“Victory 21’s you are now in sequence”
Chris and I short-tacked back and forth along the start line, attempting to hold the best position. Nervous energy ran through me faster than the Nalgene of water I drank that morning- Why do I always have to pee before a race? My heart felt like it would pound out of my chest as we listened to the race committee count down over the VHF from 10…9…8…7…
At the sound of the horn, we were off, our freshly painted cherry red bow charging over the start line that we had so carefully avoided crossing during the sequence. Our Victory 21 was tender and far more tippy than we remembered, having removed our 175 lbs keel “bubble” the year prior and after recently replacing our wire rigging with synthetic. The adrenaline ran warm through my veins as I used all my strength to pull the sheets in tight.
It was the 68th annual High Sierra Regatta, a highly anticipated event after the covid-induced hiatus of 2020. This legendary two-day regatta is hosted by the Fresno Yacht Club on Huntington Lake, bringing sailors of all kinds from far and wide together to display their skipper skills on the water. The Victory 21’ fleet has traditionally participated for decades and included the regular lineup of participants; “Uncle Scooter” (the notorious champion), Don and Wendy Bonander, their son and daughter-in-law Matt and Laura, Conrad, “John Juan”, “Gilroy Bill”, as well as newcomers Missy and Rod in addition to our dear friends Mitch and Quincey from Esprit, that we got aboard Sniper One for the weekend.
Our boat Geronimo, previously known as Christopher, showed her freshly painted grey belly as the rail buried itself in the lake, water flowing mercilessly inside the cockpit. I pulled the leeward side winch in as hard as I could, drenching my left arm before joining Chris on the high side taking my place as well seasoned “rail meat” to help level the boat. The main sheet was released and Geronimo settled down, her new chainplates glistening as they came out of the water. It was an adjustment getting used to her new, lighter-yet-stronger “feel” as we charged up the lake alongside our friends and fellow Victory sailors.
Chris and I were a little rusty as we finished the first race in fifth place, but we were full of ambitious determination to perform better in the races that followed. Not only was our boat virtually new, but our tactics had changed, being heavily influenced by our sailing aboard Avocet. I kept my eyes on the horizon looking for the best wind and adjusted sheets while Chris made sure we were pointing high and that our sail trim was correct. The adrenaline still consumed me even after the excitement of the first race had settled down, leading right into the second start. Our exit over the start line was much more graceful this time around as we worked together to keep the boat steady and maintain our position within the pack.
The night before the regatta we honored our tradition and watched the 1992 movie Wind, loosely based on the New York Yacht Club‘s loss of the 1983 America’s Cup through the events of the 1987 America’s Cup with, of course, a love story intertwined. The movie inspired us to rename our boat Geronimo as a nod to the film’s victorious boat that won the Cup back from the Australians. Chris, Quincey, Mitch and I sat outside huddled around a small fire, my 12” MacBook serving as our movie screen for the evening.
We maintained to stay with the leaders only falling behind towards the end as Scooter and the Bonanders did what they do best and snuck by, picking off the competition one by one. Chris and I were holding strong in fourth place as the Ultimate 20’s charged downwind with bright spinnakers set, making us wish our fleet would allow us to fly our own.“We need to adjust course” I said, my knuckles turning white as I tightly held the jib sheet in my left hand. Chris assured me that we would clear the oncoming boats, but what I had feared came true all in a few seconds. Although he was correct and we did avoid a collision, Chris didn’t anticipate our wind to be snuffed completely out of our sails resulting in an accidental tack. Our momentum was gone and after an appropriate “I told you so” we did our best to crawl away as the pack slipped farther away from us.
We had just rounded the first mark, laid halfway up the lake after our run-in with the Ultimate 20’s, Quincey and Mitch on Sniper One covering our wind behind us on a downwind tack. I stood on the bow short gybing our whisker pole to try and get clean air when Chris and I threw a dummy tack (inspired by the movie Wind) mimicking the movements of changing our sails which prompted our friends in tow to follow along thinking they would still be covering us. Sniper One’s crew had changed sail direction and began to break off while Geronimo remained on the same course, finally gaining access to pure unobstructed wind. Although we made up some distance from our friends on Sniper One, our bow barely crossed the finish before theirs which would have made an incredible photo. Both crews laughed and smiled ear to ear despite placing fifth and sixth. Nothing, not even winning, can beat the feeling of a skillfully sailed race with an exciting finish alongside friends.
