Border Run 2016 or How I Learned to Love the Tramp

By Brian Willess

Border Run 2016 or How I Learned to Love the Tramp

Jim Tomes and I had a great adventure sailing the 2016 Border Run long distance sailboat race from New Port Beach CA to San Diego Harbor CA 1/29-1/30.  We’re planning on racing the GT300 this summer and we wanted to get out on the water for a long distance race, this was our trial run.  Jim’s very experienced cat sailor and we agreed that Jim would skipper and I would crew.  

Logistics and getting on the water

Logistics were a big part of the race for us, mostly because it took a lot of time and included lots of driving in CA traffic.  This year the race was held on Friday 1/29, so Thursday we drove from Phoenix to New Port Beach CA.  We left early and arrived around Noon local time.  We rigged the boat in a pay parking lot behind the American Legion Yacht Club.  The Yacht Club allowed us to store the boats on the beach overnight.

As we were rigging we talked about how Lee had done the Harvest Moon Regatta in Texas on the boat with a woman he knew from CO.  The Harvest Moon Regatta is much more extreme than what we were about to take on at 150 miles.  As we were moving the boat from the parking lot to the beach we saw a couple riggings a Hobie 21 SE on the street.  We stopped to say hi and met Rick and Wendy.  Wendy was the woman who sailed with Lee in the Harvest Moon, what a small world.  Rick and Wendy helped us get to boat over the curb onto the beach; we put the boat into the water and I paddled it around a short doc to the beach where the boat would spend the night.  We helped Rick and Wendy finish rigging their boat and helped them get it onto the beach next to our boat.

The plan was to move the truck, trailer, and all our personal gear to the take out point on Shelter Island San Diego Harbor.  Long story short we finally got to Shelter Island.  We left the sails with the boat, but had all our other sailing gear with us.  We would catch a ride with a friend from Carlsbad to New Port Beach Friday morning for the race.  We quickly thought through logistics and realized that we needed to leave our suitcases with the truck so that we would have all our personal items when we finished the race.  So we put on our sailing clothes, Jim in his swim trunks and t-shirt, me in my dry suit under-garment AKA the onesie.  We drove to Carlsbad where we had warm beds for the night and the company of friends.  The truck, trailer, and all our personal stuff was left in San Diego, we were committed to sailing the whole way.  This became the theme for the race, we were committed!

Friday morning we were up early and my friend from Carlsbad, Sherri, drove us to the venue, Jim in his swim shorts and me in my onesie.  We decided to stop for coffee and show off our cool outfits in public, we would never see these people again, let’s have some fun with it!

Let’s Go Racing

The race organizers arranged for a power boat to tow the two beach cats out of the harbor to the start line.  We tied the boats together and left the beach a little after 9:30 AM.  It was a couple of miles to get out of the harbor and the tow was essential.  We looked at all the nice homes and huge boats and wondered what it would be like to live that lifestyle.  As we got closer to the Pacific we got our first look at the Mighty Merloe, a high tech, full foiling 60′ trimaran sail boat.  What a hot boat!  We released from our tow line before we reached the start and started to get comfortable on the boat.  We did a few drive-bys on the Merloe and snapped lots of pictures.

The Start

We had a great start, crossing the line first with one trimaran upwind from us.  No sooner had we crossed the line we saw the Merloe coming fast to our downwind side.  They rolled us like we were standing still within 3-4 feet of catching our leeward rigging on their windward pontoon which was ~7′ above the water, it was cool!  Video of the start can be seen here: 

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The Race

The winds were not in our favor, we were supposed to have a downwind run the whole way but instead we had light winds 3-5mph and the wind was directly from San Diego Harbor.  We would have to beat into the wind the whole way 70+ miles. 

We had a couple of good battles early on, one very nice monohull that reminded me of the volvo racing yachts.  We were able to swap places a few times before they peeled off for the Dana Point course finish flying the spinnaker.  We also were able to overtake a Corsair F27 trimaran.  It took us a while but we finally passed him.  The skipper told us about potential places to bail if the wind got any worse, we were committed to San Diego!  Not long after we passed the F27 the wind got really low and we were barely moving.   At this point we had been on the water ~6 hours and only covered ~14 miles, and we had ~60 to go still.  The F27 and one other trimaran decided to abandon the race and head to the party at Dana Point.  Both boats motored over to us and asked us if we wanted a tow to Dana Point.  Jim and I discussed sailing through the night, if we continued it would be a long night.  We declined the tows, we were committed to San Diego!  Besides, all our clothes, trunk and trailer are all in San Diego, I guess I could have partied in my onesie.

At this point we could see a few boats off in the distance but nothing close.  We keep sailing, trying to get as much boat speed as possible and pinching as high as possible to try and make VMG.  Neither Jim or I had much night sailing experience so as the sun got lower we enjoyed the sunset and prepared for the night.  We both strapped flashlights to our PFDs, put some light on the digital compass so we could track our heading, and turned on our running lights; we sailed into the darkness.  We also put on stylish beanie caps and extra layers to help keep us warm thought the night.  My biggest concern about the race was keeping warm.  It had just gotten dark and we were both getting comfortable with sailing in the dark and I decided to lay down on the tramp to try and get some sleep.  I had my head close to the front beam and a dolphin breached right under the spinnaker bag 18″ from my head, scared me to death!  Of course Jim proclaimed that it was a shark and that the sharks like to eat at night, thanks Jim!

