The great race from Key West, across the Straight, to Cuba

First Posted: 1/15/2009

By: Eddie Ayers
In 1978, when President Jimmy Carter opened up Cuba for a couple of years, we decided to have a Race to Cuba from Key Weird, a distance of 90 + miles across the straights of Florida.
The race was announced and I went to work on the logistics of racing to Cuba. Cuba, the forbidden fruit? I had about four months to put this thing together, crew, food, and nonexistent charts for Veradero, Cuba. I had to find crew that was able to take two weeks to race down and cruise back. All the food and drink we had to take with us since it still was against the law to spend any money in Cuba. The charts were a problem since the US government did not print detail charts of Cuba for use by US yachtsmen. The problem was soon resolved by a French yachtsman who I knew who loaned me two detailed charts of Cuba and the straights of Florida. At the time I had no boat of my own, so the only solution was to charter a racing boat for the race and the last detail was resolved with a 36’ Chance called MY SIN. She had lovely lines and was very fast running before the wind.
I chose a crew of eight sailors, two helmsmen, one navigator, four floating crew and myself skipper, helmsman and tactician. The helmsmen and the navigator are the most important crew on a middle distance race. The helmsmen have to steer the yacht to make sure that it goes in the direction that the skipper and the navigator have agreed on.
The navigator had to plot a dead reckoning course across the dreaded Gulf Steam, a river of warm saltwater between the Florida Keys and Cuba, that flows up the east coat of the continental US, across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe, down the continent to Africa and back across the Atlantic somewhere around the equator to start all over again. This process, which was discovered in 1513 by Ponce De Leon, keeps Europe from slipping into another ice age. The Spanish were the first to use the Gulf Stream to go to Spain faster from the Caribbean and return by way of Africa using the currents to their advantage.
Navigators before the advent of GPS had always hated crossing the Gulf Stream because of the set and drift of the 4.9 Knots per hour (5.6 MPH) current. Now the GPS does it all for, you just like the car models. If one did not calculate one’s set and drift from Key West to Veradero, one could make landfall some place around thirty some miles east of the finish line, which would add many more hours of sailing to one’s itinerary and taking one out of contention for first place. Sailing back to the finish against the current is much slower. I know that sailing is slow compared to power boats but speed is relative.
Now all that was left was taking delivery of MY SIN, provisioning, crewing and delivering her to Key West. The race was in the middle of January on a Saturday night at 1800 hours, starting in Key West. Due to some minor problems, we left Naples Fl. the Friday night before at 1800 hours in very light NW winds. We set a light air spinnaker (down wind parachute like sail) and sailed for the next 6 hours at 3 knots when the wind suddenly picked up and veered to the right. Rippppppppppppppppppp went the light air .05 oz spinnaker, and all that was left were the three corners. We recovered from that fire drill and set a .75 oz spinnaker which was the right sail for the conditions. We were pushing the boat hard because of the deadline in Key West and the slow going early. Again the wind conditions changed, picked up and we blew out the .75 oz. spinnaker. This was now getting expensive. We had destroyed about $8,000.00 of nylon and we had about 45 miles to go to Key West. Now the wind was blowing steady, 25 knots, gusting to 32 knots with 8 to 10 foot waves but we were going 10 knots to 12 knots, arriving at Key West at 1400 hrs. giving us about 3 hrs to change the weight distribution to level the boat and make her plumb in the water, clean the bottom, shower, shave and start the race.
We made our deadline and were on the start line with fifteen minutes to spare. Our class went up the channel to set a spinnaker early, and we disappeared into the Sub basin. While the class fought each other in 25 knot winds with big spinnakers we slipped from the sub pens and turned downwind on the start line and set a small 1.5 oz (bullet proof) spinnaker. This allowed us a clean start and we were gone, and before long, we were up in the next class ahead of us that had started 10 minutes earlier.
We watched as one by one the other yachts with the bigger .75 oz sails were blowing them out. We were blowing the fleet away. We were feeling great and counting our chickens when I yelled that the helm is not responding, and then we took a 55 mph gust of wind that pinned us on our starboard side in 15 to 20 seas while destroying the last spinnaker we had.
The mainsail trimmer released the mainsail and the yacht righted herself. We spent the next 45 minutes scowling the boat for emergency tiller and replaced the sail while the boat foundered in the house size waves. Bill found it in the locker behind the steering wheel under everything else. What a stupid mistake I had made by not checking for that before we left

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