The ocean racing column has always attempted to encompass the full range of current ocean racing activities, although admittedly with some extra emphasis upon single/short-handed events due to their particularly close ties to non-competitive bluewater voyaging. The inherent limitations of a bi-monthly publication schedule mean that only a handful of races are discussed in detail, and many worthy events are neglected entirely. So as a change of pace, this issue’s column offers an overview of several current bluewater races — each quite different, yet successful its own way.
Comparing and contrasting a broad assortment of events is also timely for another reason: The number of major ocean races on the worldwide calendar has lately been growing at a pace that is probably not sustainable, and it is quite possible that the upcoming decade could see a few of the “classics” fade gradually into oblivion. It is even more likely that some of the brash newcomers may have trouble putting down long-term roots. Competition among events is now a fact of life. Organizers of even relatively modest events are now expected to perform at a world-class standard, fueling a search for event sponsorship to support publicists, dedicated websites, substantial prizes and so forth.
Even-numbered years like 2002 bring a burst of racing activity between the west coast of North America and the Hawaiian Islands. Interestingly, these non-Transpac years have now become the busiest ones, with no less than three significant races and a total of more than 100 boats making summertime Hawaii runs from Victoria, British Columbia, and from San Francisco. By contrast, the Transpac itself attracted only 33 boats in 2001.
In terms of seniority, the Victoria-Maui race is the original Transpac alternative (www.vicmaui.org). It was first officially run in 1968 (following a test race in ’65 by event founder Jim Innes and a couple of his sailing buddies). The event is a cooperative effort, with British Columbia’s Royal Vancouver Yacht Club handling race management and the start, while the Lahaina Yacht Club looks after the finish. For 2002, management consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers and six secondary sponsors provided essential funding and logistical support. But the Vic-Maui remains a relatively low-key affair, with most entries hailing from the Pacific Northwest.
On the other hand, starting out from Victoria makes this the longest (2,308 nm) and quite often the most strategic of the West Coast-to-Hawaii routes. After fighting their way out of Juan de Fuca Strait, the fleet normally faces several days of tough close reaching, proceeding almost directly southward down the West Coast in order to “get below” the Pacific High as expediently as possible. Steering southwest along the rhumb line will — more often than not — send a boat straight into the core of the high and into a windless parking lot.
This year, the 20 Vic-Maui starters confronted particularly difficult going in the early stages, with gale-force headwinds followed by a protracted stretch of light-and-variable conditions. Three withdrew, retreating to various West Coast ports once it became evident they probably would not make it inside the 18-day time limit. Even the leaders struggled nearly to the halfway point before finally rounding the corner of the stubborn high and locking into the tradewinds. At the time of writing, Dick Robbins’ Icon, a new custom 65-footer out of Seattle, is the only finisher, and its elapsed time is well outside the course record of 9:02:08 set by the Santa Cruz 70 Grand Illusion in 2000. On the other hand, it appears likely that Icon will have enough time in hand to win overall corrected as well as line honors. Some of the sentimental favorites, including previous corrected time winner HMSC Oriole — a 102-foot Canadian navy training vessel — were only half way there when Icon arrived. Oriole was not yet in the trades and in danger of missing the time limit.
Shortly before the Vic-Maui, another race departed San Francisco bound for Hawaii — this one the 13th biennial Single-handed Transpac staged by the Bay Area’s Single-handed Sailing Society (www.sfbaysss.org). This 2,120-nm race has a laid-back California flavor, yet is extremely well-run and competitive. So far, it has bucked the trend of major event sponsorship, and continues to be managed by a handful of volunteers. Unlike the major single-handed Atlantic events, it attracts mainly amateur competitors. On the other hand, this race has been a milestone for several successful U.S. sailors, including renowned navigators Stan Honey and Mark Rudiger, as well as Bruce Schwab (who is currently en route to the Azores to qualify his Open 60 Ocean Planet for the 2002 Around Alone).
After attracting a 23 entries in 2000, it was a bit surprising that the 2002 Single-handed Transpac turned out to be the smallest on record with only eight starters. Seven-time race veteran Ken Roper, aged 72, had registered for another go, but sadly, was unable to make the start. On the other hand, another 72-year-old, John Guzzwell of Trekka fame, was back for his second Single-handed Transpac aboard his lovely, self-built Endangered Species.
