August 01st, 2017
The Columbia River Gorge in Oregon delivered BIG for the 2017 Weta Nationals, with sustained winds between 22-30 knots over 3 days of glorious racing. Competitors came from Florida, North Carolina, Cali, and Washington for fun, camaraderie, and to prove who could best handle the Gorge beast. Lying in wait were two local collegiate sailors from the Gorge, wondering how could any of these 50-somethings handle the Gorge at its finest, let alone compete with them. So what if one of them was a world class A cat sailor and East Coast Wetafest Champion, another a prior National Champion, and something called a Hot Donut? Let the games begin!
As the wind builds throughout the day, Race 1 was a 15-20 knot “light air,” mark searching affair. Bob Hodges, the A cat dude, doubled down with his crew, Elise, made it around the weather mark in first, yet failed to round the offset mark, so had to retire. 2015 National Champion, Bruce Fleming, was flying, with Christophe Allie passing Jonathan Weston the Donut (that’s me) downwind. The SI’s posted yellow marks, but Bruce and Christophe rounded an orange one. Marc Simmel and Gordon Lyon followed and passed Wrong Way Weston way downwind to a yellow mark, which was actually the weather mark for the Viper/505 fleets. I managed to pass that group and Andrew on the way back up, watching a fresh gust take Andrew Cannard down. The wind machine was on.
Fleming, the one race wonder, flamed out and headed for shore, while I battled it out with Bob and Elise through some wicked shifty wind and standing river walls. My mainsail was flogging and fluttering like crazy, sounding like a weed whacker, while the Hodges were well trimmed and motoring away (they had sewn in some leech battens). Meanwhile, Marc Simmel's new North Sails looked perfectly set right out of the bag. While they were thinking windshifts, strategy and tactics, I was thinking get through this race in one piece. My strategy, as prescribed by Dave Berntsen, who lent me his boat for the affair, was to be conservative and let everyone wear themselves out; then pounce Day 3.
One for the ages. The Hodges led again to the weather mark, but I was close enough to jump even with them downwind. I rounded the short mark for course W, because hey, that’s my last name, and why would they give us the longer course M when most people were barely making the course? Hodges headed downwind, while Allie, Simmel, Gordon, and the college kids followed Wrong Way Weston. On the second downwind leg, the wind kicked up its heels. The wind kicked up its steel toed boots! The Bay Area Bros were all pushing at full throttle, when a gust of magnanimous proportions, or superfluous spank rolled through. A windsurfer decided to cross my bow at this time, causing me to pitch pole. With the boat full nose in a rudder out of the water, I managed to release the main and spun around to save it. When I rounded the bottom mark, I wondered, where did everybody go? Ah, upside down. I crossed the finish thinking what a great race! But no whistle from the RC boat. Everyone but Hodges followed the wrong course.
The one thing Race 3 did was wore the fleet down. Hodges retired. What? I suppose being a husband first, ace sailor second is to be commended. The rest of the fleet was still flipping or heading for dry land. All that remained was moi and the college kids. I’d had a helluva time uncleating my nuclear jib all day (bent the cleats down for the following days), and almost flipped three times, letting the kids get ahead. The look on their face as I motored past them? Priceless. Back on shore they asked me, “How could you beat us singlehandedly, just one person on board?” A dozen donuts.
Party at Ale House, lots of tired faces.
Windy again, and again, it was a Hodges family affair. I was gaining great respect for these awesome sailors. Other single handed sailors decided to go double and not be scored. Marc Simmel, who had fairly dominated the lighter West Coast affairs of late, was starting to push me for the single handed division, but it was going to be a hollow victory if I could not take it overall. Leggo my ego and race!
Narrowing the gap on the Hodges, and now blasting past. What? Oops, their kite fitting broke. See my whiteboard video, the Power of Preparation. It’s all part of the game, but would still be a hollow victory. Wake up, what was the course again? Knucklehead! I waited for Gordon, and he led me to W. Then I went full donuts for the win.
More donuts, more bullets, Hodges taking more points by not rerigging because well, he’s The Good Husband. Simmel again closing the gap, making me work hard. Gordon flipped, pickle forked the weather mark. Roland Schulz, the German college kid, had taken on a sub crew, a very brave 12yo local Laser sailor, who braved the conditions and wanted more! The RC gave them one more, but a one boat race does not make a race, and had wrongly communicated to me to go in, so the RC discarded the race. But hey, they won! That girl rocks! As well does Roland, for agreeing to throw it out.
I woke up early, knowing that I had a sizable lead, and only needed to cross the finish line to win the regatta. But I wanted to beat Bob Hodges. Fleming and Allie were doubling up together as well. They would be hard to beat. Starting the race by pulling the wrong line and unfurling your kite was not a good strategy, and then locking onto some bad shifts really put me in the whole. But on the second weather leg, the wind had increased and once again, the Hot Donut sign was lit! I stuck to my game upwind taking the left side of the course, and picked up 300 yards. Then I came into the leeward mark on a rollicking gust, passed five boats in one fell swoop, and pulled off the victory. Now I could finally can say I beat a top notch world class sailor, one of the top ten races of my life. Simmel again, close behind.
Can’t remember much about this one except trying to survive and beat to a pulp. Somehow I beat Hodges and the new dream team of Fleming/Allie again. Scratch the hollow victory.
A battle at the top between Hodges and myself, I came smoking water into the leeward mark with what I thought was an overlap, what Bob thought he would certainly give me since he had two extra hands to furl the kite. I had not blown a furl in five years, but the time was now. Had to head downwind, blew the refurl, and was now about 200 yards behind. Made up this ground to finish second.
Probably a good time to go into the beach and pop the bottle of champagne, and take my second throwout, but decided to gut it out against my body’s best wishes.
Bob and the current pushed me over early, so restarting put me a minute behind the fleet. I should have gone in and taken a 3rd for a throwout, but then I remembered stopping at a gas station. This fellow kept asking me if my boat had a motor on it. "Why, it most certainly does!" I then downshifted and proceeded to motor through the fleet to finish second. As I crossed the line for the final time, I realized I was completely out of gas.
This final race is a hollow victory for Hodges as with even two throwouts, too many races spent ashore placed him 24 points behind first. Still, an incredible display of how in winds over 20, high fiving is more effective with two hands on deck.
With 5 bullets and a string of seconds, Wrong Way Weston, one week shy of 60, wins by quite a margin with only 13 points. Gordon Lyon, the lightest sailor on the course, took a remarkable second with 43 points. Marc Simmel, while sailing well and beating Gordon Lyon in all but one race, took early retirement too many times for the third.
In the double-handed division, first place went to Roland Schulz and Torin Lee, the mixed skipper and crew of college (plus a brave middle schooler… I never got her name), with 35 points. Hodges had many bullets, but a few to the foot, for second. Most improved sailor, also brave, and pink, goes to third place skipper Stephanie Stephalicious with Tim Corcoran as her cormorant crew.
Many experienced sailors while packing boats away on fumes, remarked that it was not only the windiest and most challenging regatta in their combined 500 years of sailing, but also one of the most fun and pleasant times with the fleet. Thanks to Helga Allie for her race committee duty and to my dog, Toby, waiting so patiently for me to return.
I'd like to thank Mike Neidig for the use of his boat over the past two Summers to tune up for this regatta. Can't wait to get my hands on a new ultra light square top super Weta!
By Jonathan Weston
Photos Richard Hitchcock & Jonathan Weston
Photo Jonathan Weston
Photo Jonathan Weston