J/109s Fly, Crash & Burn Through 2020 Hook Race

by: Ray Douglas (Skipper, Courageous, USA 224)

Also known as “Death’s Door Challenge”, the 2020 version of The Hook Race certainly lived up to that.  The 190-mile offshore distance race is run annually from Racine, Wisconsin to Menominee, MI.  The racecourse resembles a “hook”, as the fleet must navigate north and then turn west to pass through the tip of Door County peninsula and Washington Island, then continue southwest to the finish in Menominee.  “Death’s Door” is a narrow passage of water that is surrounded by reefs and can be a bit tricky to navigate, while claiming many ships over the years.

This year’s Hook Race set a record for the largest fleet (120 boats) in its storied 37-year history.  We had seven J/109s in our own one-design section, with each section competing for Line Honors and Overall Handicap (PHRF).   This was our first season owning the boat, and our first offshore race onboard our J/109.  (We campaigned a Tartan Ten for 18 years in Chicago.) First and foremost, I’d like to recognize each of the J/109 skippers and their teams for putting their boats on the line during difficult challenges related to pandemic restrictions:

  • Blackfin (Keith Eickenberg)
  • Courageous (Ray Douglas & Kristine Maybach) 
  • Full Tilt (Pete Priede)
  • Liquid Lounge (Jim Caesar)
  • Northstar (David Gustman)
  • Smee Again (David Neenan)
  • Time Out (Doug Evans)

J/109 Courageous during 2020 Hook Race

The Start:

On Saturday, July 18, the fleet started in a light breeze with kites set immediately.  The Smee Again team had a good start and took the early lead.  Onboard Courageous, our plan was to get offshore (east) as soon as possible and sail into the forecasted stronger breeze from the south.  About an hour after the start, we gybed to head offshore.  Radar was showing a large storm front making its way toward the fleet, and we knew we were going to be in for a long day and night.  

The “Day Storm:”

We were approximately 20 miles offshore as the first storm front approached.  The dark sky and shelf clouds behind us made it clear that we needed to peel from our A2 to the A4.  Well, we should have peeled to a bald head!  The winds quickly jumped from a steady 20 knots to 30 knots in the middle of our peel.  We were knocked down with two kites up.  Quickly, we were able to douse both kites, but not after putting a tear near the foot of the A4.  By the time we got the kites down, it was now blowing 36 knots with puffs to 45 knots.  It was too late to risk reefing the main, so we just pointed the boat downhill, eased off on the vang and sent it!  The wave heights were 5-6 feet with occasional 8 footers sweeping across the foamy lake.  I had the entire crew (8) behind me to keep the bow out of the backs of waves as we surfed and caught the waves in front.  Our boat speeds were 13-15 knots consistently and jumping to 18 knots down waves, with only a mainsail.  The bow wave looked like two fire hoses on each side, shooting out 20 feet of spray.  It felt like we were in a Volvo Ocean Race video, except I actually had my hands on the wheel and my crew whooping it up behind me as we flew down the waves in 40 knot puffs.  The boat was very stable in these speeds.  We just had to be careful not to bury the windward side of the bow into waves.  So, I just kept “carving” the boat down waves, just like I would on a surfboard on Huntington Beach, CA.  The storm front finally passed through and the winds moderated back to 15 knots.  We set a kite and continued across Lake Michigan to make sure we stayed in more pressure.  We would gybe after the forecasted shift to the southwest happened.  At our last position track on the race website, we were in second place behind Smee Again.  The timing of our gybe back toward the Wisconsin shoreline could determine if we would be in a position to pass Smee Again.  

The “Middle of the Night Storm:”

For those of you that sail regularly on the Great Lakes, this will come as no surprise.  It was the middle of July with heat and high humidity.  A perfect storm cooker.  Our satellite weather showed a massive cold front coming toward us, after it fired up over the plains of Iowa and Wisconsin.  NOAA weather radio immediately issued a Small Craft Advisory for our portion of the lake.  NOAA was reporting strong thunderstorms, hail and wind gusts to 60 knots.  As the storm approached from the west, the moonless pitch-dark night was illuminated with constant lightning, turning the sky into a strobe light.  We gybed onto port as the wind shifted and then built to 24 knots.  We were under our A2 with a staysail and full main.  We talked about changing down to a heavy jib and reefing the main but decided to push the boat a bit more to the northwest.  We would shorten sail if we got a big gust.  Big mistake and miscalculation.  The rain was light but steady, when suddenly a significant gust of wind hit our position at approximately 0230.  We were able to get the spinnaker down and furl the staysail.  But then as were preparing to reef the main, we were hit by a micro-burst.  The wind jumped to 70 knots sustained and put our spreaders in the water, nearly a 90-degree knockdown.  We were all harnessed and buckled onto the jacklines and simply holding on.  I lost any chance of steerage and just held the helm over in a hove-to position.  It was impossible to reef the main as the surface tension on the bolt rope was too great in the hurricane force wind.  All hands on deck were accounted for, just holding on.  Our bowman (Kristine) was down below packing the chutes when the microburst hit.  She was lucky to not get injured when she was tossed to the leeward side of the cabin.  Unless you have experienced these conditions, it is very difficult to describe.  The noise was deafening.  At 60-70 knots with torrential rain burning our faces, the rig and boat were shaking violently due to the full main being battered like an old flag.  I was praying that we wouldn’t lose the rig.  The mainsail finally surrendered to the wind and a five foot tear opened up at the leach about half way up.  While looking up at our carbon fiber mainsail being shredded, we suddenly lost all electrical power.  With lightning strikes all around us, I immediately assumed the worst.  Did a strike just knock out our electronics?  The boat was now totally dark: no instruments, navigation lights or GPS.  We were now deaf and blind in the middle of the most powerful storm conditions any of us had experienced. 

