Transpac In Their Veins

The Sangmeisters are headed to Hawaii once again on the family wagon.
John Sangmeister with crew
John Sangmeister at the helm of the Andrews 68 Rock n‘ Roll, at the start of the 2021 Transpac Race, with twins sons on board. Sharon Green/­

There are three growing boys in the household of Sarah and John Sangmeister, all of them still in school but big enough and hungry enough for racing Finns. While the youngest, Will, waits his turn, the older two, twins Peter and Jack, are rostered as 2023 Transpac crew for the Andrews 68 Rock n’ Roll. And it’s not their first rodeo.

Then there is boat partner and longtime shipmate Justin Smart, who is also bringing two sons, 20-somethings Cooper and Harrison. For the sons, this is a first big offshore race. Smart, who had great rides in the days of IOR maxis, says: “I didn’t get a chance to introduce my boys to sailing. I was too busy racing, and they had other sports, but it’s always gnawed at me.”

And suddenly, four years ago, there had to be a new boat.

OK, reader, that’s a ­bootleg turn, so hang on. We’re going back two Transpacs to make sense of Sangmeister’s description of the Rock n’ Roll program today as “the junkyard dogs of yacht racing.”

A few hundred miles into the 2019 Transpac, with the family’s much-loved Santa Cruz 70, OEX,back in the fold after a time in other hands, the rudder bearing failed. The load it then released onto the rudder shaft leveraged the bottom open, and the boat swallowed the Pacific Ocean. The good news in the bad news turned on the advantages of being on a sea populated with other boats. Not to make light of a sinking, but only half an hour after a mayday call, a rescue began. Soon enough, all nine OEX crew were on deck with the skilled crew of Pyewacket, owned by Roy Disney (grandnephew of Walt), whose father sailed a record 15 Transpacs and took him on his first at age 16. It’s a family thing, remember.

Enough time has passed now to make it a laugh line when Sangmeister relates the radio call with Transpac officer Tom Trujillo in which Trujillo suggested the boat must not have sunk “because we still have you on the transponder.” At which point Sangmeister looked at his trusted crewman Ryan Breymaier, who pulled the transponder out of a pocket and deadpanned, “I figured you’ve lost the boat, but at least you can get your $150 deposit back.”

OEX was “much loved” as one of the boats campaigned in a different day by Peter Tong, grandfather of the boys and father of three-Transpac ­veteran Sarah Tong Sangmeister. Losing that legacy was a lot to absorb, but a lengthy search for a replacement led eventually to the California Maritime Academy, a donated Andrews 68, and a lease-to-own ­agreement. Like most of the existing West Coast “sleds,” the boat had been around for years and gone through a number of names and ­configurations. The first Andrews 68 was launched in 1991, the first Santa Cruz 70 in 1994. These boats soldier on. This one has since been stripped to the bone, painted inside and out by its crew in a hazmat kit and refitted throughout. Replacement gear includes a pair of Harken 99 winches off a Mod 70 and two Harken 65s off one-time world-speed record holder Hydroptere, with a new, thinner (used) keel and a new, thinner (used) rudder. “I’m hoping we can surf sooner and longer,” Sangmeister says. “We’ll be the lightest sled by 300 pounds.”

Add repurposed sails too, but don’t go picturing a cheap-out operation; rather, it is optimized at the lowest possible cost for an inherently expensive undertaking. “I still have three kids to put through college,” says Sangmeister, who operates popular restaurants in Southern California. Boat partner Smart is an executive at a large real estate firm, a job related to his years aboard Kialoa IV, a ­linchpinof the heyday of IOR maxis. For someone with Smart’s offshore experience, it is ironic that 2023 will be his first Transpac. “But we were always on some other ocean with Kialoa IV. Transpac has been on my mind because the other races were mostly upwind slogs. They had their appeal, but it’s time for something different.”

As a 17-year-old packed with self-confidence and a lot of sailing under his belt, Smart talked his way onto Heath’s Condor for the 1977 Whitbread round-the-world race with Peter Blake as his watch captain. He became the youngest sailor in the history of the race, 18 at the finish. That led later to his role as first mate and trimmer aboard Kialoa IV, which is where he met and mentored his future boat partner. Sangmeister recalls: “I was paired with Justin as a grinder, and I told him I wanted to learn how to trim. He would say, ‘Slide down here and look. We’re going to add halyard tension.’ The visible result was dramatic in a big sail.