As usual, the course began with a stiff beat to the Farallones, about 25 miles outside the Golden Gate, after which the boats eased sheets and headed south to skirt the southeastern corner of the Pacific High. In terms of strategy, 2002 was a fairly typical race, although conditions did not appear to favor “surfing machines” making up the four-boat Ultra Light Displacement Boat division. Overall corrected time winner was Haulback — a 30-year-old, full-keel Spencer 35 and a sistership of Hal and Margaret Roth’s famous Whisper. Winning skipper Jim Kellam had taken time off his job as a barge crane operator, and was sponsored by his employer, a Canadian marine shipping company.
Second winner on corrected time was Steve Wilson aboard a heavyweight Westsail 39; and the line honors boat, a J/120 skippered by Mark Deppe, had to settle for 3rd corrected. There were no multihulls in this year’s race, and the Single-handed Transpac record of 7 days 22 hours set by Steve Fossett in the 60-foot trimaran Lakota was certainly never at risk, but that’s hardly the point. Obviously, this is a very special event that “regular folks” with extraordinary sailing aspirations can really take to heart.
Last out of the blocks is the biggest, newest and flashiest of the Hawaii races: the West Marine Pacific Cup
(www.pacificcup.org). The dynamic and extremely successful marine retailer has nurtured this biennial event since 1988, promoting it as a fun, family-oriented alternative to the Transpac, but simultaneously welcoming the hard-core contingent of West Coast “turbo-sleds” and their mixed/professional crews. Thanks to a user-friendly race format, a comprehensive series of pre-race seminars, and plenty of encouragement, West Marine has been amazingly successful in attracting cruisers and first-timers. Staggered starts over a five-day period beginning July 8 represent an attempt to get everyone to Oahu within a four-day time window.
In fact, such a closely-grouped finish would be a pretty neat trick considering that the fastest of the 70 boats competing in this year’s Pacific Cup are Bob Miller’s 146-foot super-yacht Mari-Cha III and Bob McNeil’s 86-foot Zephyrus V — the newest and most radical turbo-sled yet. At the other end of the spectrum are boats as small as 26 feet, including 10 double-handed entries. There are eight Santa Cruz 50s racing together in Division E, although rig differences mean there will still be handicaps involved. And of particular interest are three Transpac 52 Class boats, early representatives of an exciting, very hopped-up level-rated class that’s the latest thing in West Coast-style racing. These boats conform to a box rule that sets restrictive limits on LOA, beam, displacement, draft and various rig parameters as determined by standard IMS (International Measurement System) procedures. (Visit www.fastisfun.com/transpac_ 41-52.html for details on the Transpac 52 and 41 regulations.)
The Pacific Cup has definitely taken some wind out of the Transpac’s sails with more than double the attendance to show for it. Part of the blame can be laid at the feet of some self-serving 70-foot sled owners who for years lobbied to prevent potentially faster boats from stealing their thunder, and quite possibly, the course record. The Transpac has also historically excluded boats under 30 feet, as well as short-handed entries (now 14 percent of the Pacific Cup roster). Naturally, Transpac organizers, headed by the wizard himself, Bill Lee, are fully aware of this emerging threat to their premier status. It will be very interesting to see how they respond in 2003.
An Atlantic triumph
By contrast, the Newport-Bermuda Race is a classic that appears to be going from strength to strength. The 2002 race was the 43rd edition of a biennial series that began in 1906, and has only been interrupted at times of war. With a record 182 starters, the 2002 fleet managed four better than the previous records of 1972 and ’82. Certainly the joint event organizers from the Cruising Club of America and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club have played their cards well, successfully catering to both the Gran Prix racers and the friends-and-family types. The Newport-Bermuda is open to monohull yachts over 33 feet that meet stringent safety and crewing requirements; and for 2002, the top end was raised to encompass the new “International Level Class Maxis” (IMS upper limit raised by 19.5 seconds per mile, potentially worth about 3.75 hours over the 635 nm course).
A decision to give separate-but-equal awards to the predominantly amateur racer/cruiser division (8 classes, 127 boats) and the fully-professional racing division (1 class, 11 boats) was generally well-received — probably because it kept the paid crews from running off with all marbles despite recording the eight fastest corrected time finishes. As well, Roy Disney’s Pyewacket, a well-known 75-foot turbo-sled out of Los Angeles, set a new course record of 53 hours 39 minutes 22 seconds — slightly less than 4 hours inside the old mark. Pyewacket would not have qualified to race under the previous Maxi limits, but windy conditions and skillful sailing clearly played a role as well. Most of the 2002 race was sailed on a close reach in southwesterlies of 20 to 30 knots. Favorable eddies in the Gulf Stream gave many boats a boost toward Bermuda, but also a brutal ride as the opposing wind kicked up huge, square head seas. Nine boats withdrew after suffering breakdowns, and four crewmembers were washed overboard, although all were recovered safely within five minutes or less.
