Tortoise and the Hare

While reading the February 1997 issue of a regional sailing magazine, we happened to see an ad for an event dubbed the "Race of the Century." Since we had been moldering in Mexico for two years and needed a change, the ad grabbed our attention. The Manila Yacht Club, assisted by the Club de Yates de Acapulco and the Philippine Centennial Commission, was sponsoring the Acapulco-Manila Galleon Commemorative Regatta as part of the celebration of Philippine independence. We quickly saw in the race an opportunity to get to the northwest Pacific and Asia. The sponsors were less than forthcoming with information, but we persisted and finally managed an e-mail connection with the Manila Yacht Club Race Headquarters in May of 1997. When we arrived at Acapulco Yacht Club on January 8, 1998, we expected to see a fleet of at least six or seven boats. We were amazed and disappointed to discover that we were the first of a two-boat fleet to check in. Judging from the social schedule and reception in Acapulco, the size of the fleet didn’t diminish the grandiose plans of the race’s organizers. When the competition arrived we understood why the lavish parties, receptions, and meals had been planned. A Filipino syndicate with government backing and commercial sponsors had purchased an Andrews-designed Excel 53 built in 1994 that had raced extensively in the Seattle area. As Persuasion she had campaigned considerably on the Pacific coast with the St. Francis Yacht Club big-boat series in September of 1997, her last appearance. She was sold, and the new owners renamed her Karakoa, hired paid hands to race her, and sent her to Acapulco to win. The added incentive of a $25,000 prize had been offered effective with the November 1997 version of the race instructions. The two boats lying side by side engendered smiles and even smirks from some. The sleek 53-footer with high-tech sails, open transom, and new graphics looked fast just sitting at the dock. Our 28 year-old Lapworth-designed, 48-foot, cold-molded, cutter-rigged sloop looked comfortable and slow by comparison. We had been voyaging and living aboard since 1981 with occasional races thrown in, and in Acapulco our sun-awning, pink lounge chairs, and dinghy-on-deck bespoke our voyaging lifestyle. No one, including the club members and the competition, took us seriously. Both boats started with six crew, and I was the only woman out of the 12 people. As we got acquainted with the opposition, it was clear that our collective years averaged out to nearly twice that of Karakoa’s crew. Our combined crew had done about 20 TransPacs, several Atlantic crossings, and two circumnavigations. Our crew stayed aboard while our competitor’s lived in hotels. We were not only older but didn’t have the financial resources of the competition. The only giggle we had in Acapulco was on the first day, when Karakoa’s skipper arrived to check out the boat and walked off the dock. Perhaps, we thought, there was a chink in the competition. The race was divided into five parts, three ocean legs and two day-sails. We would sail from Acapulco to Honolulu, from Honolulu to Guam, from Guam to Cebu, and, after a one-day motorsail, from Boracay to Puerto Galera and finally to Manila. The legs were weighted in such a way that winning the first two ocean legs guaranteed an overall victory. The first two legs were 3,600 miles and the third leg 1,400 miles. We were told that 22 more boats would join the fleet in Guam. They didn’t. Then we were told that a second event called the Centennial Cup would be sailed with our last two legs and increase the fleet by a dozen boats. There were six. At the start in Acapulco, we were humiliated by Karakoa as she sailed easily on the zephyrs, a brand-new main sparkling in the sun, and led us out of the bay by an hour. The first three days found us struggling to find any wind. We were required to communicate twice a day by SSB with Karakoa and found each report more discouraging than the one before. We ghosted along in frustration, and then the first El Niño storm broke around us. We had been through a series of squalls, and instead of their simply passing over they led into a heavy cold front with winds gusting to 60 knots. We shortened sails, going to a double-reefed main and staysail. When we found the wind lessening we went back to a number-two genoa but were quickly overpowered again. During the course of the night, the baby stay parted and then the staysail stay worked loose. To keep the boat moving we put the staysail on the forestay, but it soon tore.At first light the staysail stay problem was diagnosed as a failure of a 28-year-old Hyfield lever bronze casting. It was repaired by cleaning the unused lower threads and adding a shackle to make up for the missing length of the broken casting. It could be tensioned but not bar tight. The staysail was restitched on our old Pfaff sewing machine and by hand. The baby