My pre-race jitters had finally subsided and been replaced by intense hunger. It was 1:00 p.m. and we found ourselves with a bit of time before the last race of the day. Chris gave me the tiller as he scrounged around below searching for the snacks we had carefully packed that were now undoubtedly scattered about the cabin due to our extreme heeling throughout the day. We hove-to and bobbed along drinking Spindrift water and snacking on homemade protein bars (courtesy of Quincey) while watching the last of our fleet come through the finish line. We had noticed that the normally consistent wind had been rather unpredictable that day; our typical lifts were either nowhere to be found or came on stronger than usual with gusts into the 20’s. There were also a fair amount of headers that we encountered on the water, which is when the direction of the wind shifts towards the bow causing the sails to luff. Together we set our intents on making the last race of the day great, betting against the predictability of the wind.
I had just finished the last sip of my lukewarm sparkling water when the Victory fleet was called on deck. Together we sailed towards the start alongside Sniper One highly anticipating the end of the race knowing there were snacks onshore. Our start was strong with clear wind and a solid course, with no conflicting vessels like last time. Chris and I had played on the unpredictability of the wind, watching each random lift and lightly adjusting to reap all the benefits. Because of this, we held third place all the way until the finish when Scooter (once again) did what he does best and snuck right ahead of us closely followed by Matt and Laura, knocking us from third to fifth in a matter of seconds. Despite being bested so quickly it was incredible racing and we would rather lose in a close call battle at the finish than have multiple boat lengths between us and the others.
Feeling a little defeated but still absolutely radiant on the great sailing, we sailed Geronimo back to her slip at China Peak Landing where we rolled her sails and put her away for the night. Our bodies were sore, leaving us unsure if we had sailed a race or been run over by one. Quincey and Mitch followed behind us on Sniper One, tying her off in a neighboring slip. Together we walked up to the cabin to change, then headed to China Peak Mountain Resort for a mellow afternoon hike to the Indian Pools, a not-so-hidden-gem of the Sierra.
“That’s where our Hobie 18’ almost burned to death” I pointed out as we passed through the parking lot. The Creek Fire had been officially stomped out in November of 2020, but the scar remained as a lasting reminder of the near 400,000 acres of wilderness burned and the mental trauma we endured at that time. Somehow, by the grace of god or maybe Chris’s dad, our little Hobie Wan Kenobi was spared by the flames, missing the transom by a mere 3 feet. Chris parked the truck and we poured out, joined by my childhood friend Sam who I had guilt tripped into tagging along for this impromptu adventure. The five of us hiked along the trail, scouting out a quiet spot on the river to submerge and indulge in the serenity of the great outdoors. Back at the cabin we had dinner followed by smores (pro tip, ditch the graham crackers and chocolate and use an oreo) then tucked into bed falling into a deep sleep.
The morning light cascaded through the windows while the smell of coffee billowed up the steps to our room. Stiff and groggy we stumbled down to the kitchen where warm mugs awaited us. The nephews were curled up on the coach, still in their jammies watching TV. The coffee must have reached outside since Mitch and Quincey emerged from their tent and joined us for breakfast before the four of us returned to our boats to prepare for the final two races of the regatta. Our new synthetic rigging had stretched a bit (as anticipated) despite being pre-stretched, leading to Chris’s calculated adjustments with Mitch’s suggestions. We did some recon and inspected Scooters Victory, the Red Eye Special, in an attempt to figure out how the heck he was so dang fast and pointed so high! To our disappointment, no tricks were found and our boats were virtually the same minus the rigging differences. The sails were up at 10:30 with 20 minutes to spare before the start of our sequence, feeling more confident in the rig and capable in our sailing abilities than the day before.
We ran the startline as we always do, sticking close to the habitual pack leaders (Scooter, Bonanders, Matt & Laura). At the sound of the horn we tacked and were off, smashing over the start with our family and friends on shore cheering “Go Geronimo!” Once our course was set I counted our position, absolutely giddy to inform Chris that Quincey and Mitch were ahead of everyone holding first! Even though their reigning spot as the lead boat came to an end before the first mark we were still incredibly proud of our friends and excited to see them sailing so well on a new-to-them boat. We managed to squeeze by some other boats, careful to avoid the oncoming downwind traffic (lesson learned from yesterday), and placed fourth, no close calls or real “fights” at the finish. Although the wind was better that day, it did not stick around ironically leading to our best performance of the entire weekend.
