The People's Army Takes the Reins

The king's horses and henchmen have scattered, but the $7-million chariot /Pyewacket/ remains. Finding a crew to drive it, as it turns out, was just a matter of asking for volunteers. From our July/August 2006 issue.

PyewacketFeature
Stuart Streuli

When Roy Disney retired from grand prix yacht racing following the 2005 Transpac, he donated his most recent Pyewacket, an 86-foot canting-keel Reichel/Pugh design, to the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship, in Newport Beach, Calif. "When I first heard about it, I thought, 'How are we going to handle this?'" says Brad Avery, the school's director. "But the donor was very concerned with our ability to handle it and basically said, 'Let us know what you need.' We went back and forth for a couple of months to outline a program of how we could put the boat to use. It was very carefully done."The only remaining question was where to find the necessary manpower. Hiring the dozen or so professional sailors Disney and longtime sailing master Robbie Haines brought on board for each race-they sailed with 18 to Hawaii and more for buoy events-was financially out of the question, not to mention a bit off target for a teaching institution. So Avery and skipper Keith Kilpatrick, a Volvo veteran, placed a news brief into the Dec. 20, 2005, edition of Scuttlebutt's e-mail newsletter. "Great sailors wanted," it said.More than 200 people responded. There were also plenty of local acquaintances from the Southern California sailing scene that personally contacted Kilpatrick or Avery, enough to staff the boat. But that wasn't the plan. "We wanted to include people who wouldn't usually get a chance to sail on this boat-a guy with an Express 37 or an Olson 30," says Avery. "We view ourselves as a community sailing program."So they culled through the applicants, each of whom was asked to provide a brief sailing resume. Some they knew, but many they didn't. "We wanted people who have raced offshore on boats 30 feet and above," says Avery, "And we looked for an activity level that indicated a passion."From the initial 200 they chose three dozen for tryouts. Most were from the local area. But there were a few willing to travel lengthy distances, on their own dime, just to sail on Pyewacket. Ryan O'Grady lives in Connecticut, and sails regularly on big boats out of Newport, R.I. This summer he's sailing on the 77-foot Harrier. But the lure of the canting-keel rocketship was enough for him to schedule West Coast business trips around the tryouts, practices, and races.Ashley Perrin lives in San Francisco where she maintains and races on a Farr 40. Last summer, she went transatlantic as bowman on the 80-foot Tempest. Many sailors with Perrin's credentials-she was Bruce Schwab's shoreside manager during the last Around Alone-might have considered it beneath them to apply for an unpaid position, but she saw a unique opportunity to expand her sailing horizons. "You can be a really good sailor and not be given the opportunity," she says of sailing on boats like Pyewacket. "If you don't like to sit at the bar and talk yourself up, you're not going to get a ride. I'm not good at that; I don't even drink."But if Perrin lacks the gift of the gab while seated around a bar, she's not short of confidence on the water. During the introductions that kicked off her tryout, Perrin volunteered to do the bow, a particularly grueling position considering the size and weight of some of the sails-the Spectra Code 3 reaching spinnaker, for example, takes four to six people to carry comfortably. "Keith and I looked at each other, because she's a diminutive gal," says Avery. "But we got out there sailing and she did an incredible job. At the end of the day we were amazed at how good she was."After the two tryout sails, which were conducted in mid-March, Avery and Kilpatrick pared the list of crew candidates roughly in half and announced a crew for the 2006 Lexus Newport to Ensenada Race in late April. At 125 miles in length, the Ensenada Race is almost too short to be considered a true offshore race-the course record is just 10 hours, 45 minutes. But what it lacks in length, it makes up for by crossing a border and attracting a mammoth fleet. The race annually draws more than 400 boats; the record of 675 was set in the early '80s.For many Southern California sailors, the race is an annual event. Tom O'Keefe first made the trek to Ensenada when he was 13; he's now 44 and can add up on one hand the number of races he's missed. A lot of those races have been on quick boats, but none as quick as Pyewacket. "I've