Saturday, December 4, 2010

NC Challenge 2010: Sprint to the Finish

The sprint to the finish was my favorite part of our NCC'10 adventure aboard Dawn Patrol.   

Finishing a race in sight of your main competitors, with first place up for grabs, on a sunny day in fair weather, with family and friends on hand  --that's got to be a highlight in any adventure race. And it was this year.

At the Finish Line:   Moon Shadow  and  Dawn Patrol.   
  Alan (SOS) and Paul (DWSB)  met by Dawn (SandyBottom).
(photo by RidgeRunner)
The Surprise Ending

We were running up Core Sound at about 5.5 kts chasing "famously fast" EC22 Southern Skimmer (Roo and Tinker) while being chased by the "relentlessly rowing" SeaPearl 21 Moon Shadow (Jarhead and Bigfoot).  First place in the monohull sailboat class (Class 4) was up for grabs.   Southern Skimmer had a commanding lead and we knew we could stay ahead of Moon Shadow if the wind held.  It seemed we would finish in that order: 1, 2, 3.   Wrong!   In a surprising turn of events Dawn Patrol finished 10 minutes behind Moon Shadow and an hour ahead of Southern Skimmer.    How?!

Second Wind

The sprint to the finish began to unfold at about 9:30 am when we found our "second wind"  --figuratively and literally.  After being becalmed at sunrise and struggling to stay awake while rowing, a 10mph breeze picked us up,  the sun warmed and brightened us,  we had coffee and breakfast,  and we began to enjoy the morning.  That severe discomfort of sleep deprivation melted away.   

We were energized and very glad to be sailing downwind.  That was a navigational treat on Core Sound because it meant we could raise our centerboard and shortcut over shallow areas.  What an improvement over last year (NCC'09) which featured eight hours of beating upwind through big chop, carefully zig-zaging up the sound to stay in the narrow channels with centerboard down,  hundreds of gallons of cold spray hitting us in the face.

The home-stretch was looking good.   Feeling good.

Why Are They Still Rowing ?

We were constantly adjusting sails to best advantage and we were still rowing for two reasons:

(1) Far ahead of us, Southern Skimmer was gradually increasing their lead. We could see their spinnaker flying and we could only guess that they were not feeling the need to row.

(2) Hot on our heals, Moon Shadow seemed to never stop rowing.   They rowed even when they were sailing fast!   Later when I asked Bill "Jarhead" Fite about this,  he said
"If the oar bites then it must help at least a little bit."  
It was no accident that Moon Shadow took first place in Class 4 of the 2010 Everglades Challenge and first place in Class 4 in the 2010 NCC.   

Relentless Moon Shadow as seen earlier on the Neuse: "They're still rowing!"
(photo by DWSB)

With wind, we had been able to stay ahead of Moon Shadow,  but without wind (as in Harlowe Canal) they had enjoyed rowing past us.

The amount of rowing we had done in this race was shocking:  at least 18.5 of the previous 26 hours, rowing!  And yet we were doing it without muscle fatigue and without blistering our hands (thanks to applying SandyBottom's "Hydropel" on our palms.)  From the very start at 7:30am Friday we had rowed until 3:00pm when a “first wind” finally arrived to power us up the Neuse River to the Harlowe waterway.  We rowed through the canal against a 1.7 kt current from 6:30pm Friday to 1:30am Saturday. Exiting the narrow waterway we found our “first wind” waiting for us in the open waters of the Newport River. The wind was good for four more hours of sailing,  through the bridge on Gallants Channel to the check point at Beaufort, out Taylor Creek, through Back Sound, and around Harkers Island into Core Sound. 

By about 6:00am that "first wind" had died on Core Sound and we were struggling to keep our eyes open as we yet again resumed rowing.  It was hard going.  As the sun rose, we were painfully sleep deprived and forgot to reset tracking mode on our SPOT Messenger when it lapsed off.   I was falling asleep on my feet.  SOS said he was "feeling great" but his head was nodding as he held the tiller and we were both a bit loopy.  

Now with our "second wind" we were feeling great.  We flew the mizzen stays'l.  Moon Shadow flew her stays'l, too.   They continued to row.  We rowed.  Believing we could hold off Moon Shadow, we were focused on catching Southern Skimmer.  Miracles happen, right?  

Game Changer

And then Moon Shadow changed the game.  About 10:45am as we were passing Thorofare Bay to port,  Moon Shadow seemed to be on a bearing slightly westward of Southern Skimmer's track.  Southern Skimmer was already approaching the channel between Chain Shot Island and Harbor Island.  They would soon be in deeper water of Pamlico Sound.  We were still in Core Sound in their wake.  Moon Shadow was still a bit behind us but getting farther away to port.

By 11:10am we realized Moon Shadow was not following Southern Skimmer.  They were headed into Cedar Island Bay and toward Beach Creek which is the extremely shallow cut-through linking Cedar Island Bay to the Pamlico Sound.   They were going to attempt the shallow shortcut and might beat us all to the finish.

In a flash it was obvious to Alan and I that the cut was a good bet.  We turned 60 degrees to port to chase down Moon Shadow.   The game had changed suddenly:  we were going to the cut,  Moon Shadow had a lead of  ~ 3/4 nm,  and Southern Skimmer could still win via the channel east of Chain Shot Island.