Kristine came up the companionway from down below to shout at me from the top of her lungs, “The service battery died!  Start the engine!”  Her words brought a slight bit of hope.  Perhaps we did not get a lightning strike after all.  However, I was not going to start the engine with the boat laid over.  The engine oil level would be zeroed out at this extreme angle.  We needed to ride this out and wait for the wind to moderate so we could put a reef in the main.  So, we waited and just kept holding on, the boat sliding sideways through the building seas.  Finally, after what seemed like hours, the wind began to moderate.  Fifty knots…. forty-five knots…. forty knots… “Get the reef in the main now!”  Once reefed, Courageous stood up on her lines and we gained way.  I fired up the engine (in neutral) and the electronics came alive.  We could “see and hear” once again!  However, what we heard was every sailor’s worst nightmare.  On the VHF radio, we heard: “Mayday-mayday-mayday.  This is the sailing vessel Shmokin’ Joe.  We have a man overboard.  I repeat, we have a man overboard.”   I immediately wrote down Shmokin Joe’s coordinates and calculated how long it would take us to reach their location.  I then hailed the Coast Guard on channel 16 to inform them that we were in a position to assist, however it would take approximately one hour to reach them under full motor-sail power.  The Coast Guard informed us that there were two other sailboats in close proximity and our assistance would not be needed.  We then slowly got ourselves back into somewhat of a racing mode.  (We learned later that the crew of Shmokin Joe was able to locate and get their crew mate back on board, although the Coast Guard did take her to the hospital with hypothermia.  All turned out well, thankfully.) 

All hands were safe with only some mild bruises.  We watched the wind moderate to 10-12 knots as the monster storm raced north eastward toward Charlevoix, Michigan where it would spin off several tornadoes.  We cleaned up the lines and sorted out our sails.  We shook out the reef and set the A2 kite as we limped toward the Death’s Door passage, 20 miles to our west on the Wisconsin shore.  The full mainsail now looked like it belonged on the Black Pearl.  The tear was significant, and we were not sure if we would be able to finish the race, much less compete for a podium position.  The sail was too wet to repair, and fortunately, since we were running, there was not too much force on the torn leach panel.  We decided to wait until daybreak to affect a repair.  

The sun finally rose and quickly dried out the mainsail.  We made a plan to repair the main to minimize the amount of time we would be under-powered.  With the sail repair kit on deck, we dropped the main and continued to sail with our A2 kite.  We repaired the leach within 10 minutes and re-hoisted the mainsail.  Death’s Door passage was now only a couple of miles off our bow.  The forecast was for a strong westerly breeze to 20 knots.  We were looking at upwind conditions all the way to the finish, approximately 37 miles to go.  Would the repaired mainsail survive the long beat?  

The “Sprint to the Finish:”

The forecasted wind shift to the west came in just as we were approaching the passage between Door County Peninsula and Washington Island.  We took the kite down and sheeted the main and heavy jib in.  Now it was all about keeping track of the oscillating wind shifts and tacking to stay on the long and favored board.  We checked the race tracker and found ourselves in first position.  Only six boats were in front of us.  All of them forty and fifty footers.  If we could keep the mainsail together, we could capture first place in our section.  Our tactician did a brilliant job calling tacks on the wind shifts as we threaded our way through the Death’s Door passage.  Our next mark of the course was a buoy that we needed to leave to port off Chambers Island (in the middle of Green Bay).  With Chambers island off in the distance, we had a J120 and a Beneteau 40.7 behind us.  Our timely tacks significantly increased our lead over these two forty footers.  Now we found ourselves on our final starboard tack as we blasted along the rhumb line to the finish.  Over the final 10 miles, the J120 finally overtook us just before the finish, and we held off the B-40.7 to finish eight overall in Line Honors, seventh on corrected time in fleet, and first in the J/109 section. Our elapsed time was 29 hours, 50 minutes and 9 seconds.  Rounding out the J/109 podium was Time Out in second place and Smee Again in third place.

Of the 100-boat field 4 withdrew, 5 did not start (DNS), 29 did not finish (DNF), and 62 successfully completed the Hook Race.  Three boats were dismasted including the J/109 Liquid Lounge.  Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.

I would like to thank the Racine Yacht Club and the Race Committee for running a safe and well-thought-out event.  The social distancing rules worked, and the fleet participants were welcomed to a wonderful event, even without the customary parties and awards ceremony.  And to all my fellow J/109 Fleet 11 friends: have a safe and relaxing off-season!

Ray Douglas & Kristine Maybach

J/109 Courageous, USA 224

Anchorage Yacht Club


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