“Kilroy ran an essentially amateur crew on his Kialoas. If you were part of the core crew, you were all friends and generous with each other. The ‘pros’ brought an expertise like rigging or sailmaking that paid their living. It wasn’t like today, where a true pro might worry about getting bumped by the next gun in line.”

Now it’s 2023, 117 years beyond the 1906 inaugural Transpac, and consummate professional Breymaier is back as much more than a “gun,” having missed only one Transpac with Sangmeister since 2013. He admits to wear and tear, traveling back and forth from his home in France to work long hours on Rock n’ Roll. He might do better with a different program closer to home. But this is where he wants to be, he says, “as part of this biennial Sangmeister pilgrimage to Hawaii. Justin and John have a tremendous depth of experience. That makes my job—managing the technical aspects—a lot simpler than it might be. And I’ve known John’s boys since they were little. I’ve watched them grow. They’ve been sailing on boats and working on boats all their lives. In the last race, after Jack spent eight days grinding, on the last day I asked him if he wanted to drive. He was casual about it: ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then he was driving just fine. When I asked why he hadn’t spoken up to drive before, he shrugged and said, ‘It’s OK. Maybe next time.’

“That’s why I’m here. For the family. To be part of it. This race is John’s way of measuring time, space and honor.”

Leaving the dock for his first Honolulu crossing in 2017, twin Peter remembers: “I had never raced overnight, so I had things to learn, and I found myself in positions I had never experienced. But I was completely comfortable on OEX because I had been there so much over the years. Now we have enough short races planned that Cooper and Harrison will have a bit under their belts before we kick off for the West End,” the western end of Catalina being the only mark of the course between the starting line and Diamond Head Buoy.

“The other value,” Peter says, “is that collectively this crew has dozens and dozens of Transpacs, and we have Ryan who races Ultims, and he’s raced around the world. Ryan is the one who always wants to push a little harder.”

Dad is meanwhile feeling good about stealing a line from George Griffith that the purpose of the race is to end up better friends than when we started. That happens in 2,300 miles, not in a 600-mile sprint where everyone is grinding it out.

“I love this race,” he says. “It attracts the pros but also the people who just want to be out there. It’s billed as a downwind race. The reality is that it’s 60 percent reaching, and then you run. It’s probably light to moderate at the start and rounding Catalina. Once you hit the outer coastal waters, you’re close reaching, taking spray, and it’s cold, and you’re wondering where those golden trade winds are. But the key is to pick a lane and be in the hunt when you pick up the trades.”

The purpose of the race is to end up better friends than when we started. That happens in 2,300 miles, not in a 600-mile sprint where everyone is grinding it out.

With the calms of the Pacific high-pressure zone straddling the rhumbline—usually—and the trades circulating clockwise around it, the Transpac game is to sail south of rhumbline as far as you need to for wind. That adds miles while adding speed—but not too far south, adding too many miles. Round-the-world navigators play the same game, skirting pressure zones in the Southern Ocean under a lot more duress. An elite handful of navigators call the Transpac good practice.

In an earlier generation, when Honolulu was smaller and farther away, and mainland visitors were special, the arrival of a Transpac fleet was a showstopper. The town would turn out. Now not so much. But arriving boats still receive an aloha welcome, aloha meaning much more than hello. Aloha to a true islander is the force that holds the universe together, bringing peace and mercy to human life.

And so, shifting to life at sea, we find Sangmeister observing: “About day five, people are tired and maybe grumpy. You have to pay attention to morale, but 1,000 miles out is an experience you can’t have otherwise. Sunsets reflecting off thunderheads. Colors you don’t see anywhere else. The horizon, or is that really the horizon? It’s a profound view of God’s majesty.”

And the air gets warmer, and the sea gets bluer until the islands rise ahead, and the wind and whitecaps build for a final crazy rush down the Molokai Channel “to what might be the most spectacular race finish of all.”

Come 2025, young Will gets the ride. It’s a family thing.