The Transpac Race: A legacy of teamwork

Team members on Compadres celebrate after finishing the 2021 Transpac Race.

Editor’s note: Ocean Navigator was a co-sponsor of the 2021 Transpac. Below is a story detailing one crew’s experience from the race.

When sailor David Dahl and his two sons, Michael and Sean, started the 2021 Transpac Race aboard the Andrews 77 Compadres, they were taking part in and extending a company tradition that goes back to 1923. Dahl is the CEO of Whittier Trust in South Pasadena, Calif. Ninety-eight years ago the company founder, Max Whittier, purchased the 107-foot yacht Poinsettia and entered the race with his three sons in the crew. 

“You realize at 1,100 miles offshore, you are closer to the International Space Station than you are to land,” Dahl wrote in a piece that appeared on the Transpac website. “At that moment, your small boat, its provisions and your teammates are the most important things in your life.”

“Our agreed-upon mission was to sail fast, be safe and have fun. In the first half of the journey we covered 1,112.5 miles in three days, all of which were nearly flawless. We were succeeding in our mission. Our strategy, which we had trained for months, was to travel fast to Catalina and then as far to the north as we could before we would tack to reach the Rhumb line. We noted the true wind and apparent wind angles and knew we should be fast. Winds were strong with top speeds of 29 knots, swells were averaging four to six feet, and the team was in high spirits. My two sons, Michael and Sean, were on the deck with me. As I looked across the boat at them I could not have been prouder. They are accomplished sailors and young men. They were sailing with me on a highly competitive long-term race that was an adventure. It was uniting a tradition of sailing beginning with my grandmother sailing in Paw Paw Lake, Michigan, migrating to my mom and dad sailing at Lake Arrowhead to me and my children sailing in Newport Beach.”

Sean Dahl took on the role as navigator aboard Compadres. Sean started his preparation early to handle this big responsibility. As he explained in an email, “I had a great mentor, Andrew Paolini. He taught me everything I know about the expedition. Andrew started teaching me back in December 2020 and continued until the Transpac start. We went over how to read the speed of the current and the effect it could have on the boat’s angle. Andrew taught me all about the boat’s communication systems and navigation tools that are all vital to a successful Transpac race.  He taught me the difference between all the weather forecast models such as GFS, HRRR, COAMPS, and NOAA.”

Sean picked more knowledge from renowned sailor Peter Isler. “I attended Peter Isler’s seminars/presentations in which he discussed his own experience as navigator and discussed best practices for the Transpac race.” According to Sean, his role as navigator was more than just a position on the chart. “As navigator, I felt responsible for determining the fastest route. But, I felt as though my most important responsibility was delivering a safe crew.”

Despite their excellent early progress, a gear failure ultimately hobbled their race effort, even if it didn’t diminish their teamwork and crew spirit. 

“On the fourth night around 9:00 p.m., events changed,” Dahl wrote. “Our boom vang broke. The vang, which holds the boom, is critical to the function of any sailboat – and especially a racing sailboat. Then the mainsail ripped. Our team spent hours making repairs. We improvised and made changes to the sails, our sailing tactics, and strategy. We raced flying the spinnaker during the day and the storm trysail at night in order to finish the race. When flying the spinnaker we were still going fast, about 15 to 18 knots, but at night and without the spinnaker we slowed. We notified, via email, our land crew and race committee, informing them that we were safe but had equipment failures. We had to notify one boat to cross our stern to avoid an accident.

“Despite these setbacks, our team came together. Many competitors would have motored to Honolulu, but our team was dedicated to our mission – finish the race safely and sailing! Helmsmen, trimmers, bowmen and the entire crew leaned on their multiple talents and cross-training. When you have limited tools and spare parts in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and nowhere to turn, you turn inward. You look around and take stock of what you have, not only in terms of tools and spare parts, but also in your teammates. Something I have learned in my 35 years of business is each person has talents and skills; all should be cross-trained, and you look for the competitive advantage of each person. You align your strategy with those individuals’ competitive advantages. This was no different.

“As a team, we discussed our situation. Everyone wanted to achieve our mission – finish the race safely sailing across the finish line off Diamond Head. Each teammate brought an enlightening perspective on the risk and reward of different strategy options. The collective input was invaluable. When it appeared that a definite decision was forthcoming, a new voice brought a dimension that had not been considered. We deliberated the strengths and weaknesses of each option. We saw opportunities and threats in every decision. We recognized that without the vang only the weakened sail would hold up the boom. If the sail were to fail again, the boom would fall and could destroy the helm and seriously injure crew members. So, we decided to sail conservatively and safely. Despite everyone being trained to drive the boat and trim the sail, a weakened sail requires your most talented trimmers and helmsmen. We reorganized the rotation and rest schedules: three hours on watch, three hours rest.

“On Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m., Team Compadres all put their hand on the wheel and crossed the finish line together as one. 

“As I reflect on this adventure with Michael and Sean I am only saddened that Emmy and Clare, my two daughters, did not join us. Emmy and Clare sailed for their respective college teams and are great sailors. Experiences, especially challenging experiences, unite families by creating a common bond. The Transpac race is an experience that transcends generations.” n

By Story and photos by Craig Smith