Chasing goals

Ocean racing offers a unique combination of challenges and delights that obviously appeals to a great many sailors with widely varying backgrounds. Some experienced racers gravitate to the offshore game for a change from the more prescribed discipline of one-design, round-the-buoys competition. Others get into it with little or no yacht racing experienceeither from a cruising/daysailing background or simply in search of fun, adventure, and camaraderie.

Ocean racing is arguably the world’s most complex sport because it overlays the already formidable tactical, strategic, athletic, and technological demands of short-course sailboat racing with an additional tier of navigational, meteorological, and endurance challenges. In the new age of extreme sports, this is one that pretty much has it all. The downsides of such a multi-faceted, equipment-intensive sport are the high qualifications required of participants and the steep costs involved. The lure of the sea is compelling, and it’s easy to get fired up over the notion of battling the elements and outsmarting rivals in an epic contest fought across endless miles of wave-swept ocean. Turning these dreams into reality is a giant challenge in its own right.

This column offers an overview of some approaches that are enabling a great many sailors to take a crack at their ocean racing goals. Simply getting through the door is not, of course, any guarantee of competitive success, but at the very least it’s the chance to gain some firsthand racing experience and find out just how far one wants to pursue this dream.

Corinthian crewing

The time-honored way to get started in racing is to crew aboard boats owned by friends. A typical racing keelboat of 30 to 35 feet needs at least five to race efficiently round the buoys, and most carry an additional three to five who spend most of the race as little more than human ballast. These “rail meat” positions obviously don’t have the status of driver, foredeck, or tactician, but they’re a great way to learn the ropes, watch how the veterans perform their roles, and generally see what the racing game is all about. Contemporary race boats, thanks to their reliance upon human ballast, have created what is, in essence, an informal apprenticeship system for crew. Anyone who shows up reliably and displays a positive attitude is pretty much assured of crewing opportunities wherever there are fleets of keelboats racing.

Of course, when it comes to major overnight events and significant offshore races, fewer crew spots are available, and these tend to go to the seasoned hands. However, by working diligently at improving one’s inshore racing credentials and cultivating contacts, almost any determined sailor can eventually land the chance to compete offshore. A background in offshore voyaging or professional seagoing will obviously help considerably in securing that first ocean racing berth, as will a history of competitive racing in small boats such as Lasers. However, don’t despair if your only experience is casual inshore racing or voyaging in keelboatssooner or later your ship will come in.

Pay-to-go races

In reality, most amateur ocean racing crew make some financial contribution to the program, even if this does not extend beyond bringing/purchasing their own equipment, paying for personal transportation to and from the race site, and supplying the occasional round of sandwiches or beer. Some crews go further and share in costs such as entry fees or shipping the boat to special events. During the past decade, however, a much more formalized sort of pay-as-you-go racing has emerged in the U.K., spearheaded by Sir Chay Blyth’s British Steel Global Challenge.

The Global Challenge, held in 1992/93, followed the route of Blyth’s own historic, “wrong-way” solo circumnavigation 22 years earlier: starting and finishing in Southampton with stops at Rio, Hobart, and Cape Town. The basic concept was brilliant: build a fleet of identical steel yachts that are sturdy enough to go anywhere, and train a bunch of amateur adventurers to sail them. Corporate sponsors, who footed most of the boatbuilding costs in return for media exposure, ended up getting a pretty good deal because the novel and dramatic race concept attracted massive press and TV coverage in the U.K. and considerable attention worldwide. Each of the 10 yachts carried a professional skipper and 13 paying crew volunteers, the majority of whom sailed all four legs. The decision to buck the prevailing winds and currents proved to be an inspired choice, not only because it helped distinguish the Global Challenge from all those other “downstream rides” like the Whitbread and BOC, but because it actually made the racing safer. Pounding upwind at seven to eight knots for weeks on end is undeniably hard, uncomfortable work; but the violent wipe-outs associated with hard driving in heavy weather/surfing conditions are far more likely to produce casualties. Likewise, a man-overboard accident, although serious at any time, is most dangerous when barreling downwind under spinnaker because it takes much longer to return to the victim. Of course, any voyage around the world is likely to involve a certain amount of upwind work, but the route selected for the Global Challenge guarantees a great deal more of it than most voyaging sailors would care to contemplate.

Despite its extreme character (or perhaps because of it), the first Global Challenge was significantly over-subscribed, and many qualified applicants had to be turned away. Costs totaling around $40,000 and the financial impact of nearly a year off from work did not deter a small army of would-be adventurers. Successful applicants were chosen primarily for their stamina, determination, positive attitude, and interpersonal skills, with previous sailing experience a low priority. Indeed, some of the Global Challenge sailors had never been aboard a sailboat prior to commencing the three-month pre-race training program! This unusual approach to crew selection was again based upon Blyth’s personal experience. In 1973/74 he had skippered Great Britain II to a line-honors win in the inaugural Whitbread race with a crew of fellow paratrooperstough characters with almost no prior sailing experience.

