When the Gladiator crossed the finish line May 26, the Sidney-based crew didn’t know they had just won the Juan de Fuca Race for Monohulls.
It wasn’t until sailor Garry Sagert saw the race master come down to shake their hands that he had an inkling they might one of the winners in the 76th annual Swiftsure International Yacht Race.
The Sidney North Saanich Yacht Club crew was made up of three experienced sailors: Sagert, Phil McLean and skipper David Schmidt, and two younger mariners: Martin Schmidt, 16 and Justin Pazder, 20.
And while it wasn’t the Gladiator’s first time taking on the Swiftsure International Yacht Race, it was the first time that the five-man crew raced together in the world renowned West Coast competition.
The Gladiator, an ultralight Cheetah 30 displacement sail boat, actually crossed the finish line third, but with the competition’s handicap system, it ranked ahead of the My-Tai, from the same yacht club, and the Kahuna, out of Seattle, Washington.
The weather for this year’s competition was detrimental to a number of competitors, about half withdrew from the race due to the lack of wind.
But the Gladiator, without the heaviness that comes with the comforts on larger yachts, planes on top of the sea like a water-ski boat – a characteristic that propelled it, literally to the big win.
“A little puff of wind would come along and…we would glide along,” Sagert said. “We could go from zero to two and a half knots with just a puff of wind.”
But that doesn’t mean the crew had an easy go.
“The weather this year was quite atypical. It was very confused weather with wind from every direction, so that made it really, really hard,” Sagert said, adding that currents were another challenge.
“In this particular race, the floods were very weak. It was ebbing most of the race. So what happened is, a lot of boats got out there in really light conditions and they couldn’t get back – including us, we were stuck, going in circles around Sooke for about six hours,” Sagert said.
And the swell was stomach-turning. More than one of the Gladiators’ crew members lost their stomach while sailing the Strait. Weather on the second day of the competition pounded sailboats with heavy rain. The Gladiator crew was using sponges and buckets to remove rain and sea water from the boat. The lightweight vessel has no space for shelter – sailors are exposed to the elements night and day, rain or shine.
“We never discussed [turning around.] I don’t think it came up out loud,” Sagert said. “We might of thought it as individuals but I don’t think we discussed it as a group.”
Justin Pazder agreed: “It’s to the bitter end,” he said.
The crew recalled one hour of totally calm waters.
“We had dead calm around 1 a.m., and then a light wind started up, pointed right towards Race Rocks, we slowly built up doing seven knots until about 2 a.m.
The stars came out, the clouds cleared away. It was perfect conditions for Gladiator, because she’s so light, in really calm seas, there’s nothing to slow her down.”
And eventually, Gladiator sailed past the finish line and back to the inner harbour.
It was a few hours before results and handicaps had been tallied to reveal the Sidney-based yacht as the winner of the Juan de Fuca race. The Gladiator had been on the water for 27 hours, two minutes and 33 seconds.
“It was a solid list of competitors that we were racing against,” Sagert said. There were good boats out there…. I was hoping to come in the top six or something. So to come first was pretty cool, in that fleet.
Sometimes Swiftsure is a matter of survival literally, if its blowing 30 knots, and sometimes it’s like this, where you’re just coasting along.”