Thunderheads approached over the mountain peaks, threatening a cancelation of the race. Fortunately, the weather participated all morning leading into the last and final race of the regatta that took an unexpected turn. At the start, minutes before the horn, the wind died. Our fleet bobbed along together in a snail race up the lake so quietly we could hear the crew of nearly all boats surrounding us. Matt and Laura were behind us, very reminiscent of the days we both had a bubble on our keel and would be stuck together on downwind legs while the competition passed us. We finally caught some wind in our sails when Chris and I noticed something that hasn’t happened in decades… a Mono Wind was coming.
Mono Wind Events can easily reach speeds in excess of 50 knots and in extreme cases as high as over 60 knots. The broad area affected by Mono Winds is along the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada, however, due to the localized effects of terrain channeling these winds, they can often affect one area tremendously and barely impact another area just a few hundred feet away. One of the most interesting aspects of this wind event is that it causes the sustained wind direction to flip from west to east, provoking sailors to adjust course and sail up the lake downwind and down the lake upwind which again, has not happened during a regatta in nearly two decades.
Chris and I could feel it before it happened, all the boxes were checked for this wind event to occur: thunderheads, humidity, lack of wind, then WOOMF the wind line hit and filled our sails. Luckily, we were prepared. I had quietly snuck on deck and set our whisker pole anticipating the wind to come from behind us. Within moments we became the pack leaders, holding a commanding lead on the other boats. Absolutely overwhelmed with our successful tactics, I sat on the cabin top and snapped some photos as evidence of this historic moment. Behind us, Sniper One, My Black Pearl, and No Name (Matt and Laura, you need to name your boat!) were battling it out at each other’s beams getting very close to touching. To their Portside was the Bonanders on Mr. Goodwrench, slowly gained on us. “We cannot mess this up,” Chris said as seriously as possible while holding back a sh!t eating grin.
We rounded the mark with minor difficulty, allowing room for a Catalina 22 that was somehow stuck with us on the same course before I took down the pole and pulled the sheets tight, sailing upwind, down the lake. We carried the best wind line all the way down through the final mark, Matt and Laura sneaking ahead of us. Around the mark, we went holding our course through the finish, the two of us drunk on adrenalin. Mitch and Quincey crossed our course as we were nearing the finish. They cheered when the committee boat blew the air horn signifying that we had done it, we had finished the race in second place and the regatta was over.
We ourselves cheered, hugged, and high fived reaching for some refreshments to “cheers” with. Together we watched The Red Eye Special, Mr. Goodwrench, and our other competitors cross the finish, still absolutely electrified with excitement. Chris sailed to the launch ramp, getting close to the dock allowing me to step off in my best Captain-Ron fashion, the only thing missing were the margaritas. On the shoreline, the Neely family was ecstatic about our finish and came together to celebrate. Chris rejoined us after Geronimo was safe in her slip, making it just in time for the awards ceremony.
As we gathered around the announcer we noted that the turnout for the 2021 High Sierra Regatta was much smaller than years prior, either because of the pandemic or (as we feared) a lack of interest. The Victory fleet huddled together as the announcer declared the podium winners starting with Missy Hansen, a newcomer and the only female skipper placing 3rd in her first regatta. She was a skillful skipper and her crew worked hard to make sure the sails were trimmed correctly, it was a pleasure sharing the course with her and we look forward to seeing more of My Black Pearl in the future. First place was a tie between the two Bonanders, Matt and Laura securing first due to their final finish in first place, leaving Don and Wendy in second. Laura was ecstatic as they came forward to accept the perpetual Victory 21 fleet trophy and first place High Sierra Regatta plaque, adorned to a tree cookie salvaged from the Creek Fire. Chris and I were so incredibly proud of the pair who have continuously displayed masterful sailing on the water, following closely after Matt’s parents.
Chris and I may not have secured a first-place title (yet) but every time we compete we come out better sailors, adding another notch to our belts. We would like to formally thank the Fresno Yacht Club for hosting this annual and legendary event, as well as the Victory 21 fleet for keeping us competitive and humbled. No matter how far the winds take us on Avocet, we will always return to our roots to sail with our favorite group on our home lake.
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for the support and hope that you enjoy reading about our adventures. Until next time…
Marissa & Chris
The crew of Geronimo
If you are interested in sailing, owning, or racing a Victory 21’ please contact us! We would love nothing more than to continue this legacy, and watch our fleet expand.