In pursuit of records

The east-to-west trans-Atlantic record one of the longest-standing in ocean sailing finally fell, and fell decisively, on Oct. 10, 2001 at 1047 GMT. That was the moment that Steve Fossett’s 125-foot catamaran PlayStation crossed the finish line at the Lizard, still galloping along at about 25 knots, despite occasional lulls in the strong southwest wind the cat rode all the way from New York. The time for PlayStation’s crossing 4 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes, 6 seconds eclipsed the previous record, set by Serge Madec’s Jet Services V in 1990, by almost 44 hours a stupendous 38-percent improvement. Beating the existing mark by such a spectacular margin is especially impressive considering there have been at least 25 serious attempts on this record since Jet Services V last reset the crossbar, some 11 years ago.

Although there are now quite a few big multihulls with the wheels to better Jet Services V’s 18.6-knot transat average, in practice it’s incredibly difficult, because everything hinges upon tying into a near-perfect weather pattern. The PlayStation team had waited through the summer, watching one strong system after another fizzle out, as the clock on their three-year sponsorship from Sony ticked down to zero. When, at last something truly promising came along, several key team members had moved on to other commitments, so the record crossing was achieved with a short-handed crew of 10 rather than Fossett’s usual 12 to 14. Even a Hollywood scriptwriter might have felt embarrassed for proposing such an unlikely scenario.

Like riding a wave

The pre-requisite for a transat record is a powerful low-pressure system that progresses eastward at a speed that an extremely fast sailboat, travelling at 25 to 30 knots, can just barely match. If the system moves just a little too fast, the boat will be overtaken by the cold front at the northeastern quadrant of the low. The result is that the boat will either be left behind in a mix of squalls and light air, or it will struggle in a full gale and mountainous seas. To maintain a record pace, strong, steady, reaching winds must be accompanied by relatively flat water; otherwise, neither boat nor crew could withstand the pounding. And, unlike a typical trans-Atlantic voyage, which normally involves being overtaken by a series of systems, a potential record breaker needs to ride a single system all the way. Therefore, it is essential to select a low that’s sufficiently energetic to push through to England without faltering or swinging too far north as it approaches the Azores high.

Meteorological records indicate that suitable Atlantic weather patterns typically occur several times each year. However, getting a mega-multihull and qualified crew together in New York when the time is precisely right presents a major logistical challenge. Top professional sailors inevitably have tight racing schedules and cannot normally afford to stand by for indeterminate periods. For this reason, Steve Fossett has relied upon a core group of multihull veterans who might best be described as semi-pros rather than full-time professional sailors self-employed guys who are able to leave their regular jobs on short notice when there’s a record attempt in the offing.

Over a two-year period, PlayStation made three attempts at the New York-to-Lizard record, but for various reasons, always came up short. As Fossett observed, shortly before this successful effort: "We’ve had three cracks at it since 1999, but now believe we are much more experienced in choosing the right weather pattern and getting as far ahead of the front as possible and staying with it all the way."

This time the weather watch dragged on through the summer and there were several crew musters that turned out to be false alarms. When navigator Stan Honey and meteorologist George Caras of Commander’s Weather finally identified an especially promising weather pattern, three of PlayStation’s most talented regulars were otherwise engaged, and project manager Ben Wright had to scramble to assemble a squad of 10, including himself and Fossett.

The weather that sent PlayStation barreling across the Atlantic last October began as three low-pressure cells over North America that merged to become a single intense storm system. Readers who have been following the Volvo Ocean Race using the Virtual Spectator software ( virtualspectator) can replay an animated rendition of the North Atlantic weather at the time PlayStation was making her record crossing by resetting to the September start of the Volvo Race, then fast forwarding to Oct. 5.

A great circle route is often not a workable solution on a long ocean passage, but it worked just fine for PlayStation’s record run. By cutting inside Nantucket Shoals and across the Grand Banks, navigator Honey was able to trim some 40 nm off the official course distance of 2,925 nm. Indeed, PlayStation’s actual track was only 9 nm longer than the shortest possible water route a remarkable display of skillful sailing and navigational acumen.