GPS Track of Dawn Patrol

GPS Track of Dawn Patrol

Flashback to Thursday

Alan and I had scouted the shallow cut-through on Thursday and had decided that the forecast of good winds would favor the deep-water route between Chain Shot Island and Harbor Island.  Now we were gambling on the cut-through.  At least we knew what to expect and our tracks from Thursday were still on our handheld chartplotter.

We learned later that the Moon Shadow crew had also scouted Beach Creek before the race and had decided that the route looked very promising.  Just before the start of the race on Friday, Jarhead had checked the wind-driven (not tidal) water level in the cut and decided it looked deep enough.

Beach Creek Photos

During the sprint to the finish we were too busy to pick up the camera. Here are a few photos from our exploration on Thursday, September 23. In retrospect I would like to have had a camera mounted on a bracket aft of the transom to take time-lapse photos automatically.

Beach Creek:  Thin water and white sand in the cut-through

Beach Creek:  Looking NW at  shoals and varying depths

Beach Creek:  Looking North at opening to Pamlico Sound

Tracks:  Thursday (yellow)  and  Saturday (black)

Running the Cut

As we left Core Sound, Moon Shadow now had a big lead.  We were gaining on them and we were still 5nm from the finish line.  Would we catch them in time?

The sprint through the cut was my favorite part of the race.   The white sandy bottom of Beach Creek was beautiful with no shells, no oysters.   We kicked off our shoes to run alongside the Dawn Patrol.  The depths varied continually ranging from a foot or so to just 2 or 3 inches.  Our sails were set for a tight reach with the stays'l flying and sheeted in tight. The centerboard and rudder were barely in the water. Using crew and gear as ballast, we heeled the boat over sharply to reduce keel draft through the thin water. In deeper spots we rowed. In shallow areas we jumped out and ran alongside. Occasionally we dragged the boat.  The wind was a tremendous help, but one of the challenges was to control leeward sideslip. 

The water and sand felt great on our feet.  We were jumping in and out of the boat as necessary.  I tripped and fell out of the boat once into 8 inches of water. With air temperatures near 89 (F), the soaking felt great.  As I jumped to my feet,  Alan look back horrified for a moment thinking I might not be able to run fast enough to catch the boat. I did have to run fast, but no problem.

Mid-way through the cut,  we looked back toward Core Sound and noticed that the Isotope catamaran crewed by HoldYourCourse and CourseSetter was entering the cut.  After giving up on sailing through and after lowering their sails,  they were having no problem walking through the cut, towing the Isotope behind them.

The Finish

Waiting on the beach,  friends, family, and finishers with binoculars were astounded to see masts above Beach Creek and coming through the cut.  Many kayakers had come through Beach Creek but Class 4 boats were unexpected.

Watching for incoming boats with binoculars...  or telepathically.
(Photo by RidgeRunner) 
Still finding their way through/over the shoals, Moon Shadow entered Pamlico Sound not far ahead of us. Would we catch them?   They were less than 1.0 nm from the finish.  Out in Pamlico Sound they, and then we, tacked and rowed toward the beach where we all started.

Moon Shadow landed first with a well-earned win in Class 4.  Alan and I were very happy for Jarhead and Bigfoot, and we were glad we had taken the shortcut. It was the best part of the race.

Moon Shadow takes 1st Place in Class 4
(photo by Maura S. / SaltyFrog)

Moon Shadow,  Jarhead and Bigfoot,
and Dawn Patrol on the horizon
(photo by RidgeRunner)

Dawn Patrol  takes 2nd Place in Class 4
(photo by Maura S. / SaltyFrog)

Dawn Patrol:   SOS and DWSB
(photo by  RidgeRunner)
Dawn Patrol:  SOS and DWSB
(photo by Maura S. / SaltyFrog)

DWSB, SOS, and SandyBottom
(photo by RidgeRunner)

Jarhead,  SOS,  DWSB,  Bigfoot
(photo by Maura S. / SaltyFrog)

Southern Skimmer reached Pamlico Sound to find little wind. They had to row to the finish line for 3rd place in Class 4.

Southern Skimmer takes 3rd Place in Class 4
(photo by Kokopedal )

We Were Lucky

It's a tie....
 Boat A  averages 5.40 kts over the 8.4nm route (via Chain Shot Is.) to finish in 1.555hrs
 Boat B  averages 3.47 kts over the 5.4nm route (via Beach Creek)   to finish in 1.555hrs

From the point where we turned 60 degrees toward the shortcut,  the distance to the finish was 5.4nm via Beach Creek, or 8.4nm via Chain Shot Island .   A boat taking the 5.4nm-route at 3.47kts, and another boat taking the 8.4nm-route at 5.40kts would reach the finish line at the same time.

These speeds are similar to those we experienced:  On Core Sound we were averaging about 5.5kts just before we changed course,  and from the turning point to the finish line we averaged about 3.5kts as we sailed, rowed, and dragged the boat.

The shorter route was a better bet in questionable winds. But it was still a gamble.  A shift in the wind or steadier stronger wind could easily have brought Southern Skimmer in for 1st place.

[GPS Track and Speeds]


  1. Thanks, Paul. I was really curious how this played, and it's a great story.


  2. Beautiful story Paul. I love the part splashing through Beach Creek. You make rowing for 18.5 hours sound like a mild inconvenience. You show a wonderful respect for your competitors.

    Hats off to you and Alan.

  3. Great posts Paul, really like the photos combined the the descriptions.