2011 Sail Oklahoma Puddle Duck WorldsBy Scott Widmier
Life and work were good to me when they colluded to allow me to drive to Oklahoma to attend Mike and Jackie's "Sail Oklahoma." My anticipation built all through September as more and more wonderful details were posted in the Sail Oklahoma yahoo group. Three designers were going to be in attendance including John Welsford all the way from New Zealand. I haven't yet built one of his boats but they are both beautiful and capable. His book (Backyard Boatbuilder: How to Build Your Own Wooden Boat) is a wonderful catalyst to dream about open boat cruising and boat design. Jackie was working up a continual four-day feast for all in attendance and the Puddle Duck race promised to have the most hulls participating ever! A definite must go despite the 13 hour drive. Besides, I had talked my fellow sailing club member and friend, Steve Gully, into bringing his duck and riding with me which would help with the drive.
My plan was to bring my Puddle Duck, hull 421, and my self-designed 12' sloop "Knot Yacht" which performed so well during the Florida 120. I guess in a way I wanted to show off my own paltry design efforts and get some advice from the three designers. Unfortunately, time and WestMarine conspired against me so I headed off on Wednesday for the long drive to Oklahoma with two puddle ducks on the trailer, a friend riding shotgun, and camping gear in the back.
Instead of trying to find Jackie and Mike's house in the dark and pitching camp, Steve and I decided to stay in a hotel so we arrived at Jackie and Mike's house Thursday morning around 10am. I was expecting a large crowd but, at that point, not many had arrived. We offloaded our puddle ducks, set up camp, and ate lunch all the while listening to the strong winds blow. Neither Steve nor I felt like braving the winds so we ended up going to inspect a Toy Home (Toyota Motorhome) I was interested in that was for sale nearby. I got an interesting experience test driving a motorhome in high winds what convinced me to look at something a bit smaller like a conversion van and we got back to Jackie and Mike's house in time for dinner. At dinner I got the opportunity to speak with John Welsford and Jim Michalak about boat design and had them sign their respective books that I had tucked in my bags.
Saturday morning dawned with 15 mph winds and gusts up to 28 mph. The wind was blowing from the land meaning it would be very easy to sail away but hard to come back especially if one had to paddle because the rig was too big for the conditions. My puddle duck has a windsurfer sail on a salvaged lightweight flagpole with a scrap wood wishbone boom and NO REEFS! Not exactly the rig to be confident with in high winds. Nevertheless, I hadn't driven 13 hours to sit on the beach so I raised my sails, waded out (very shallow close to shore) and jumped in.
At first I was rather cautious which led to me getting stuck in irons a couple of times. When overpowered my duck has a strong weatherhelm. Strong enough that the boat will snap into the wind the moment I tighten the main and before I have enough speed to give me helm control. Only way to get out of irons is to let the sail way out and scull-turn the boat downwind using the rudder. Frustrating and tiring! I either needed a larger rudder to move my center of effort aft or move my mast step forward. On the positive, I was able to keep the puddle duck on her feet even in the high gusts. The mast had enough flex in it to spill wind out of the leg-of-mutton sail during the higher gusts. Despite my growing confidence and comfort with my boat, I decided to opt out of the 10 mile round-trip cruise not wanting to have to bash back to windward across the lake in the face of whitecaps. Much better to keep sailing the day away and visiting in the calmer waters created by the lee of the land.
There were many wonderful boats to look at on that sandy beach in Oklahoma. Some of my favorites included an electric tug boat, a beautiful strip built Toto trimaran conversion, the first Goat Island skiff I had ever seen, an elegant Pathfinder, and a neat little Skat Cat with a cubby cabin. All of us took turns alternatively looking at eachother's boats and sailing. Just a wonderful day! At the end of the day I was a little bothered that my aluminum sectional flag-pole mast had a bit of a permanent bend in it from the high winds. I had been let down by one of these recycled flagpoles before on my Knot Yacht during the Florida 120 within a mile of the finish line. I didn't want that to happen again!
