PUBLISHED: 5:43 PM on Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Crews fight slow winds during Juneau Cup Challenge
"Apple Fritter," calls our Jim Mahan, captain of the 34-foot sailing sloop Loa'a Nalu, as we cruise through Gastineau channel in route to the starting line of a sailing race on Saturday.

Eating a pre-race snack of apple fritter is a tradition on this vessel.

This race from Marmion Island to Jaw Point in Taku Inlet is the first leg of the Juneau Cup race. The mountains are covered with snow, and a cold wind is blowing off the water. The crew works furiously to hoist and unfurl the main sail and unfurl a second jib sail. There are four of us on the crew: Captain Jim Mahan, helmsman Fred Fisher, Rick Turner, and myself.

Erik Stiimpfle photo
  The crew of the 34-foot sailing sloop Loa'a Nalu fight against slow winds on their way to Taku Inlet during the first race of the Juneau Cup Challenge on Saturday.
At the starting line, six boats are jockeying for position: Smoke, Haiku, Lyric, Tengo, Joy Spring, and Loa'a Nalu. As we make our first turn the boat tips at an angle and a corked bottle of red wine spills all over the boat's cabin.

Mahan curses as he rushes to clean up the wine that is threatening to stain his extra sails. He just spent three days cleaning his entire boat. I follow Jim down into the cabin and he tosses me a rag. I franticly swab the red wine off the floor of the boat. With the Mess cleaned we head back up on deck.

At 10:45 AM, the race official sounds a fog horn signaling the start of the race. The Haiku and the Joy Spring get out to an early lead. Both boats are designed for racing; they are light and fast. Our boat, the Loa'a Nalu, is heavier and slower - designed for blue water cruising with a heavier ballast and deep keel.

The Juneau Sail Squadron uses a handicapping system based on the size, weight, and design of a vessel. Using the handicap system, race times are adjusted according to a formula. This brings parity regardless of the boat. The captain that sails the best will win the race. Technically, we could finish several hours behind the Haiku and still win. Captain Brian Lieb pilots the Haiku and won last year's Juneau Cup Challenge, which is comprised of seven rounds of races.

Erik Stimpfle photo
  Several vessels had to use engine power and thereby could not finish the first race of the Juneau Cup Challenge.
Three hours into the race we are making our way towards the entrance of Taku Inlet following a course set by a GPS device. However, the wind has stopped blowing and our speed has been reduced to less than a knot. Estimated time of arrival is 1.5 days, according to the computer. Up ahead we can see the Haiku and Joy Spring, which look like dots on the horizon. They have managed to find enough wind to keep going.

We turn the boat in vain trying to catch a small breeze that will push towards a windier part of the bay. Fisher, our helmsman, decides to bring out the cold beer, and we drink it bundled up in our fleece, hats, and gloves. Captain Mahan orders the crew to find some reggae music with hopes that Bob Marley will bring the wind. Down in the water a lone sea lion snorts loudly and eyes us briefly before disappearing under the water. We can hear a whale spouting in the distance, but we don't see it anywhere.

The sun emerges briefly from the high, overcast clouds. At last, the wind returns to our sails. We pull the sheets (sailing term for ropes attached to the sails), thereby coaxing our sail to catch the wind. As we enter Taku Inlet, the breeze quickens and we pick up speed.

"To the high side rail," calls Captain Jim. My job as rail mate is to sit on port (left) or starboard (right) side of the boat, depending on which way the boat is leaning. It helps us to go faster, and I don't mind being a portable ballast even though it is cold at times. I'm prone to lying down on the job and deserting my post to grab my camera. I found the best place to sleep is atop the boat hatch.

We pick up speed to a brisk eight knots, and we can see Jaw Point ahead, which is the halfway point of the race. We briefly pass the Haiku and Joy Spring that have turned the halfway point and are headed back. They've hoisted their colorful spinnaker sails and will soon be out of sight from us as they race for the lead.

As we approach the mouth of Taku Inlet the wind dies again. We watch helplessly as the sailing vessel Smoke leaves us behind. Behind us the sailing vessel Lyric has dropped its sails and is traveling by engine power. In a few hours, we will do the same having to accept a DNR (did not finish) score for the first race of the Juneau Cup. We wait for the wind but it never comes and we decide we need to get back to Juneau.

On the way back, we are hailed by the captain of the Lyric, who is having engine problems. Safety is the most important thing for the Juneau Sail Squadron, and we agree to give the boat a tow back to Juneau. Finally, around 8 p.m. we make it into Aurora Harbor, and I plant my feet on solid ground after 10 hours at sea. I've learned that sailing in May is cold and slow when the wind doesn't blow.

The sailing vessel Smoke won the race by 50 seconds, after times were adjusted under the handicapping system. The Haiku and Joy Spring finish second and third, and three other boats did not finish the race due to lack of wind.

The Juneau Cup Challenge is open to anyone with a suitable sailing vessel. Information about the race series can be found at: The next race will be May 24-26.