Going the Distance

Onboard /Pyewacket/ for the 2003 Transpac

© Courtesy Pyewacket

Five o'clock in the morning, tropical dawn is less than an hour away. The temperature is mid-80s, the wind averaging 25 knots, spiking to 29. You're hiking, legs out, wearing deck sandals, a T-shirt and shorts on a saltwater-washed deck, blasting downwind under the big kite on one of the most successful sloops in ocean racing history. The finish line at Diamond Head is less than 25 miles away now. When the bow wave kicks up spray as it planes through the three-meter-high swells (at well over 20 knots boatspeed), you don't even bother to duck the lashing--the water is that warm--plus you know in less than 2 hours this "e-ticket" ride will be over. Alongside are 13 others who have shared the unforgettable experience of a passage from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Most of them are regulars on the crew and are reflecting on the glory days of this boat, which is sailing its last race as Pyewacket.

There can't be any better place on the planet to sail the final miles of an ocean race than in the Molokai Channel. From my spot on the rail, I take a moment to think back to my first Transpacific Yacht Race, 22 years before, aboard the Santa Cruz 50 Hana Ho, locked in a tight race with its sistership, Shandu. The on-deck speakers were blasting an Allman Brothers jam, which seemed a perfect complement to the battle raging along, while "spinner" dolphins escorted us. We had won that race, but not this time; Philippe Kahn's well-sailed near-sistership, Pegasus, had already enjoyed their frolic across the channel a few hours earlier.

Heading to the starting line this year, we knew we had a big challenge. Pyewacket's 1999 record of 7d:11h, was at risk, as both Pegasus and Pyewacket fronted up to the starting line with longer poles and less weight. And Kahn had put together a crew of Volvo and America's Cup veterans, then spent many hours in training and sail development, including two heavy-air blasts down the central California coast as warm-ups. They'd also won our only recent head-to-head meeting in the Coastal Cup--a race from San Francisco Bay to Catalina Island, in which I experienced the fastest 12 hours of sailing in my career--237 miles in 12 hours. Sailing faster than the swells, the 77-foot Pyewacket had been constantly punching through the wave ahead, flushing the foredeck and cockpit regularly with several inches of blue water--not a good time to discover that the latch on the bow hatch couldn't stand the load. (In only a few seconds, hundreds of gallons of Pacific Ocean found a home in the bilge.)

I was a relative newcomer to the Pyewacket team, although I'd sailed an earlier Pyewacket on the California sled circuit over a decade ago. Roy Disney and his son Roy Pat had subsequently teamed up with Olympic medalist Robbie Haines and ever since their fourth Pyewacket was launched, they'd won many races and set records to Hawaii, Mackinac Island, and Bermuda as well as terrorizing the mere mortal boats in race weeks at Cork, Ireland, and the Caribbean. Suffice it to say that this was a good ride for Transpac and I jumped at the chance when Robbie called me when I returned from Auckland.

In a race that’s been run for nearly the last century, you can imagine there’s a fair bit of "conventional wisdom" in the tactical department. Part of that is due to the fact that by July the Pacific High has usually settled into its summertime home under the Aleutians making for predictable conditions; so predictable that the organizers apply a fixed wind matrix to calculate the handicaps before the start. But this year the race weather was abnormal, featuring a giant North Pacific wintertime-like low that crushed the high, and a tropical storm, which threatened the fleet, tracking westward from Baja, adding to the tactical challenge. We were on port jibe by Day 3, unheard of in Transpac lore, and got so far south so early that we found ourselves calling a layline to the islands from more than 1,000 miles out.

Unfortunately for us, Mark Rudiger, navigating Pegasus, called for an aggressive dive south during the first two days of the race. By the second day, the 8 a.m. radio roll call told us some bad news. Pegasus had made 100 miles of southing on us--while losing very little in distance to the mark. With the wind rapidly fading in the north, our plan to hit the early right shift, jibe and cross them was looking less promising and although the shift came, Pegasus' greater pressure won out. They protected their southerly advantage for the rest of the race, gaining a 70-odd mile lead in the process.

Luckily, the Transpac is about more than winning or losing--it’s about sailing 2,200 miles, a nautical rite of passage, facing some challenges and having some fun in the process and looking forward to that big "aloha" when you pull into the harbor at Waikiki.

Since 1906, the boats have gotten fast and faster, but you pay for that speed in the first 36 hours of the race while sailing a classic windy, wet jib reach. With a reef in the main and a No. 4 jib set, Pyewacket blazed a trail almost straight for Hawaii averaging more than 15 knots, several knots faster than the first generation turbosleds could've achieved. Legs out over the side--foul weather gear hood up to ward off some of the saltwater spray--by midnight on the first night you're out of the Southern California doldrums and in the breeze--a wet and uncomfortable 25 knots out of the northwest.

Reading Pegasus' website after the race it's clear mal de mer was not only suffered by a few members of our crew. Even if you were lucky enough to keep from feeling queasy, you found yourself on the midnight watch wearing everything in your duffle and wishing you had decided to bring your sea boots instead of going ultra light with waterproof socks and sneakers.

