Keane 2003 US Snipe Nationals – The Buzzards Bay Sou’wester

I wrote this originally for the 2003 Snipe Nationals, probably one of my most favorite Snipe events ever, but it will always be true so thought it was worth archiving here. You can see it as well as the archived site on the Wayback Machine.

Well, How did we get here?

Picture a scene that might happen at virtually any Snipe regatta: standing in a bar, after a great day of sailing and talking about our favorite places to sail. In our case, the bar was in Newport, RI, where a bunch of District One sailors had gathered for a regatta. The instigators were Barb Evans, Pedro Lorson, and me. We all decided that Buzzards Bay was without a doubt one of the best sailing venues around with its perfect summer temperatures and renown steady breeze, the “Buzzards Bay Sou’wester. We had all sailed there at various points in our lives. I grew up sailing at the Beverly Yacht Club. Pedro and I are Tabor Academy Alumni (an amusing story in itself), and Barb lived on the bay during the summer of 1990.

Since District One’s turn at hosting the Snipe Nationals was looming in the future, eventually the conversation morphed, as they do around at a bar with significant “beer pressure,” to places that would make for a good nationals and we thought, ah hah! forget the light air and hot stinky temperatures of the Chesapeake in July, we ought to do it in Marion.

We schemed about it some more and stumbled on to other topics. A couple of months later when the Newport fleet had to withdraw their bid, Barb brought up the idea again, and we all responded in unison, if you’re the regatta chair, we’ll see if we can make it happen. Barb, being the “go to” person she is, said, you’re on! Upon hearing the idea, a lot of people became interested and volunteered to help, so we decided to take the next step. I mentioned the idea to my father, a long time member of the Beverly Yacht Club in Marion if he thought the club would be interested in hosting the event. He talked to several club officials and from here the ball was irreversibly started rolling! The final outcome is that Barb and Graham Quinn have put together a fantastic team of BYC Members and District 1 Snipers to bring what promises to be both a great sailing event AND a great social event. The essence of “Serious Sailing, Serious Fun”®

alex as a kid on a bullseye
At about 7 years old, the author concentrating intently at the helm of the family Bullseye.

In promoting the event we needed a “local” to write an article about the real sailing conditions that can be expected in order to support the legend of the Sou’wester. Having grown up sailing in Marion, first in Cape Cod Bullseyes with my father at the BYC and then Lasers as a high school student, I offered to describe my experiences, since I’m the closest thing to a local Sniper we’ve got. So what can we expect for the Keane 2003 Snipe US National Championships?

The Sou’wester

My experience from growing up in the area is that it blows 18 knots from the SW every day starting about 12 noon. The weekend races at the BYC generally don’t start until early afternoon when the breeze is rock solid. This was so engrained in my head that when I started sailing Snipes in Ohio, on Lake Erie and regional inland lakes, I had a really hard time understanding what this wind shift stuff was, exclaiming one day after having my butt handed to me on a plate “What do you mean the wind oscillates 30 degrees, it’s supposed to blow from the southwest!” So much for not getting out much… which brings up an associated lesson: sail in as many different places as you can!

Histogram of Wind Direction
Histogram of Wind Direction, showing the percentage of the time the wind blows from a certain direction.

The sou’wester in Buzzards Bay is a thermally driven breeze, or “sea breeze”, due to the surrounding horseshoe shape land masses that draw breeze directly up the bay roughly from the southwest to the northeast. In deciding to write about the conditions, I thought it was important to get some actual data to support my experiences. After all, I was a rocket scientist in a former life. The best source of this kind of data is from NOAA’s National Bouy Data Center instruments on the Buzzards Bay Light Tower (BUZM3) located about 17 miles from the race course at the mouth of the bay. I wanted to get some statistical data on what the breeze will do during the summer months that typically produce the sou’wester and during the time of day that we are likely to be sailing. To that end, I looked at five years worth of data from July and August between 11 am and 5 pm to see what the most likely breeze direction, strength and gusts were. Lo and behold, a histogram of the wind direction, essentially a distribution of wind directions and the associated percentage chance they will occur, shows that the most frequent direction is in fact 220 degrees. These are true bearings, so add about 13 degrees to get magnetic bearing or what you will see on your compass. It’s clear from the histogram that the predominant breeze (about 60% of the time) is between 200-240 degrees, illustrated by the large peak around 220. The small peak around 40 degrees represents the kind of shifty northeasterly breeze that might occur after the passing of a cold front. These do occur during the summer but in general are short lived, lasting only a day or so, before the sou’wester returns.

As for wind speed, the great thing about the sou’wester is that it is strong and steady, but not too strong. The breeze is generally in the middle teens with gusts and lulls of +/- 3 knots. The same kind of histograms of continuous wind speeds and gusts show this nicely. We’re most likely to see steady breeze in the 12-18 knot range with breeze very rarely over the class limit of 25 knots. These statistics bode well for not loosing any racing days due to too much or too little wind.

Histogram of Wind speed
Histograms of Wind Speed (Continuous and Gusts), showing the percentage of the time the wind blows at a certain speed.

A typical looking Sou'wester day.
A typical looking Sou’wester day.

The development of this breeze is quite regular and the direction as it builds does not vary much, i.e. there is no persistent shift as it builds. This makes sense as the breeze just builds quickly and “comes in” directly up the bay. The tell tale signs of the sou’wester are the stereotypical cumulous clouds that form along the shore.

OK, so the breeze is steady, that means a premium on boat speed. However there is still some local knowledge that comes in to play depending on where the course is set. For a course that is set in what’s called the outer harbor, the area between Butler and Converse Points (where the “Wells Circle” is drawn), the right side of the course is almost always favored for several reasons. The breeze coming off the right shore tends to have slight “righties” in it and is generally flatter water. This is a more likely place for a Wells course (if there are separate courses). View a chart of the area. For reference, the course circles are just under a mile in diameter. The farther out into the bay the course, the less I would emphasize the right side.

Waves and Current

Buzzards Bay is similar to the Chesapeake bay around Annapolis in that it is relatively shallow. The average depth ranges from 15-25 feet deep meaning that breezes into the teens will produce a shorter, steeper chop, similar to what we experience in Annapolis. At least there is not the compounding powerboat chop!

The current can also be more significant on the right side of the course. According to the Eldridge Tide and Pilot book current charts, the current in and out of Sippican Harbor can be as much as 0.5 knots at full flood and the maximum current path tends to hug the western shore, or the right side of the course.

Based on this data and people’s own experiences sailing in the area, this venue will suit the majority of Snipe sailors. There will be good hiking breezes, neither the “full on” conditions that were, at least in the lore, at Cascade Locks nor the crazy lake sailing typical of the inland lakes. This coupled with the hospitality and charm of the Beverly Yacht Club and the support provided by Keane, Inc. will insure that we have a “Serious Sailing, Serious Fun”® event.

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