Updated: Sep 10, 2019
California's sailing heritage was on display Saturday, March 30, as historic vessels battled in the 31st annual running of the America's Schooner Cup race on a postcard-perfect day in San Diego.
The state's official tall ship, the 142-ft LOA Californian, won the Schooner Cup. Steady 8- to 12-knot winds gusting to about 18 knots favored her majestic rig and provided rail-down sailing for the rest of the fleet, which was organized into four groups with staggered starts.
Rose of Sharon, a 63-ft LOA Starling Burgess design built in 1930 in Nova Scotia, had the best elapsed time — 2:09:47 for the 12.9-mile course. First to finish was Witchcraft, a 42-ft LOA scaled-down version of the famed schooner Bluenose. Her owner, Brian Eichenlaub, who built Witchcraft with his father Carl in 1993-94, was aboard for his 30th America's Schooner Cup race and described it as "the most fun year yet."
The charity event, hosted by the Silver Gate Yacht Club, has raised more than $133,000 in the last five years for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. It is designed for maximum public viewing, with the start/finish line off a Shelter Island beach and paying berths available this year on the Californian and the 136-ft LOA Bill of Rights, which offers youth sail training through the South Bayfront Sailing Association.
The Group C start saw Californian and Bill of Rights maneuvering against Maid of Kent, a 36-ft LOA William Atkin design, and Scrimshaw, a 40-ft LOA Block Island boat built in 1947. Dennis Daoust, who has owned and sailed Scrimshaw since 1975, brought her across the finish line a scant eight seconds behind Californian.
Witchcraft, with CF Koehler steering, was first across the starting line against four Group B competitors and was never seriously challenged. Johnny Smullen, who skippered owner Pat Hanley's Legacy, a 46-ft LOA John Alden Malabar II design, described the group's race this way:
"The start was a fetch to buoy #17 in about 8 knots of wind. When we arrived at the buoy, Bill of Rights was approaching close-hauled on a starboard tack in an effort to make the mark. Witchcraft had the foresight to sail very high off the start line to get over the top of her. I believe this was her winning move. We and Quascilla had to settle for lower and slower positions below her, eventually forcing us on Legacy to put our nose all the way up into the wind to sail over Bill of Rights' transom to clear our air, followed by Quascilla and Shine On. This put Witchcraft out ahead, where she would remain for the rest of the race."
Californian, which is owned by the San Diego Maritime Museum, put on an impressive display of sail handling and tactics, nailing the start and taking full advantage of a freshening wind and favorable current. Her captain, Ray Stewart, provided this narrative:
"As I approached the start line, we realized we would be early. I put the ship into the wind, and the crew responded beautifully and we luffed all the sails. The horn sounded and we trimmed all the sails and went across the line about six seconds after the start. It was a classic start and only performed by the best of crews. We were off on a beam reach and no sailboats in sight."
Although Californian was overtaken as the race went on, she had built an insurmountable lead that brought her a corrected-time victory, as her tactician, Carl Scragg, explained:
"The rest of the race consisted of upwind and close reaching legs where the more modern schooners typically are significantly faster. But this day Californian was able to hold her own. A few boats were able to pass us on the way back into the harbor, but not by enough to overcome the handicap. It was one of my most memorable days sailing Californian. Good start, fair wind, favorable course, and great crew work — it was just Californian's day to shine."
It's rare for schooner skippers to compete in the same event as Californian, especially if your vessel is a 14-ft LOA "baby schooner" like Pacifier, the sole Group D (for dinghy) entrant. Her captain, Jimmy McManus, recaps their 4.5-mile race:
"The boat sailed really well, although we were bailing for about half the time, hiking out at one point to keep her from heeling too much, and shifting our weight around in case we encountered a rogue wave."
There were many winners that day — the skippers and crew who enjoyed magnificent sailing on vintage vessels, those who followed and photographed the race from ashore, and not least the families of Navy and Marine veterans who will benefit from the more than $18,000 raised by the charity event.
— Steve Fox