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Original Issue

An Inside Strait

...and an outside rush into the rolling swells of the Pacific mark the Swiftsure Lightship Classic, in which the sailors find that the tides wait for no man

Any sailor who has ever hoisted a spinnaker in competition has a dream race. A fair wind fills his sails and foam shears past the bow as his boat cuts cleanly through the sea. Sunshine warms him and beautiful scenery enchants him. Well, most of the time: occasionally storms stand the boat on end and the cold cuts to his bones. But the racing fleet is top quality and the course is demanding, making his eventual victory (this is a dream, remember) all the sweeter. Across the finish line lies a pleasant port where the sailor can drink and be merry among good companions.

Next weekend there is a race—a real race, the annual Swiftsure Lightship Classic—that could fulfill the most demanding sailor's dreams. The 136-mile event is wild and wet, for the course runs from Victoria, B.C. on the southeast corner of Vancouver Island, through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and 15 miles out into the Pacific, then returns to Victoria. Though the lightship that once marked the ocean entrance is gone, the spirit that spawned the first Swiftsure nearly half a century ago survives. In 1930, the organizers declared, "The object of the race is to encourage...the ownership and racing of cruising yachts of wholesome type, capable of an open-sea venture, in which winds from fresh to half-gale force may be expected."

But the Swiftsure is more than a rugged test of boat and crew; its spectacular setting makes it one of the most picturesque. After leaving Victoria and skirting Race Rocks, the fleet enters the hazardous, rock-edged Juan de Fuca channel, named for the shadowy figure who was presumably a Greek navigator voyaging under a phony Spanish name. He claimed to have discovered the strait in 1592 while searching for the Northwest Passage. To the north lies the stark, lovely shore of Canada, with desolate beaches, high banks and cliffs fringed with Douglas fir, red cedar and Sitka spruce. To the south, 15 miles across the strait, lies the state of Washington and its snow-topped Olympic Mountains, whose jagged ridges rise above the lush green of the heavily forested coastline. The mountains loom over the fleet throughout the 50-mile passage in the strait.

The prevailing wind blows off the ocean, light in the morning, building throughout the afternoon, then fading at sunset. "Usually the wind is right on the nose all the way out," says Sunny Vynne, a Seattle sailor who managed Intrepid's America's Cup campaign in 1974. "Then it becomes a chute ride on the westerly coming home. But you can never really count on the pattern." Last year, for instance, an easterly was blowing at the Saturday morning start and spinnakers were carried past the dangerous Race Rocks. In the early afternoon, the wind faded, became a westerly and was shifty much of the night. "They haven't had a so-called standard Swiftsure for several years," says Alan Holt of Seattle, winner of the 1976 race in his 30-foot Ladybug. The 1977 winner was Kanata, a red-hulled, 41-foot sloop designed and sailed by Vancouver's Vladimir Plavsic. Like Plavsic, the majority of the skippers and crews in the race are from the Vancouver-Washington region.

Still, if the Swiftsure can be a dream race, it can also turn into a nightmare, as happened two years ago. Winds of 45 knots and 20-foot seas tossed the 222 racing boats around the course; several of the yachts were dismasted and 62 failed to finish. A Columbia 30, Native Dancer, disabled after a huge wave smashed her rudder, lost her skipper and a crewman overboard. The crewman managed to swim ashore, but the skipper drowned. The boat was hurled onto a deserted beach on Vancouver Island and the rest of the crew was rescued the next morning by a Canadian Armed Forces helicopter. The Swiftsure has been called "mile for mile the toughest race in North American sailing." and with justice.

Even when the weather behaves and the sun shines, strong tides pull through the strait and boats frequently have to drop anchor to keep from being dragged backward. "By Race Rocks the tide is tricky and can run five or six knots," says Gordon Nickells, former commodore of the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, which sponsors the Swiftsure. "You can actually see the difference in the elevation of the water. When the tide is flooding you can see that the water is higher outside Race Rocks than inside."

If the tide doesn't get you, the huge swells in the Pacific will. "The last 10 or 15 miles to the ocean mark can be very rough," says Bates McKee, a Swiftsure veteran from Seattle. "The swells are big enough so you're actually blanketed in the troughs. You go dead each time you go down. You slat once in the trough and come back up and sail another 10 feet and go down again. It also can get incredibly cold out in those Pacific rollers in the middle of the night when you haven't enough wind to work with. Seasickness comes easily." Add mischievous winds, abruptly wheeling from east to west and ranging from a zephyr to a gale, and you have the basic elements of a Swiftsure. "The unpredictability and the sudden changes—that's the challenge of this race," says Humphrey Golby, curator of the Victoria Yacht Club, who has seen just about every Swiftsure.

No matter what the weather, most of the boats can count on finishing on Sunday in time for tea and crumpets at Victoria's staid Empress Hotel, a proud outpost of England. After suffering the numbing cold and seasickness, many sailors vow never to return. But they usually do. The memory of those tricky tides and brutal ocean rollers fades while the image of bright spinnakers against a pine-fringed shore and snow-crowned Mount Olympus endures. The race is an addiction; the size of the fleet has grown almost every year since the '50s. Next weekend, with the added attraction of the Victoria-to-Maui race, which follows the Swiftsure every other year and draws internationally known yachts to the region, the size of the Swiftsure fleet will set yet another record.