled in for the night. I could see the lights of boats to starboard and astern, then as I neared Scotch Bonnet, I started to see boats heading back toward me as they had rounded the island and were headed to the Niagara mark. I napped briefly for just a few minutes, worried about traffic and navigating through the shoals as I was approaching Main Duck Island. The sunrise was welcome and daylight revealed that I was sailing in a pack of about a dozen boats. I rounded Main Duck Island with One Girl’s Ocean Challenge, skippered by Diane Reid, the only other female singlehander in the race. Diane was using the LO300 as a training race to prepare for a singlehanded 4000 mile transatlantic race in 2011.

Leg two was an upwind beat in 15 knots of wind to a buoy marking Ford shoal just west of Oswego, NY, and offered no opportunity for sleep. I tacked once to set myself up for the mark, but someone turned the wind off as I tacked around the mark about 1630 and I had to go back out and round it again, this time going farther into the shoal water before tacking back out. Shanti drifted slowly out into the open lake, sails hanging limply waiting for the wind to come back, wallowing in the swells left over from the afternoon wind. In spite of the uncomfortable motion of the boat I finally got a few much needed catnaps.

As the sun was setting I noticed a few ripples on the water, and with eased sails I was able to get Shanti moving again. I noticed about half the sails on the horizon were along the New York shoreline, while the rest were out in the middle of the lake with me. This observation was confirmed at the 2000 radio check in. The singlehanded fleet checked in with one another every 6 hours, relaying positions and weather observations. The skippers that were close to shore reported no wind there either.

At 0200 Monday morning the leaders of the singlehanded fleet checked in early, or not at all, because they were busy preparing for an approaching squall. Several people commented on the amazing light show as frequent lightning illuminated the clouds and occasionally sent a finger down to the water. The VHF weather alert alarm screeched loudly, startling me to attention. Environment Canada was warning of 60 knot gusts in the approaching squalls and suggested that boats should seek safe harbor immediately, and if out on the open lake to seek shelter below decks until these dangerous storms passed. I asked myself what I was doing out on the open lake with such a forecast. I’m a cruiser! I should be in a secure harbor somewhere! I put a double reef in the main, rolled up most of the genoa, and put the hatch boards in. I altered course to give myself more sea room as I had caught up with another boat. Finally, I stayed in radio contact with Bill on GL3 who was a mile behind me, as he had XM satellite weather with Doppler radar and was able to track the storm cells. He gave the all clear about an hour later when the storms had moved past us, and I could see the moon trying to peek out from behind the clouds. I shook out the reefs and sailed west toward the Niagara mark.

Sunrise Monday morning brought a west wind, precisely the direction I wanted to go! It would be a long beat to the Niagara mark, still 35 miles away. I had covered the first 150 miles in 24 hours, but the second half was not going so well. I was so exhausted I would not allow myself to sleep on the inshore tacks because I have been known to sleep through my alarm when I’m sleep deprived, and I could just imagine how embarrassed I would be when Shanti washed up on shore! After tacking six times, the wind veered to the northwest, and I was able to lay the Niagara buoy. By 2000 however, Shanti coasted to a stop in water as still as a millpond, sails limp, just 0.6 miles from the turning mark. Fearing I might be caught in the current from the Niagara River and run aground on the bar at the mouth of the river, and feeling very short on sleep, I dropped the sails, put down the anchor, turned on the anchor light, and slept for an hour and a half!

I woke up with the alarm and had a look around. There were a few ripples on the water and when GL3 called me on the radio to let me know he was approaching the mark and had about 4 knots of wind, I started sailing again. The wind remained light, and about 6 miles past the buoy I was becalmed again. I took several naps, sleeping through the alarm more than once, and at 0200 I woke up to find that I was headed to Hamilton! What little wind there was, was from the NW and so was the finish line. I tried port tack, and found there was wind, but I was heading east of Toronto, definitely not a very good VMG. I went back to starboard tack until the VMG was half my boat speed, then tacked back to port, repeat. Somehow I found 5 knots of wind on the way to Toronto, so I rode it, marveling at how Shanti could make her own wind, the hull slicing through flat water at 5 knots.

I could see a wind line, or rather, a no wind line, up ahead as I neared the Toronto islands, so I made one last tack to the west, and was lifted so I could actually lay the mark without tacking again. Unfortunately, the wind was turned off again as I approached the turning mark, but somehow Shanti maintained her momentum with limp sails as we drifted around the mark and turned east toward the finish line. GL3 crossed the line about five minutes ahead of me. He must have gotten ahead of me while I was sleeping…

Shanti finished the Lake Ontario 300 Tuesday morning in just under 70 hours, making me the fourth sailor (Bill on GL3 was the third), and first woman, to singlehand a race the length each of the five Great Lakes. Three other skippers finishing behind me also achieved this distinction: John on Finnair, Adrian on Ophir II, and Tom on Jacelyn. My corrected time placed me sixth out of 17 singlehanded boats that started the race. Six did not finish. Next order of business: a nap!


tvmoorhouse's picture

Congratulations on finishing the race and placing so well. It is said that Lake Ontario is the hardest lake to sail. It sounds that you also found this. Waves are so close together and lumpy a great deal of the time.
Congratulations again...
Ted & Venetia