The 24-hour record

During the second day of the crossing, it became evident that a 24-hour distance record might well be in the cards. At this point, Fossett and his team confirmed that the transat record goal remained paramount, and they bypassed an opportunity to boost the 24-hour run by delaying a sail change because it would have meant diverging from the rhumb line. No doubt, the experience of having dropped back into the cold front during a failed record attempt in August 2000 contributed to their sense of urgency. However, as it turned out, PlayStation repeatedly pushed up the 24-hour record, ultimately setting a new standard at 687 nm at an average speed over ground of 28.6 knots! The previous record 655 nm/day, recorded by Club Med during The Race had already represented a major leap upward from the 580-nm benchmark that PlayStation established directly after her launch in 1999. In view of the many opportunities for pursuing these 24-hour records, it seems certain that a 700-nm run will be achieved before long, and 800 is a tantalizing possibility.

By the fourth day, PlayStation’s average progress had slowed, but only marginally, and her crew were beginning to contemplate the possibility of coming in under five days. They had managed to remain roughly 200 nm ahead of the cold front, alternately sprinting ahead into higher pressure and slightly lighter winds, then falling back gradually until the wind picked up a few extra knots closer to the front.

Aboard a mega-multihull, which regularly sails at 25 to 30 knots in true winds of similar speed, wind direction is every bit as important as wind speed. Mainsail reefing and setting various headsails will allow the boat to head a little higher or a little lower, but basically the apparent wind is pulled so far forward that pretty much everything becomes a close reach. At certain combinations of true wind speed and angle, a fast multihull can become quite precarious, because bearing off the normal remedy when overpowered will instead lead to acceleration and even greater heeling forces. Because the PlayStation crew was attempting to minimize distance sailed, they occasionally needed to head above the ideal (and relatively safe) true wind angle of 125°, leading to a few close calls. Watch captain Gino Morelli recorded how "we got into a situation that we needed to sail 115 TWA in 30 TWS. That was hard, [a] death zone … I flew [the hull] once 30 feet high … [it] was good crew work with [David] Scully on traveler dumping a bit and Dave Weir on jib dumping he got the mainsheet hydraulic, which was good. We needed to be very careful."

A sponsorship bargain?

In some respects, PlayStation’s record run seemed unbelievably straightforward: port tack reach from start to finish, one reef tucked into the main on the first day and shaken out on the last. But, as this report has attempted to convey, the difficulties involved should not be underestimated. It took two years and three failed attempts before PlayStation made good on her transat goal, and until lately, there have been a lot more disappointments than triumphs.

Indeed, for owner/skipper Steve Fossett, co-designers Morelli and Pete Melvin, Sony Computer Entertainment and everyone else associated with the PlayStation catamaran, the transat and 24-hour records were a last-minute validation for a program that had often been dismissed as a chronic under-achiever. PlayStation got off to a bad start soon after her launch, when a severe electrical fire swept through her starboard hull, necessitating a four-month rebuild. After her first sailing season, she was re-built again extended 20 feet because her bows needed a lot more buoyancy. There were nagging problems with battens and sails. Various experts criticized the boat for its non-rotating mast, "excessive" beam-to-length ratio and industrial looks.

Shortly before setting the transat record, PlayStation had gone on sale for $3.5 million; and even if the price has since crept up a bit, it’s still a relative bargain when compared to the roughly $20 million required for a two-boat Volvo Race campaign. Ironically, the three-year sponsorship agreement with Sony formally terminated on Sept. 30, just days before PlayStation established her two most significant records. Nevertheless, it was Sony, which, along with Steve Fossett, financed the program, so it seems only fair that these are the names that will now go down in record books. Just how long these records will stand is anyone’s guess, but I wouldn’t be greatly surprised if the transat mark is still intact five years from now. And incidentally, as of Nov. 9, 2001, PlayStation now holds three additional sailing records: Miami/New York (2d, 5h, 54m), Newport/Bermuda (1d, 14h, 35m), and most recently, around the Isle of Wight (2h, 33m, 55s).

Major sailing records are impressive, specifically because they’re extremely difficult to establish. Record attempts will always be a high-risk undertaking, both from the sailors’ perspectives and the sponsors’. Last November, this point was again driven home when Jean Luc Van den Heede was forced to turn back during his latest assault on the "wrong way," non-stop, single-handed circumnavigation record, currently held by Philippe Monnet. Van den Heede’s new 85-foot aluminum yacht Adrien had been purpose-built for this route. He was four days ahead of Monnet’s pace by the end of the opening leg from France to Cape Horn, but came to grief when a weld failed at the front of the keel root area.

Assuming he can nurse Adrien back to France, Van den Heede’s loyal sponsors have assured him he can try again next year. In essence, that’s what the record game is all about. Contributing Editor Sven Donaldson is a former sailmaker and marine writer base in Vancouver, British Columbia.

By Ocean Navigator