The Challenge Business (as Blyth and his associates call their enterprise) was already promoting an encore before the first race had even finished. The 1996/97 BT Global Challenge gained title sponsorship by British Telecom, and again there were corporate sponsors for each of the individual boats. Five additional 67-foot yachts, identical to the first generation, were built, and in late September a fleet of 14 set off from England. Two extra stopovers brought the number of legs to sixin part to improve exposure for the sponsors’ sakes, but also because they permitted additional crewing flexibility, and pleased those who sailed the entire race.

The 1996/97 BT Global Challenge was a great success, both in terms of sponsorship payback and as a lifetime adventure for the 194 sailors involved. Challenge Business pushed ahead with still more ambitious plans, including a fleet of 15 new 72-footers, each accommodating pro skipper and 17 paying crew, that will race the millennium event. This 2000/01 BT Challenge will have seven legs, including a stopover in France; and a new, a points-based scoring system. Experience in the last Whitbread has shown that a points-based system keeps the competition much closer than the traditional total elapsed time approach, while allowing a yacht that suffers a major breakdown on one leg to remain in the overall hunt. Most, if not all, crew positions for this race have already been filled, and crew training is well underway. On the other hand, the Challenge Business has another global race in the planning stages: the New World Challenge starting from San Francisco in 2002. More on this below.

Another global option?

The 1997 repatriation of Hong Kong inspired another paying crew, round-the-world race, but one with a distinctly different character than the Challenge Business’ stern offerings. The 1996/97 Clipper Race got off to a rather shaky start, but came together through the last minute efforts of another British sailing legend: Sir Robin Knox-Johnson. Winner of the first non-stop, solo round-the-world race, the bizarre Golden Globe, Knox-Johnson had recently returned to prominence as co-skipper of the mega-catamaran Enza New Zealand when she achieved her record Jules Verne circumnavigation. Under his leadership, Clipper Ventures is providing Blyth’s Challenge Business with some real competition.

The 1996/97 Clipper race format entailed a warm-water circumnavigation in the “right” direction using the time-honored tradewinds routes. The course transited the Panama Canal and incorporated no less than 14 stopovers, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the Galapagos. However, make no mistake, this too was a closely fought battle between eight identically equipped one-design yachts with finishes sometimes just minutes apart after weeks at sea.

Clipper’s 60-foot, Dave Petrick-designed fiberglass yachts were completed on a tight budget and an even tighter time table, but they have proven to be real workhorses with a good turn of speed. Each carries a skipper and 13 crew, so the dorm-style living quarters are seriously crowded, yet there seems to have been few complaints. The second Clipper Race began last October and is currently about half complete, with the fleet again in Shanghai at the time of writing. Five crewmembers, on average, from each yacht have signed on for the full circumnavigation, while the remainder, known as “leggers,” are aboard for portions of the overall race.

Compared to the BT Global Challenge, the Clipper Race is a lower-key affair with less sponsorship pressure and, so far, less media scrutiny. Nevertheless, crews race flat out between ports, sometimes sailing entire legs with competitors always in sight.

A new direction for Clipper Ventures is a fleet of eight purpose-built Reflex 38s that will race locally in the U.K. in events such as the Round Britain/Ireland Race, the Fastnet, Cowes Week, and Cork Week. These yachts will also be used for inshore and offshore sailing school activities beginning this season. At the same time, plans are shaping up for a third circumnavigation race in the 60-footers, starting in the year 2000. Some crew spots are still available.

The New World Challenge

In a move that may have been designed to counteract the upstart success of Clipper Ventures, the Challenge Business launched their New World Challengea circumnavigation race out of San Francisco with stopovers in Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, and Rio. Like the earlier Global Challenge events, this one is a “wrong-way” event that rounds both the Horn and Good Hope. However, barring another El Niño, competitors can look forward to an opening leg tradewind trip across the eastern Pacific; and considerably less time in the desolate southern ocean. The clear-cut trend is to increase the number of stopovers, reflecting the wishes of customers (crew) and sponsors alike. The New World Challenge is expected to last 10 months and cover 24,000 nautical miles. The yachts used will be 10 of the well-tested Challenge 67s that collectively have, by now, sailed about 1.5 million ocean miles. Of course, each receives an exhaustive refit, including new sails, rigging, and electronics, before each circumnavigation.

A round of crew selection interviews has been announced for Sail Expo West in San Francisco (April ’99), with other U.S. interview venues to be announced. Cost for the entire race is $44,850 (not including mandatory insurance), and individual legs can be entered for prices ranging from $7,500 to $10,850. Crew training sessions will take place periodically over the next three years. This event should generate a great deal of interest here in North America, particularly as the Sept. 3, 2002, starting date draws nearer.