been sailing sleds since 1983," he says. "Pyewacket has always been the top program on the West Coast. When I found out that the Orange Coast College was the benefactor of this program, I called up Brad and said, 'How do I get on?'"The Ensenada-bound Pyewacket team-O'Keefe, Perrin, O'Grady and some 20 other lawyers, businessmen, college students, and Olympic hopefuls-assembles the day before the race for a practice. For most of the crew it's only the second time they've sailed on the boat. For some, like this reporter, it's our virgin trip.In some respects, the 86-footer is just another boat; most of the systems are familiar. But there are a few exceptions. There are four grinding pedestals on deck, and with the right combination of 17 foot buttons, it's possible to use all four pedestals-a maximum of eight grinders-to drive any of seven winches, from the two rear winches used for the runner backstays to the utility winches used for halyards. Some of the buttons connect the winches to each other, while others engage a turbo gear for maneuvers like jibing where speed is essential. Keeping the right buttons up and the right ones down at any given time is no simple task; one mistake can paralyze the entire system.Other aspects of the boat are impressive merely because of the scale. Located near each running backstay winch is a strain gauge. Even in light air the runners are routinely tensioned to 20,000 lbs. The maximum, according to Gregg Hedrick, Disney's longtime boat captain who is onboard for the race to lend his expertise, is 30,000 lbs. Nonetheless, Avery was convinced the first time he took the boat out for a practice sail-a simple reach out and back-that he and Kilpatrick could sail the boat with a volunteer crew.Practice largely bears this out. In between meeting each other-there's a lot of, "what was your name again?"-the crew runs smoothly through a handful of sail changes, checking out a few reaching sails in a light onshore breeze.Overnight, the breeze backs to the southeast. While it's expected to veer to the more traditional southwesterly direction during the afternoon, the start will be upwind, a rarity for this race.The fastest monohulls start first, which is slightly disappointing as I'd been looking forward to starting last, passing 450 boats and finishing first. Since we're the scratch boat in the Maxi A fleet by a whopping 87 seconds a mile-the rating, left over from a more powerful configuration of the boat, is a sore subject and eliminates any hope of corrected time honors-seeing a single transom will be one too many.After a lot of discussion in the afterguard, Kilpatrick decides to go for a mid-line start, which he gets with surprising ease. There are a couple of boats below us, and a pack to windward, but we have more than enough space. Within a few minutes we have the room we need to tack and follow Windquest, a fixed-keel 86-footer, and Magnitude, a canting-keel 80-footer, both of whom are already on port, toward the new breeze.It's not long before the big right shift everyone is expecting moves in and we tack back to starboard with both our rivals situated on our windward hip. Together we separate from the rest of the Maxi A fleet.Initially, the gains come in spurts. After an hour or two, Windquest goes for a headsail change from a 100-percent jib to a larger reaching sail. It proves costly as the new sail doesn't allow the crew to sail as high, and they fall into less breeze closer to the coast. After a few hours, it's just a speck on the horizon. Even a change back to the original sail is too little too late.Magnitude is tougher to shake, but eventually Doug Baker's crew changes to a flat reaching spinnaker. Kilpatrick has sailed many miles with Magnitude and he knows this sail well. "I convinced them to buy it," he says with a laugh. He's sure it's the perfect choice for these conditions, but it doesn't seem to help and soon Magnitude, like Windquest before it, is sliding toward the horizon.With a rookie crew, Kilpatrick is a little more judicious with the sail changes. But as the wind backs, we switch to a roller-furled masthead genoa and then, late in the afternoon, the 1A reaching spinnaker.In a light breeze that occasionally tops 10 knots, sailing the boat is quite easy, almost too easy with 26 people chomping at the bit to contribute in any way, to prove they deserve to be onboard. But in this breeze, on a fetch, the most active crewmember is the diesel engine, which revs up anytime the angle of keel cant is changed. The boat has a sweet spot around 10 degrees of heel and in the puffy breeze, the keel moves often. Our boatspeed