That evening Steve and I, having brought official sailboat racing marks from our sail club in Georgia, volunteered to take some of the pressure off of Mike and Jackie by coordinating the Puddle Duck Worlds race. In true administrative fashion, and to avoid conflict of interest since we were racing, we quickly handed off race committee responsibility to Bob Wessel. The three of us discussed the challenges of laying out a race on a leeward shore in a part of the lake with a lot of tree stumps poking out. We wanted a course that had the windward start both because this is traditional and safer for the racers (there is a reason it is traditional in sailboat racing). Unfortunately, this meant the starting line would be the furthest point from shore of the entire racecourse. However, we did figure out a way to have the last leg of the course right alongside the beach where everyone could watch the excitement.
Saturday morning dawned with the same strong winds typical of this part of Oklahoma. I shanghaied some extra hands to help Bob run the race committee and Steve and I went out to set the marks. We had the skipper's meeting at 10:20am where Bob explained the course and the rules. We would do one and two-thirds laps for each race with an approximately windward, reaching, and downwind legs given the shifting winds. Around 20 skippers headed to their Puddle Ducks to sail to the start line. I was one of the first ones there in hull 421 when I noticed my mast had developed a kink near the bottom a sure sign of imminent mast failure. Hindsight being 20/20 I should have gone ahead and done the race but at the time I was more concerned with getting back to shore without help and before my mast broke completely. So, I was onshore when the 10 minute horn sounded.
Another advantage of Sail Oklahoma is having a boatbuilding palace complete with a very helpful and competent builder available. Earlier that day four fiberglass radio masts had been dropped off for the boat parts sail and Mike and I grabbed one of those. Unfortunately, the base was too large to fit into my mast step even when the mast was cut down to the size of my sail. My quick solution was to jam the bottom section of my aluminum mast into the fiberglass one. By the time I was done, nobody had yet finished the race so I headed out to cross the start line and start the race approximately 10 minutes behind everyone. Once I reached the line, I turned the boat to windward and cranked down on the mainsheet in a gust when CRACK, the new mast split apart from the leveraging action of the aluminum stump! This is when I got a close up look at that wonderful electric tug as it pulled my poor boat back to shore. I was registered as a DNS (did not start) though now I realized I did start so should have been a DNF (did not finish) which is important when it comes time to count the number of hulls at each race. I also may be the first Puddle Duck racer to break 2 masts in 1 race!
Brad Hickman won the first race in his lug-rigged boat. I went back and gobbled down a quick lunch and went to work on another one of the fiberglass masts so see if I could fit it to my boat in time for the second race. My first attempt to get it to fit the mast step was to sand and rasp the diameter of the foot of the mast down. That resulted in shore muscles, itchy skin, and too thin mast walls. With the race starting soon, I resorted to cutting off the damaged section of the first fiberglass mast and sticking it into the second fiberglass mast hoping that the similar materials and the long overlap (at least 8 feet) would not result in the same failure experienced in the first race. I ended up having to use duct tape to thicken the mast a bit at the step and got everything back together with sail up when the one minute horn sounded. I quickly waded out with my duck, jumped on board, and headed to the start line across the lake.
I ended up being 2 minutes late for the start and at the back of the fleet. However, the wind was cooperating giving me a nice windward run which was to my advantage given how close-winded my windsurfer rigged puddle duck proved to be at the Red Top Regionals in 2010. Also, the new fiberglass mast was holding and a big improvement on the old aluminum one. When the gusts hit the mast flexed nicely which twisted the top of the sail and spilled the wind. It was like having shock absorbers on the boat. I no longer had to spend any attention on preventing the boat from going over and could focus on the race. By the time I rounded the first, windward, mark I had passed over half the fleet. I just barely held onto my position during the reaching and downwind run as my windsurfer rig is not as fast downwind as the four-sided sails like the ever-present lug sail.
