Sensei and The Gorge

Here I am, 200192, very happy in a Laser Masters race on the Gorge. Photo by Christy Usher.

My Laser Masters US Champs last weekend didn’t go as planned. I’d convinced myself that I could sail well in a breeze, didn’t need to practice and my toughest call would be the choice between sailing a full rig or a Radial. I was going to be in contention. In reality my toughest call was quitting the first day, in my Radial, without finishing a single race. I’m the guy who stays out there no matter what, so heading for the beach was, shall we say, painful to the core.

Both decisions were the right ones.

My regatta, however, was yet another instance of Sensei Laser reminding me in no uncertain terms that to sail him one must be humble and work hard all the time. I can almost hear a disembodied voice, soothing yet forceful, saying “Grasshopper, you are not yet ready. Thirty eight years of Lasers is but a teardrop of a marmot in a mountain lake. You must carry the boulder up the mountain 10 more times and then we will begin again.”

As it turned out my agonizing over full vs Radial was pointless. The last time I’d sailed a Radial on the Gorge, the winds were atypically light and it was no fun. But this weekend, with the wind already in the high teens and building, predictions for even more wind in the coming days and the window for choosing closing, the Radial was the clear choice.

I made the run to the starting area without difficulty, watched the full rigs take off, and then started to work up-current from the start line. One weird 20-degree shift-puff hit and over I went. No big deal. Then again. And again. I was nearly pushed into the committee boat. And again. I still can’t tell you how I managed to capsize 4 times in the starting sequence, but I did. I wasn’t even late for the start. However, the die was cast for the rest of the regatta. I managed to stay upright until the gybe mark on the second downwind. And again I flipped and reflipped until I lost track of my total capsize count at 14. There was a chase boat nearby, no doubt wondering when they should stop the carnage. I finally said “no mas” and headed back to the beach.

Fortunately, there were plenty of folk already there. Many had not gone out, some had come in for similar reasons as I, and there were a few broken bits and pieces. Moreover, there were some excellent sailors on shore as well.

We watched as the 18-boat full rig fleet dwindled to 8 by the third race and the 28 boat Radial fleet dwindled to 10. My boat put away, I found my tent and nearly fell asleep in the afternoon.

Having thought through all the things Sensei Laser had taught me over the years, I came back humbled and devoid of expectations. I got on the course early, tacked and gybed and gybed and tacked. The wind was down around the low teens, perfect for remembering how to sail. As the wind built during the day, everything made sense again. By the fourth race of the day the wind was up to where it was the day before, well into the 20s with puffs probably into the 30s. I stayed upright and climbed out of the results cellar.

From the outset Sunday, the breeze was on about as it had been Friday. And while I threw in a couple harmless capsizes for good measure, it was a great, exhausting day of sailing. And the final race of the day was epic. I don’t care what the anemometers say, that wind had to be in the 30s much of the time.

The results were never as good as I’d expected, but it was probably the most satisfying regatta I’ve sailed in 20 years.

 

A Gorge Primer

For those who’ve never sailed a dinghy from Cascade Locks on the Columbia River Gorge when it’s “nukin’,” here’s my best shot at describing what it’s like. These are my impressions – not meant to be gospel. Much better sailors than I can describe the ins and outs of how to sail in a breeze in the unique Gorge conditions.

Heading to the start.

You launch from a somewhat sheltered beach at Cascade Locks, and its about a 20 minute sail to the starting area. Hug the shore and it’s relatively benign, though the occasional wind blast will come through. Stick your nose out into the river more and you’ll get a a bigger taste of the huge puffs, combined with waves. More than one sailor has found themself upside down on the way to the start and considered whether he/she should even be out there. Regardless, feeling the breeze on the way to the start can be deceptive. That is, until you turn up.

The Start

With the current running at a couple knots or more, you don’t line up 3 boatlengths upcurrent of the start, it’s more like 8. You find pretty quickly that when folks pull the trigger, they’re pretty much on the line at the start. Those first 30 seconds are critical, and you want to pay particular attention to the monster waves. Hitting one wrong can stop you dead and send you to the back of the fleet in a hurry.

Upwind

If you go right off the start, you get into good current and the washing machine on the Washington side of the river. It’s as raucous a beat as you’ll ever tackle with the wind-against-current standing waves regularly enveloping your hiked-out form while bringing you to a stop. Then you look over to the left and see a bunch of the fleet on a port tack lift along the Oregon shore. But wait, you’ve been carried so far up-course with the current it doesn’t matter. Then there’s the matter of commercial traffic. Barges and their pushboats coming along at around 12 knots over the bottom can be a very scary thing if you’re upside down.

If you go left off the start, you get into the nice flat water and get knocked as you come in, delivering a beautiful port tack lift as you come out. You look up, and all those boats have been carried waaay down current and up the course. But wait, you’re headed at the mark and they’re not. All is good. Even while playing the shore at some point you’re in those big standing waves clearing out your sinuses.

Not only are the puffs often in the 30s, they seem to come randomly in 20-degree shifts. When this happens, there’s only trimming and easing to prevent capsize. There is no cleating. Ever. And tacking is something you plan for. Ease your overtightened vang, pick your trough, and don’t hesitate.

Downwind

All that current is now against you and the standing waves are waiting out in the middle for you to practice your S-turns on. And, there’s generally more breeze. In fact, sometimes boats will head out into that current and head to the gate or leeward mark in a cloud of spray ahead of everyone.

It is very difficult to describe how remarkable these downwind legs are. The adverse current makes them long, thrilling affairs and it’s a truly unique challenge to both stay upright and keep the bow from submarining. Combine that with the Laser’s responsiveness to body language and there’s really no experience quite like it. If you capsize, the water’s warm.

Set up for the puffs, because when they hit they hit hard. If your vang is eased the right amount, you’re overtrimmed just right and you don’t get itchy fingers on the tiller extension, you’ll just end up going faster than you ever thought possible.

Along the Oregon shore and there’s less current and plenty of wind. And that wind seems to bend around and give you a knock later in the leg so you can bear off around the weather mark and then hold that starboard gybe all the way to the mark. More often than not, the Oregon shore pays. But it’s not nearly as fun.

Coming back to the Beach

I see as many capsizes on that 25 minute beat back to the beach as I do on the races. We’re spent. Hiking out is often just sitting and leaning out – a little, while dumping the sail. Reaction time isn’t what it once was, so a bad shift will flip you. But as you come into the beach, there’s almost always someone to take pity on you to haul your boat, and your sorry carcass, onto dry land.

Final Thought

Finally, there’s this: While planing on a Laser in a 30+ gust and spray invading every orifice on your body, you can’t think about health care, your mortgage, your kid’s report card or even Donald Trump. Even one bit. Thank you, Sensei and the Gorge.

 

Kurt grew up racing and cruising in the Midwest, and has raced Lasers since the late 1970s. He has been Assistant Editor at Sailing Magazine and a short stint as Editor of Northwest Yachting. Through Meadow Point Publishing he handles various marketing duties for smaller local companies. He currently is partners on a C&C 36 which he cruises throughout the Northwest. He’s married to the amazing Abby and is father to Ian and Gabe.

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