I recently was given the opportunity to attempt to race a Swift Solo skiff in the Columbia River Gorge. When my 505 crew and good Colorado buddy Philip Ryan told me of the possibility of getting a loaned boat I thought, “Go down to the Gorge to sail an overpowered singlehander with a main, jib and a HUGE kite all while hanging on a trapeze? Sounds like what I call fun!”
In the back of my mind I knew there was a distinct possibility I would be blown off the river. I’ve sailed there three times previously and it blew like stink every time. Figuratively, I was blown off the river and the conditions were hairy enough that it seemed literally possible too!
The Swift Solo is an odd bird to say the least (I couldn’t resist the pun). It was designed in 2000 by the Northwest’s own Bram Dally as a trainer for the 49er. The boat has a ridiculous amount of sail for a singlehander, but is rigged and designed in such a way it is actually quite manageble in up to moderate conditions. What sets is apart from other skiffs, is these are gorgeous bright-finished cedar strip boats. They are modern in their construction though with an Carbon/Kevar/Epoxy inner skin, and an S Glass/Epoxy outer skin, resulting in a light, yet very strong boat. The boat is designed and built with longevity in mind, and the main and jib are both fully battened to that effect as well.
Rigged for singlehanding, the boat has a very clever system of linking the mainsheet and self tacking jib sheet so you pull one line off the boom and it adjusts both sails. You can adjust your slot with another line called the “Relativity Control.” Otherwise it was all the standard skiff accoutrements such as a rigid vang, super powerful cunningham, adjustable shrouds and lowers, and a bendy carbon mast. Carbon bling abounds on Swifts.
In anything over 4 or 5 knots you are trapezing. The fathead main and jib are played upwind, and downwind you launch a huge asymmetrical chute, cleat the main/jib and fly the chute from your forward hand. Your backhand is whiteknuckling this eight foot long tiller extension holding on for dear life. The speeds were impressive. Gybes took a healthy dose of positive attitude and good luck.
We had 8 boats there but various support folk such as families and friends made our group much larger. This was a first class group of really nice people. Paul O’Sullivan now owns the rights to the design and was a real standup bloke (he’s from England.) When I arrived, my boat was rigged for me on the dolly. Paul loaded and my boat for me in 100 degree heat in California and was extremely supportive, as was the rest of the group. They were encouraging and yet understanding when I chose to sit out due to too much wind. As my buddy Philip told me, skiff sailors are among the nicest in the world. This is because the boats are so challenging to sail, you immediately get some respect for trying. This was also a diverse group – each got involved with Swifts for different reasons. By and large though it was a technically oriented group.
THE VENUE AND CONDITIONS
The heart of Gorge sailboat racing is out of Cascade Locks, Oregon. The average windspeed is 18 – 20 knots, typically out of the West and builds like a seabreeze which is what it is. The first three days we had an easterly that was breezy in the morning but died off as the traditional seabreeze asserted its influence. There was much discussion as to why there was the easterly, but we concluded it probably had to do with the huge low sitting off the West Coast. It got hot, about 100 degrees one day, but was also really hot west of the Cascades as well so the easterly persisted. Eventually on the third day the westerly came in the evening, and from there on out the winds ranged from about 10 knots at 8am to downright nuking 25 to 30+ knots at about 4pm.
This was “Skiff Week” at the Gorge and there were about 18 29ers, 8 International 14’s, 8 Swifts and 4 Musto Skiffs (another singlehander.) Teams traveled from all over the West for this event and it was a great vibe – no attitude at all. Columbia Gorge Racing Association puts on a first class event yet the overall feel is still very grass rootsy. Everybody camps out on site, and you eat a big meal together on Saturday night. CGRA provides coolers of beer and other drinks when you get off the water. The entry fee was $95 for three days of racing and the food. You sail off of a small beach by this point that has their tiny little office. There are bleachers on the point for viewing which is a popular past time there – there is constant carnage and people on the beach regularly cheer people on or laugh at them. The scenery is amazing, though I didn’t notice it when sailing – I was typically too gripped. An added bonus is the great hiking and waterfall viewing in the immediate area for apres sail activities.
The first three days were reserved for practice, the next three for racing. With the full on Westerly established during this time it made it tough to decide to get out early and warm up, or save your energy and launch a little later, leaving you not warmed up and in more breeze. I tried both strategies and neither worked for me. The RC moved up the start times to avoid the strongest breeze, but by the 3rd day it was blowing 12 and building at 7am! So all things told, I would launch and go for it each day, only to have a string of spectacular capsizes until I was sufficiently freaked out, and then try and beat feet back to the beach, which had large challenges of its own. So, embarrassed as I am to say it, I only made it even close to the starting area once the first day but by then the wind had built into the teens which was over my head. Rather than break the boat or some bones, retirement seemed like the right thing to do. I’m not the only one who had problems though. Out of the eight boats we had, not a single boat completed a single race in three days of racing! This was due to inadequately prepared boats, not a high enough skill level among the fleet and a higher fitness level needed – myself included – in the fleet. So the 2010 Swift Solo North American Championship went unclaimed.
Don’t get me wrong – the Swift sailors are all very good sailors – you have to be to sail the boat at all. Given the conditions and the overpowered nature of the boat, it was a tall order to get the boat around the course. Some came closer than others, but nobody was up to the task. The flip side of this is you have to give the Swift sailors credit for trying. One of our goals was realized – to get better at sailing the Swift in heavy air, or in my case to learn to sail one. I have no doubt that as the skill level rises in the class Swifties will be able to handle those conditions. People will prepare their boats better too.
As for the other classes, the 29ers faired the best, with fairly tight racing and fewer breakdowns. The 14s had a moderate amount of breakdowns. The 14s at speed are an amazing site, and could run us down in the chase boat (with a 30 HP on it) with ease. The top two Musto sailors were impressive, but the other two failed to complete a race. Basically, this event was eye opening with regards to watching the most skillful sailors. They were amazing and ranged from dads to youth hotshots. When they set the kite or took it down, their hands were a blur.
I had an internal battle going on in my head about going to this. Was I wasting one half of my annual vacation to go flail around and get thrashed or was I going to learn something, try out a new boat and have a good time? While there were some times that were discouraging, I am glad I went. I got to meet a great group of folks, sail an awesome boat, and work on a new skill set in sailing. I’ve always had a generalist approach to yachting, and have sailed a wide variety of racing boats. On one hand I feel a draw towards skiffs as I always have. Yet on the other hand it made me psyched to focus on my 505 because I can handle those conditions a little better and I like sailing there. I think to sail a boat like a Swift automatically brings your overall sailing game up and gives you a better understanding of apparent wind since the shifts in apparent on a skiff are dramatic. It also made me appreciate my kids on the high school sailing team, who push themselves regularly beyond their comfort zone.