Getting into shorthanded racing

The French stranglehold on solo and shorthanded ocean racing has lately started to slip a bit, giving adventurous sailors from other nations some grounds for hope. Nevertheless, this remains a very tough grind for U.S. sailors. The Around Alone Race is sailed out of Charleston, S.C. and managed by a U.S. team headed by race veteran Mark Schrader. This event provides a rallying point for singlehanding hopefuls, but heading straight into an event of this magnitude is a jump into very deep water. What is lacking is a progressive series of competitive singlehanded events that would enable our singlehanding hopefuls to “learn the trade” in relatively small, affordable boats. The best-known exception to this general rule is the singlehanded TransPac from Los Angeles to Hawaii, often won by small ultra-light-displacement boats like Moore 24s and Olson 30s.

In France there are two entry-level classes for singlehanding: the 21-foot minis, and the 31-foot Figaro boats. Since the mid-80s, the latter has been a one-design class built by Beneteaubut there are plans afoot to substitute the lighter, quicker Mumm 30 now that the this new class has acquired a strong international following. With Mumm 30s readily available in the U.S., it should now be easier for an American sailor to prepare for the Figaro circuit.

The mini-transat was originally the brainchild of Englishman Bob Salmon who organized the first race in ’77. In short order, the race was taken over by the French, who have turned it into a test bed for advanced sailing technology as well as a training ground for future solo stars. Racing across the Atlantic in a 21-footer that can average more than seven knots for weeks on end is not for the faint of heart, and about one out of every 50 competitors has died in the attempt. By the same token, there’s no better way for a sailor with dreams of open 50/60s to get the experience and results that could sign up a sponsor.

The ’99 mini-transat begins this September, but it’s not too early to start planning for the ’01 event. Lately, thanks to a European circuit of mostly double-handed events, the mini is no longer just a one-trick pony, and a would-be mini sailor could probably justify spending at least a year in France preparing for the big race. Competitive used boats typically cost between $30K and $65K.

But even without the benefit of an apprenticeship in minis or Figaros, a number of American sailors have achieved promising results in solo racing. The latest bright spot on the U.S. singlehanding scene is 31-year-old Californian Brad Van Liew, who has finished third in three legs of Around Alone Class II and is pushing the class leaders very hard indeed. Van Liew’s older open 50 is noticeably slower off the wind than the latest Finot designs, but he’s sailed her spectacularly well and occasionally has gotten the chance to make up ground on an upwind stretch. At the leg 2 finish in Auckland, Van Liew was a scant two minutes behind second-place Mike Garside after 6,000 miles the closest finish in race history.

At present, there’s a reasonably concerted effort in Great Britain to obtain some sort of official recognition for singlehanded racing, perhaps through the Royal Yachting Association (the counterpart of U.S. Sailing). It remains to be seen whether singlehanding will live down its “outer fringe” reputation, or can beat back the recurrent criticisms concerning the illegality of failing to keep a proper watch at all times. The cause has been aided by a number of British singlehanders who have achieved excellent results of late, including Mark Turner, who placed fifth in the ’97 Mini-transat, and Peter Goss, who received international acclaim for the rescue he performed in the Vendee Globe. Damian Foxall achieved high placings in several legs of the ’98 Figaro Solo, and halfway through the last Around Alone, Mike Golding had built up a 1.5-day advantage over his closest Class I competitor. (Sadly, Golding had to retire from the race after running aground on his approach to Auckland on leg 2.)

And then there’s the amazing British woman, Ellen MacArthur, who placed 17th in the ’97 Mini-transat soon after her 21st birthday. Graduating to an open 50 (Peter Goss’ former boat), she was the first Class II monohull in the prestigious Route du Rhum race, beating all but four of the 60-foot Class I competitors despite terrible weather and some major equipment problems. This achievement made her an instant celebrity on both sides of the Channel, and she’s now regarded as the likely successor to Isabelle Autissier.

The U.S. has not yet gotten far down this road. This seems a bit illogical, considering the relatively low cost of sponsoring a solo sailor (or double-handed team) when compared to a Whitbread or America’s Cup campaign. On the other hand, once a U.S. sailor achieves an upset win in a world-class solo event, the prospects for singlehanded sailing on this side of the Atlantic could improve very quickly.

Doublehanded racing is less controversial than singlehanding, and potentially less costly because autopilots are generally not allowed. Casual “Jack and Jill” classes are particularly popular because they mirror the way many voyagers prefer to sail their boats. Doublehanded classes are available in a growing number of races, including certain transocean events like the West Marine Pacific Cup. As the autopilot systems used by singlehanders grow ever more sophisticated and expensive, it’s likely that “non-robotic” shorthanded racing will continue to gain ground.

Contributing editor Sven Donaldson, a former sailmaker, is a marine technical writer based on the West Coast.

By Ocean Navigator