The second windward leg came up and again the wind cooperated allowing me to point higher that the other ducks. It is amazing how being able to point a few degrees higher translates into speed during a race especially since the windward leg of a race tends to be the longest as the boats tack back and forth. I rounded the windward mark in the lead but with Brad, again in his beautiful bright-finished Duck breathing down my neck. Now we had a reach along the beach to the finish and his boat was faster on the reach! Halfway down this leg he passed me and it looked like he was going to win the race. However, the wind shifted giving us a windward run to the finish and my boat started eating up the distance. We both headed towards the leeward mark of the finish line to give a better angle to the wind. It still looked like he was going to win as I steered to avoid the photographer who was standing in the middle of the finish gate (I better get some good pictures out of that) when I heard Brad cursing on the other side of my sail out of my view. One of the other racers whom we were both lapping had just cut off his lane to the finish line! He had to go around that boat meaning I crossed first and won the second race!
The start of the third race was a surprise to everyone except for those on the committee boat. We had been told it would be a 4 pm start but suddenly the 10 minute horn sounded and the preparatory flag was flying! We looked at each other a bit stunned then raced for our boats in a bid to try and make it to the start line before the beginning of the race. I ended up getting there a bit early so sailed down the line and crossed as the start horn sounded close to the committee boat side of the line. This didn't give me as good an angle on the windward mark. However, the wind had shifted a bit resulting in a one-tack windward run for my boat. I rounded the first mark out in front but with John Welsford breathing down my neck in Jackie's beautiful Kiwi Duck. I didn't realize it at the time but Brad had his rigging crash down around his ears when a jam cleat let loose. He must have set a record getting his rig back up as he was still in the race. Despite their best efforts, I held onto the lead through my vulnerable reaching and downwind legs.
I rounded the start mark for my second leg with the wind in perfect position for a straight close-hauled and no-tack run to the windward mark. I heard John Welsford cursing a bit and looked over my shoulder to see an errant gust had taken him aback hitting the leeward side of his sail. The path to victory was clear! I sailed around the windward mark and sailed along the beach to cross in first place. Brad again finished second with John behind him.
While others continued to sail in some great conditions, the wind finally having moderated, Steve and I went out and collected the marks. Not fun given how much weight we had put on the line to keep them in place and the tired and cramped muscles from sailing and fixing my boat. We made it back to camp and relaxed for a bit before the awards ceremony.
I am sure the results will get published in a more cogent manner than they will in this account but I only really remembered a few facts. Brad won first place overall though he did give me a bit of a dig by thanking me for breaking my mast and dropping out of the first race. He also gave me a sunhat that came as one of his many awards both for his racing and boatbuilding ability. Thank you Brad! John Welsford placed third which is very credible given the stiff completion and the fact that this was his first day ever sailing a puddle duck racer. Despite not having finished the first race, I ended up placing 5th overall much to my surprise. The race committee took the time of the slowest puddle duck racer, it was a very spread out fleet, added some penalties for not starting (though I did) and put that in for my time in the first race. Steve Gully, who regularly beats me in our club's races, placed 6th mainly due to having too much sail area for the conditions…not that I let him use that as an excuse!
The feast (ribeye, pork loin, and pulled pork) was not quite ready after all of the awards have been given including those for the boat show so I decided to satisfy my curiosity. I asked all three designers to comment on their experiences in sailing Puddle Duck racers. Their general consensus was that while these boats will never set a speed record, they are definitely fun to race in a class against each other and are excellent for teaching people how to sail. They are easy to build, stable to sail, but will award people for good sailing and punish for bad sailing. They are very sensitive to balance requiring the skipper to constantly shift based upon wind conditions in order to keep the bow and stern transoms out of the water (especially the bow). Most telling was the smile on each of their faces remembering the fun they had in sailing these diminutive 8 foot boats.
Next morning I had to pack early and head back in order to make a Monday morning meeting at work. This meant I had to delegate my Pirate Poker Run responsibilities to Kevin Hahn for which I rewarded him by giving him my puddle duck racer without rig. He has a windsurfer rig and I am sure I will see hull 421 again at another race. I had plenty of time to think about and discuss my future puddle ducks with Steve as we drove back to Atlanta tired and happy.
Maybe in a future duck event you will see Paraduck, Origami Duck, Duck Duck, Windsurfer Duck, Duck Cubed or Rubic Duck depending on which dream I plan on building next. If any of these names intrigue you, email me and find out about the design!