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The SugarLips

At this point we could see the navigation lights of a boat far ahead of us.  Jim was on a mission to catch her.  We were slowly gaining on the boat when we got a favorable wind shift and were able to fly the spinnaker and sail on a direct course to the finish, our boat speed doubled and we started to gain on the large monohull very quickly.  As we got close we could see them putting flashlights on all the sails, why was this boat catching us so quickly?  We must be doing something wrong!  We came along side of her, the SugarLips.  The crew called out to us and asked what we were?  We told them we are a NACRA 20 beach cat.  They could not believe we were out there.  The skipper on SugarLips made sure to tell us that they were an 18 ton vessel, so it only made sense that we were faster, whatever.  We kept the spin up and left them in the dust!  Good times!!!!  We flew the spin for a couple of hours and covered ~20 miles, without this push we may not have finished before the cutoff.  We were pretty happy with ourselves, we were sailing more than 10 miles offshore in the Pacific, in the dark, flying the spinnaker.  No fear, let’s do this!  Committed!

We continued to sail into the darkness, we could see lights to the West but nothing towards San Diego.  After a few hours we were able to see the night glow with city lights, that must be San Diego.  This whole time we’re looking at the GPS and it telling us we have 28 – 42 hours to our destination, oh my!   We were committed, but if we got in after 2:00 PM Saturday we would DNF, that would not be acceptable, we kept sailing.  The moon finally came out and it helped us keep a steady heading and provided pretty good light for us to see the boat and sails.  Jim was at the helm most of the night.  I skippered for ~30 minutes and Jim was able to catch a power nap.  I was really having a hard time staying awake.  As Jim napped I was nodding off but kept going since I could hear Jim sleeping.  It was not long until Jim just jumped up like he had just woken up from a 4 hour nap.  I’m not sure how he does that. 

At one point in the night I was trying to sleep and we heard whales breaking the surface for air.  We did not see them, but they sounded like they were close, maybe less than 50′ from the boat.  It was exciting and scary at the same time.  We never laid eyes on a whale but we heard that the Grays were running and heard reports from other boats and saw a few whale watching boats zipping around looking for them.

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San Diego and the Sugar Sue

We finally start getting closer to San Diego, we can see the lights!  Far up ahead we see another monohull, the Sugar Sue.  This was a hot racing boat.  39′, huge sail plan, and an experienced crew that was not happy to see this little beach cat gaining on them.  This battle lasted for the remainder of the race.  As we approached La Jolla we were pretty close to Suger Sue.  She tacked away from shore, we debated why she tacked so soon, but who knows.  We went closer to shore so that after our tack we would be upwind to her.  We went deeper and tacked.  This area of the coast has lots of kelp beds and one theory was that they knew something about the kelp.  Well it did not take long before we found out why they tacked so early, lobster pots.  Not just a few, but a few hundred lobster pots spaced out every 50 yards or so.  Jim did a great job keeping an eye out and missing all but one!  We caught a lobster pot and we stopped almost immediately.  I pulled the daggers and cleared the boat.  We were moving again.  We encountered a few more miss-steps while perusing Sugar Sue.  From picking up kelp to dropping a running light and having to make 4 passes to pick it up, we never got right next to The Sugar Sue.  We did manage to get ahead of her by sailing a better course.  We had the pleasure of hanging out with the crew of the Sugar Sue after the race and learned that our presence on the water lit a fire under the crew.  They thought we were playing with them, catching up, then falling back and sailing in circles.  They thought we were just showing how much faster we were!


Point Loma

The next battle we faced was getting around Point Loma.  Point Loma is the Northern point to the channel entrance for San Diego Harbor.  It was still dark as we got closer to the point.  There are huge thick kelp beds close to the point so we stayed out pretty far, 1-2 miles.  This part of the race was very challenging since we had a few factors against us.  The tide from the Harbor was heading out, we had very light wind that was shifting 40 degrees every 40 seconds, the waves got very large, ~6′-7′ trough to peak, and we had about 20 minutes of sleep.  When the boat was at the top of the wave we get into wind and power-up, and in the trough we lost all power.  I think we worked to get around the point for at least 2-hours, maybe 3.  It was depressing to look at the point because it seemed like we did not make any ground this whole time.  The Sugar Sue had gone out further, but they were also having issues.  It’s now daylight but a little foggy, we can see ships entering the harbor.  We fight our way to the channel and go a little further so that we can sail the lay line to the finish.  We tack towards the finish line and have a strong starboard tack the whole way.  We made it and it was ~8:30 AM or so!


I’ll forever call this race epic!  Usually when I think about some of the extreme sailing I’ve done it’s the strong winds and high speeds that make it extreme.  This race was different, it was all about dedication to the finish, fighting the good fight, and positive attitudes.  Jim and I both had the best attitudes throughout the entire race.  We knew it was going to be long, we knew it was going to be slow, but we hunkered down and did what it took to get to the end.  If we had been negative about any one aspect of the challenges we faced it could have been a miserable time. 

By the time we hit the ramp at Shelter Island we had been on the water for over 24-hours.  We took the boat out of the water, put the sails away and checked into our hotel across the street.  We spent time with the other sailors at the party and enjoyed swapping stories and perspectives from the other boats that we battled.  It turned out that we inspired them as much as they inspired us, good times!

There were 25 boats racing the San Diego Course, only 5 finished before the cut off time.  Most bailed out at Dana Point.  The only boat that beat us across the line was the Mighty Merloe, the 60′ foiling trimaran.  We drove home with first place in the Beach Cats category, first place in the Double Hand Category, the perpetual Beach Cat Trophy, and the respect from all the other sailors.  All in all a great time.

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Many thanks to Sherri Waite for putting us up and driving us to the start, and Jim for being a great skipper with a great attitude.  I can’t wait for the GT300!


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