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Swiftsure race's new layout to offer more to spectators

May 24 2012
Vern Burkhardt, chairman of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race committee, says the race is often won or lost at night with the winds. 

Vern Burkhardt, chairman of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race committee, says the race is often won or lost at night with the winds.

Photograph by: Bruce Stotesbury, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

This year's Swiftsure International Yacht Race offers spectators better vantage points and a more exciting finish line.

"In the past, we just milled around off the waterfront, and people didn't really know what [the boats] were doing," said Cleve Molsberry, who sits on the Swiftsure steering committee.

On Saturday, 1,200 sailors on 184 boats will converge at Clover Point for the start at 10 a.m., where two experts will provide commentary. In the late afternoon at Cattle Point, spectators can watch some of the boats race along the shore.

While boats in the three long-distance courses head out to sea, those in the inshore race will remain visible.

In past years, the Inshore Classic course has been a series of races, but now it is condensed into one.

"It gives the racers more of a focus, keeps them together, race boat for boat," Molsberry said, adding that the finish at Oak Bay on Saturday evening will be particularly exciting.

"Sometimes you can see the strategy better from the shore," said Molsberry, who has been sailing for 35 years.

Now in its 69th year, Swiftsure's number of participants has ebbed and flowed over the decades. This year's race has attracted high numbers, Molsberry said.

Sailing, though, isn't for the faint of heart.

"The race can go from eking the best you can from light wind to pure terror," Molsberry said.

Crews in the three distance courses will be sailing for more than 24 consecutive hours.

"At night, people wear full harnesses and are clipped onto the boat," Molsberry said. "You're into some pretty big sea swells. They're like rolling hills."

On Sunday, spectators can gather at Ogden Point to see boats cross the finish line throughout the day.

Vern Burkhardt, part of an 11-man crew aboard the Kinetic, chairs the Swiftsure committee. He's sailing the Swiftsure Lightship Classic course, the longest of the races. Like Molsberry, he has been a sailor for more than three decades.

"I fell immediately in love with the competition, the challenge, the physical endurance and, most importantly, the mental endurance," Burkhardt said. "You have to be focused."

Even in an overnight race, every second counts.

"The race is often won or lost at night with the winds," Burkhardt said. "The best sailboats are like a well-oiled engine. It's almost like a symphony, it's choreographed so nicely."

Despite his experience, Burkhardt is cautious about the race.

"There's always a little bit of a state of nerves ... that we're ready, that we haven't forgotten something important," Burkhardt said.

"There's fantastic anticipation."

It is the camaraderie among the crew that makes sailing stand apart as a sport, he said.

"[The race] is something you've worked and looked forward to for months," he said. "To finish the race is to win."

cclancy@timescolonist.com

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