Martin County Lifeguards lined the beach at 100-yard intervals carrying floatation aids and first aid kits as the fleet pushed off into vicious buzz saw surf this morning. The 5-foot breaking surf stretched 200 yards offshore in more than 6 rows of breaking whitewater. The shore break was nasty, but it was followed by an even larger break over the sandbar further off shore. An 18-knot easterly wind compounded the difficulty, requiring the boats to sail upwind into the surf.
“This is Insane”, commented one of the lifeguards as he watched highly skilled sailors take punishing waves and pirouette into unimaginable capsizes. The Inter 20 class catamarans were tossed like leaves in the wind and they landed parts akimbo like broken toys. The flotsam and jetsam of broken boat parts littered the beach for more than a mile south of the starting point. Sailors floated calmly after being hurled from their boats and watching the boats capsize and shatter. There were no injuries reported.
Of the 20 boats in the fleet just 5 were able to negotiate the mad surf and race on towards Cocoa Beach. Race Leaders Brian Lambert and Jamie Livingston of Team Alexander’s on the Bay picked their way cautiously through the carnage and arrived safely outside the surf alongside Team Guidant, which is being skilfully helmed by 3-time Worrell 1000 Champion Rod Waterhouse of Sydney, Australia. Guidant arrived outside the surf break more organized than Alexander’s and was the first boat to tack to starboard and head North to Cocoa Beach, gaining a slight early advantage on Alexander’s. The red boat of Dinghy Shop sailed by Reigh North and Scott MacDonald of British Columbia, picked their way parallel to beach until they found a smooth spot and punched through the rough stuff to escape. In the second wave of starters Team Outer Banks sailed by John McLaughlin and Charles Thuman of Maryland and Team Fully Involved sailed by Les Bauman and Craig Callahan made it through safely to begin the leg. Of the boats that weren’t so lucky the damage to equipment was extensive. At least 5 boats suffered broken carbon fibre masts and nearly every boat that was rejected by the surf and sent back to the beach suffered a broken rudder or rudder casting and a bunch of shattered battens.
The difficulties in negotiating the surf were manifold, but there seemed to be two or three ways to get hammered badly. The first was for one of the crew to be thrown off the windward rail as a large wave pitched the bow up in the air violently. The resulting loss in righting moment would cause the boat to flip slowly to leeward. The second was to have the bows pushed down onto a reaching angle by a huge patch of turbulent whitewater, causing the boat to be over powered by the 18 knot easterly breeze and flip quickly to leeward if the sheets weren’t eased quickly. The third was to be caught in irons while trying to point up directly into a tough wave, and then backing the jib and accidentally tacking. The winning technique seemed to be a combination of crewweight aggressively forward, keeping the bows down and careful jib and main trim to accelerate the boat forward in flat spots and point up slightly to face into the biggest waves. After a capsize two things could happen. The unlucky teams caught the mast in the sand to leeward of the hulls and the mast was quickly snapped, leaving a turtled platform with gravestone centerboards sticking in the air as the boat drifted back to the beach. The lucky ones got the mast pointed to windward and surfed in to the beach at 10 knots riding on the lower hull and propelled by the trampoline, which then acted as a sail.