Perhaps the biggest failure of American sailing over the past decades is the lack of presence and impact at the highest ends of global shorthanded sailing. It wasn’t even until 2004-2005 that an American, Bruce Schwab, managed to finish the Vendee Globe. But for Americans, the podium has been (much) harder to scale than Mount Everest. Ditto the transatlantic races, and just about any elite shorthanded event. Lack of sponsorship interest in the US has no doubt been the biggest problem when it comes to the lack of Americans, and lack of success. But for any American who loves shorthanded ocean racing, the best strategy has been to learn French or root for the Brits.
Brad van Liew deserves enormous credit and respect for flying the flag over the past few years, and for being the one American to get to the top of the podium in a major solo global race, albeit the increasingly lame BOC/Around Alone/Velux 5 Oceans, and soon to be Purina Cat Chow Global Cruise (kidding, but it feels like it’s headed that way). And respect to Mike Plant and the other Americans who have sailed well in the BOC/Around Alone, and to Ryan Breymaier for coming 5th in the Barcelona World Race (and for sailing it non-stop).
But I still lust for more Americans to a) enter a serious solo race; b) compete well; and c) kick some European ass. And so I welcome the return of Joe Harris, with his Gryphon Solo campaign, to the shorthanded racing scene. I first met Harris almost a decade ago, when he was learning to (not) sleep with the help of solo sailing sleep guru Claudio Stampi. And so I followed his Gryphon Solo campaign (in van Liew’s former Open 50), with interest. And he sailed to a second in the Transat and a first in class in the Jacques Vabre. So he was off to a promising start. But then the Open 50 class withered, Harris had a third child, and, well, you know. But after a couple of years thinking about how to get back into it, Harris built an Akilaria RC2 Class 40 and he is now campaigning it with the aim of competing in the Class 40-based Global Solo race, 2013-2014.
Harris is not a professional sailor (he is in real estate). But he has professional-grade ambitions and wants to put up the results required to elevate him to the top ranks of American solo ocean racers. The Class 40, which is very hot right now, is an interesting choice. Simpler, and less powerful than his former Open 50, it has two major benefits: it costs less, and you will usually find a full start line. There is no doubt Harris misses the Open 50s mind-bending power and its canting keel. “There’s just nothing quite like that push-button control and watching that big old bulb move to windward and the boat picking up 2 knots,” he says. But he is determined to master the art of making a Class 40 (with its fixed keel and four water ballast tanks) go fast.
His first chance to do that was in the recent Normandy Channel Race (he sailed double-handed with Global Ocean Race honcho–and former Vendee competitor–Josh Hall. And by Harris’ own admission it was a fairly bracing wake-up regarding how little he knows about the art of sailing his Class 40. Upwind in breeze and waves, in particular, was a challenge, with the boat either on its ear or stalling. “It will take a bit of time to get used to it, and clearly there is a bit of a learning curve here,” he admits. But he got a kick out of the downwind speed of the flat-bottomed design. “The boat is very quick to plane and feels a lot like a surfboard or Laser,” he says. “We had lots of fun riding waves, and the boat stay on a plane for a very long time.”
Harris is smart to take his time working the boat up to the 2012-2013 Global Solo Race. It will be solo, start in Europe, and stop only in Cape Town and Punta Del Este. That means that durability, and knowledge of the boat and its systems, will be key. Race Director Josh Hall is launching this new shorthanded brand with a Global Ocean Race that sets off this Fall. It is doublehanded, has multiple stops, and is likely to find perhaps 15 Class 40s on the start line. If it succeeds, and the Global Solo Race is a good follow-on, Hall could conceivably alternate the two races every two years. Harris is looking forward to it all. “I grew up watching the Around Alone guys thinking it was pretty amazing. I feel like racing solo around the world is one of the ultimate challenges, and if you could pull it off it would be an amazing accomplishment and you could rest easy.”
Yep, it would be, and you can follow Harris’ campaign to put an American stamp on the global shorthanded circuit right here.