The Rolex Big Boat Series is known for many things, of which amazing visuals is chief among them.
The 70-foot trimaran Orion cutting through the water with its windward hull high in the air, three sailors perched atop it, looking like tiny toy soldiers dressed in white with black helmets to match the colossal multihull’s paint job.
Then comes the bold-red Golden Gate Bridge into the scene, a certified wonder of the modern world with suspension towers almost eight times the height of Orion’s 30-metre (98 foot) mast. The bridge spans a mile-wide straight, which is boiling with ripping current that Orion must negotiate on its way to a race mark set “outside” of San Francisco Bay, a 60-mile-long, 12-mile-wide estuary that is the primary stage for the event.
For over 50 years, the Rolex Big Boat Series has been the pinnacle event in west coast sailing, and this year is no different, with nearly 90 boats vying for victory in 11 classes (Orion’s Multihull Class included) and six of those (ORR A, ORR B, HPR, J/111, J/120 and J/105) looking to also take home St. Francis Yacht Club Perpetual Trophies accompanied by the sport’s most prestigious of awards: specially engraved Rolex timepieces.
“Because we’re so fast and so big, the consequences are that we require a lot of forethought to plan our maneuvers well ahead of time,” said Orion’s tactician Charlie Ogletree, who was the USA’s 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist in the Tornado multihull class. “We go three to four times the speed of the other boats in other classes, so they become obstacles that we have to avoid. That’s the challenge, but it’s also the fun.”
Successful San Francisco businessman Tom Seibel owns Orion and has steered her to victories in five races over the last three days. The team was leading going into today; however, light winds gave the advantage to Randy Miller’s Marstrom 32 Miller Racing, which after winning today’s race is now tied on points with Orion going into tomorrow.
“It’s a shame for us the wind didn’t hold out and that the forecast is light for tomorrow as well, but that’s the reality of the sport, right?,” said Ogletree, noting that on day one, Orion unleashed her awesome power to reach 35 knots of boat speed in 19-20 knots of breeze.
While the speed and prowess of the multihulls are spiking the blood pressure of those sailing them as well as those watching, heart-pounding battles are playing out in other classes, as well.
Take the bout between the 54-foot Swiftsure and the 46-foot Boomerang, currently at the top of the scoreboard in ORR B; heading into today they were tied on point score. When the wind didn’t cooperate until mid-afternoon, a single race (instead of the scheduled two) made the difference of, now, one point separating the two.
“Usually we’re not very good in light air, but we’ve been getting better and better, so I felt pretty good about winning today in 10-15 knots,” said Swiftsure’s helmsman Steve Taft, who left second place to Boomerang in today’s two-hour race. “What we’ve been doing is trading races with Boomerang every day; they win the morning races (lighter air) and we win the afternoon races (heavier air). Tomorrow’s expected light air doesn’t exactly favor us, but if we can do it today, we can do it tomorrow.” If Boomerang wins tomorrow in the single last “Bay Tour” race scheduled and Swiftsure gets a second, their scores will be identical, but the tiebreaker would go to Boomerang since it won the last race of the series.
Taft, 68, has competed in the Rolex Big Boat Series 41 times and is one of the many here who cherish the opportunity to return to the regatta every year.
“It’s a really classic regatta,” he said. “Your friends come in from out of town, so it’s a chance to get together with them and sail against each other. When we were younger, everyone was trying to go out and beat everybody else and now, for me and some of the other guys that have been out there a long, long time, it’s just fun to compete and have a good time.”
Also tied going into today were frontrunners in the J/111, J/120 and Express 37 classes, but respectively Aeolus (Rob Theis), Peregrine (David Halliwill) and Eclipse (Mark Dowdy), prevailed to now hold a one-point lead over their closest competitors.
Racing concludes tomorrow on Sunday, September 20.
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