is rarely less than the windspeed. In fact, we spent most of the race doing between 125 percent and 150 percent of the windspeed. In 8 knots of breeze, we're hitting 12 knots. It's nothing near the high 20s the boat can hit surfing through the Molokai Channel to finish a Transpac. But for a group of neophytes, it's thrilling to sail this fast in what would ordinarily be quite marginal conditions. We also know that over the northwestern horizon are plenty of poor souls struggling to maintain 4 knots. Our average of between 9 and 10 knots inspires a few dreams of a midnight arrival. Hedrick, however, knows that in this race the math usually lies. Many early arrivals have been delayed when the breeze dies away upon entering La Bahia Totos Santos, or as Hedrick says with a laugh, "La Bahia de los Muertos." As expected, the breeze lightens overnight, but it doesn't die completely. Nonetheless, the Bahia lives up to it's nickname to some extent, though it's largely our own doing. Early Saturday morning, we're in the midst of a sail change, from the masthead genoa to the 1A spinnaker, when something goes wrong. The genoa won't unroll all the way, and when we try to pull it down we find out it won't come down either. Only when the halyard for the spinnaker is eased does the genoa start to come down. It's a bad sign.As we struggle to get both sails down, I can sense the back of the boat starting to boil over. It's late, or actually early, but either way, it's that time of the race when lack of sleep makes everyone's fuse a little short. Kilpatrick and tactician Craig Fletcher take turns yelling out directions from the back while a dozen eager amateur sailors scramble around the deck looking for a solution."That door can shut so quickly in that bay and we happened to be in a little bit of breeze," says Kilpatrick later. "I just wanted to get across the finish line. You could see me looking over my shoulder all the time, expecting to see running lights."It takes what seems like an interminable amount of time, but eventually we sort the halyards out. It turns out the roller furling unit at the head of the genoa caught the leech line of the spinnaker and then sucked the halyard into the roll when we tried to furl the genoa. Just when we thought we were getting the hang of it, Pyewacket reminds us just what we're dealing with.We crawl across the finish line in pale pre-dawn light. It's slightly anticlimactic. We all wanted to see and feel Pyewacket really light it up; we wanted to be pushed a bit and prove that we were up to the challenge the boat presents. Half of the crew is staying in Ensenada for the weekend. A water taxi ferries them to shore, and not 45 minutes after finishing we're waving to the race committee boat as we pass them on our way north. We're an hour out of Ensenada before we catch sight of Magnitude reaching toward the finish line. Windquest is still no where in sight. It's then that it starts to dawn on me. We beat a pair of 80-footers by three hours over 125 miles. We pass boats all the way up the coast. With each one, I smile slightly wider than I did when we passed the previous boat. This is the first time I've taken line honors in a distance race, much less one of the most popular distance races in the world. By noon we're rolling into San Diego Harbor. Even here, we're still passing boats, spinnakers sucking whatever they can out of a light seebreeze, bows pointed toward a party in Ensenada that they'll be lucky to make.Just before I jump ship and grab a rental car back to Newport Beach, I speak with Val Stephanchuk. While it would be impossible to determine who among the volunteers has the most sailing experience, figuring out who had the least is easy. Stepanchuk, a 24-year-old OCC student with a loose, toothy smile and scraggly beard, showed up for Thursday's practice wearing a foam-front baseball cap, sneakers, and what could best be described as a nylon duster.He's part of the OCC rowing team, which shares the seamanship center's facility, hence his connection and presence on the boat. He is planning to enter a transatlantic rowing competition in 2007, but he'd never really been sailing until he joined an OCC crew sailing in last summer's Long Point Race."This is the second race I've race in," he says of the Ensenada Race. "It was absolutely amazing. I know not a lot of people-maybe 5 percent of the sailing world-get to sail on something like this."It did get overwhelming at times. The main thing was figuring out the grinding system and how it works, plus a lot of sailing terms. But I loved it. I've sailed on the Pyewacket. It's under my belt."