In the Racer/Cruiser IMS Division, the overall winner was Skip Sheldon, skippering the custom 65-foot Zaraffa. Top performer in the Racer Division was Bob and Farley Towse aboard the 66-foot Blue Yankee. Rough upwind conditions made this a big boat race, so Peter Rebovich’s 5th place finish in the Racer/Cruiser division (1st in Class 1) was a particularly noteworthy achievement. He was skippering a venerable Cal 40 — the famous Bill Lapworth design dating back to 1963.
Also noteworthy was the one-design J/44 class that boasted 13 entries — an impressive showing for a boat that’s been out of production for almost a decade — as well 38 assorted yachts raced relatively casually under AMERICAP (a simplified handicapping system based on IMS), one division for spinnaker boats, and two for white sails only. In one guise or another, IMS racing is still going strong on the Eastern Seaboard, and the success of the Newport-Bermuda Race is the proof.
Playing the world stage
The Volvo Ocean Race recently concluded with an overall win by illbruck Challenge — the outcome that most sailing pundits had expected all along. The meticulously executed German campaign (skippered by American John Kostecki with only one German national on the sailing team), had been working flat-out for more than three years in the quest for victory, spending well over $20 million. In retrospect, Volvo’s controversial decision to make the brief concluding sprints count as heavily on the score card as the lengthy bluewater legs proved to be an inspired one because it preserved a measure of drama for the final stages of the nine-month marathon. After Englishman Neil McDonald took over as skipper, Assa Abloy climbed quickly up the ranks, closing to within five points of illbruck before the final start and ultimately finishing an impressive second. The battle for third went down to the wire, with Grant Dalton’s Amer Sport One finishing a scant two points ahead of Team Tyco, which in turn was one point in front of Team News Corp. Great racing and superb webcast coverage, but unfortunately by wrap-up time the early excitement had long since worn off.
Volvo has revealed that the next VOR will take place in 2005/6, but has postponed any specific announcements regarding the course and boat type until later this year. The mystery has generated a great deal of talk and speculation — definitely not a bad thing from Volvo’s perspective. But it is also likely that these critical choices are currently the subject of some very heated backroom discussions. By now, it is evident that many potential race team sponsors perceive Open 60 monohulls and 60-foot trimarans as offering better “bang for the buck,” and Volvo will need something pretty dramatic to keep the VOR in the same exalted league as the Vendée Globe and Route du Rhum. Certainly the status quo is not a viable option for the VOR because the current Volvo 60s have slipped well behind the state-of-the-art, and the protracted, multi-stopover campaigns cost too much to stage.
Further upping the ante is the pending debut of a new event called the Antarctica Cup, which has neatly extracted the most compelling features of the VOR and packaged them in a way that may well lure major sponsors away from established Gran Prix events. The brainchild of some enterprising Western Australians, the Antarctica Cup will be a non-stop, downwind circumnavigation of the southernmost continent that starts and finishes in Perth. Along the way, the fleet will pass through a series of ten “gates”— some virtual (defined by GPS waypoints); others physical, as when traversing Cook Strait between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. The entry fee is a staggering $4,625,000, but this outlay buys title to an 82-foot one-design yacht complete with sails, plus all required electronics and sailing gear. The Ron Holland-designed race boats will be built at the Austal yard near Perth in relatively conservative foam/fiberglass, with limited use of costly carbon outside of the rig. The aim is to produce a very fast downwind flyer that is sturdy enough to complete this demanding course and still have a solid competitive future.
Some $6.4 million in prize money is on the table, with the overall winner taking home at least $2.5 million and probably more. The fastest team on each leg will pocket $100,000. Those mid-course gates are also designed to provide live photo and viewing opportunities, while ensuring that the boats steer clear of the deep south iceberg zone. The race is expected to last about 45 days, and the entire campaign, including 100 days of mandatory onboard training, will take only about four months.
The Antarctica Cup is slated to start in December 2004, about 10 months ahead of the next VOR. As we go to press, the July 12 deadline for reserving race slots is still a few days away, and it’s likely that several potential entries are keeping their plans under wraps until the last moment. However, some well-known skippers, including American Paul Cayard and Dutchman Roy Heiner, have apparently signed on, along with three other syndicates hailing from England, Australia and Southern California. Should the Antarctica Cup get off the ground, the next Volvo Ocean Race could be facing some stiff competition indeed.
Contributing editor Sven Donaldson is a freelance marine writer and former sailmaker based in Vancouver.