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| www.pegasus.com/©2003|

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| Philippe Kahn (at helm) and his team turned an early run south into a 70-mile advantage they held until Hawaii. For a the Pegasus skipper's log, head to www.pegasus.com/log.htm* * *|

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But being light is a big part of the Transpac game because two-thirds of the race is a moderate-air VMG run. Still, I found that you're treated to a far less ascetic lifestyle on Pyewacket than on News Corp in the Volvo Ocean Race. We had one token freeze-dried dinner late in the race, but long-time team member Dick Loewy took primary chef duties and served real meals. Others chipped in: Doug Rastello grilled up tasty steaks two nights in a row, and Roy's specialty was concocting creative cabbage salads, which provided a good vegetable fix and warded off scurvy. Pancakes and bacon were frequent breakfast fare, and, well, you get the idea--an army marches on its stomach and an ocean racing crew fixates on its food. We were even better stocked than we thought--heading into the Molokai Channel, Marco Constant stacked a pile of Oreo's like gambling chips on the nav table. Nobody could match Marco's consistent ability to produce hidden sweets.

After the first couple of days, the discomfort of the reaching conditions and normal difficulties of shifting into the catnap mode of offshore sailing slowly faded away. Thanks to our early jibe south, we were at Hawaii’s latitude (tropical) very early in the race, and as the clouds burned off on Day 4 we were blessed with classic downwind conditions that required full sun protection and lots of fluids all day long. By our final night, the July moon had waxed to its full magnitude, and with the balmy 15- to 20-knot trade winds, tasty surfing swells, and magical moon shadows, conditions on deck after sunset were delightful. This was sailing at its best--a T-shirt and shorts (and the clunky, race-required life harness/PFD), cruising at 15 knots with surges to 20 toward Hawaii. The only thing that would’ve improved it was if we had our competition behind us instead of 70 miles ahead.

Life on board settled into an organized routine that’s the hallmark of a watch system like the four-on, four-off system we employed. Normally all the bunks on the weather side (six in total) were taken, plus one less-desirable space on a stack of sails or other padding on the weather side floor next to the engine box.

On deck, the on watch rotated loosely through the active positions of sailing a sled downwind. The most fun, of course, was taking the helm, and everyone gets to drive on Pyewacket. But the watch captains (Benny Mitchell and Robbie) have the authority to override the loose rotation, so that the better drivers got more helm time--especially when the conditions were more difficult. The next most entertaining position is trimming the spinnaker sheet. When surging down the waves--these big sleds go through some major apparent wind changes even if the helmsman is tracking a consistent true-wind angle (it doesn't pay to steer a lot down the waves unless there's a particular juicy one to ride). So the trimmer must get into the same "zone" as the helmsman and play the sheet in and out (about 2 to 3 feet in 18 knots of wind) to keep the sail at maximum power.

Of course all this action creates work for the grinders. Normally, there are two guys on the handles. When things are really in synch, they’re feeling the wind and the waves too, and anticipating the call "trim" from the man on the sheet. At their feet is a switch where a grinder can shift connections to the mainsheet if need be. Normally, the mainsheet can be played (and pumped) by a trimmer sitting forward of the wheel.

In the super windy, broach-threatening conditions of the Coastal Race, the main trimmer also kept one foot on the quick-release button for the hydraulic vang, but while running in Transpac we were always searching for more power.

The "extra" guy on deck did all the extraneous duties, housekeeping on deck and grabbing snacks and drinks from the galley. Every hour a new guy (or two) would be awoken by their counterpart(s) in the watch rotation who had been on deck for the previous 4 hours and was looking forward to some personal time--maybe a shower on the transom if it was daytime, or straight to the bunk if they were tired. This sort of regular flow to the 24 by 7 life aboard a racing boat was only broken up by a maneuver or sail change requiring all hands and by the major meals--breakfast, because of the popularity of the incoming news from the 8 a.m. roll call, and dinner, which was usually attended by a full crew in two or three "seatings."

Everyone was on deck as we blasted across Molokai Channel in the growing dawn light--preparing for "re-entry" to the real world and savoring the final hour aboard the best boat that most of the crew has ever sailed. First Koko Head emerged in the twilight and then Diamond Head’s distinctive profile grew ahead. With a big grin across his face, long-time boat captain Gregg Hedrick steered his old friend across the Molokai Channel in 70 minutes time, then handed the helm over to Roy for the final few miles. (The boat had been sold before the race, and delivery to the new owner took place three days after the finish). These turbosleds have a way of compressing distance in an unreal fashion.

Our elapsed time across the Pacific was 40-percent faster than the majority of the fleet. But still, eight days is a long time for us 21st century types to be out at sea, away from family, friends, cell phones and emails and, did anyone mention mai-tais? A big, traditional Transpac-style welcome celebration greeted Pyewacket on the docks at the Ala Wai Marina--family, friends, and race officials all joined in. After receiving beautiful flowered leis and hugs and kisses from our loved ones, the crew dug into the tasty treats that had been prepared by our Hawaiian hosts at the Ilikai Hotel. I quickly forgot that I had recently munched two stacks of Oreos and dived into a big plate of ahi sashimi and chops--and of course washed it down with the traditional mai-tai.

There would be a time and place for an in-depth post-race analysis (none of us liked the fact that Pegasus was sitting pretty at the pole position on the dock--all tidied up with crew off taking well-deserved naps). But for now, we were celebrating our own accomplishments--as a team and individually we had followed in the wakes of thousands of other Transpac racers who over the last century had been enchanted by the prospect of an ocean race to paradise just as much as we had.

Editor’s Note: In every match race, there’s always two sides to the story. For a detailed log of the race from Team Pegasus’ point of view, plus plenty more photos, see http://www.pegasus.com/log.htm