stay, which was the only piece of rigging we had not replaced two years before with 316 stainless, was jerry-rigged with a thimble and a spare turnbuckle. It was ultimately completely replaced in Honolulu.Our injector pump gave out at about this point so that we could not run our 48-horsepower Perkins 4-107 to charge batteries. Our ancient Honda 800 generator was pulled out of the lazarette and lashed to the stern pulpit. We had one jerry can with gas. It would see us through. Belowdeck we filled the kerosene lanterns, unpacked a supply of flashlights and gave up trying to keep the freezer working. Running lights and radio used what little electricity we had. After the first storm, the calm was devastating. The slatting of the sails and thwang of the boom, despite a snubber, seemed to chase away what tiny breezes we found. One day my husband came on deck with a length of heavy shock cord and proceeded to fashion a spring in the mainsheet to prevent the main from snapping when it filled with air. His little device worked, and "blue max," as we called it, was an instant success in light air as well as being a big morale booster. When the second storm hit us we were not surprised. We used the third reef area for the first time. It required stringing the reefing line using a tag line through the grommet. The number-two came down and the staysail went up. We feathered the staysail to keep the speed below six and a half knots and minimize the pounding. Despite our best efforts the running backstay block blew up from the pounding, and we had to replace it with a snatch block. The heavy seas and rain made everything and everyone wet. When the wind abated we went back to a number-two. Our number-two tape drive, the only Kevlar sail we ever owned, blew up and we resorted to a used number two we had purchased sight unseen, through a used sail supplier. It wasn’t beautiful, but it worked. During the second storm our radio contact with Karakoa revealed that they were meeting with some problems. Their inverter had quit so that the microwave didn’t work. Combined with running out of propane they were faced with eating cold food. The rest of the race they survived on cold tortillas, peanut butter and Spam. Their modern racing mainsail had only one set of reef points and so couldn’t be properly reefed. They had to sail with the main floggingnot kind to high-tech fabrics. The pounding had caused the mast to shift on its step.More gear failures The third storm hit us about 600 miles out of Honolulu. It was the final insult when the replacement number-two, which was on deck, washed overboard and broke the port side support leg of the bow pulpit. The sail was salvaged for later repair and the pulpit lashed together with pieces of line. The normal trade-wind weather caught up to us about six hours from Honolulu, and we finished the first leg with a spinnaker that hadn’t seen the light of day for almost three weeks. We saved our time on Karakoa but were faced with a long list of repairs. The crew pitched in, pulling the pulpit off for welding, removing the injector pump, measuring for a new baby stay, and making an inventory of all sail damage before the sailmaker arrived. Even a celebration at the bar was set aside until everything was scheduled for repair. A week later we departed Honolulu with a dry boat, rested crew, and a trophy for first place on the first leg. The owners of the competition were surprised and embarrassed but didn’t understand that our win was a matter of keeping things together rather than speed. The second leg was more telling. The El Niño weather had proven to be our undoing, so we headed to more southerly latitudes as we left the start line. Karakoa headed west with a spinnaker flying while we reached southwesterly. For the next five days we made good progress despite unsettled weather. The competition struggled with heavy weather, reporting that they had blown up four spinnakers. A couple of days later they reported they had lost the man-over-board gear to a big wave. The skipper told us later that some of the crew refused to come on deck to stand watch because of the heavy weather. Ten days into the second leg, the progress reports showed that the much faster boat was losing ground to us. That day we discovered that they had lost their steering and were attempting to make repairs with a hand-powered drill. They had no portable power nor power tools. They spent more than a day making repairs. (Drilling carbon fiber with a hand drill isn’t recommended.) We noticed in the next couple of days their position was shifting to the south. They had discovered that our southerly course indeed made more sense. When they reported that they had repaired one of the spinnakers with three and a half rolls of duct tape we were astonished. They had no other means of repairing it as there was no sewing machine, rip stop, or simple needle and thread aboard. The regular reports thereafter of how a spinnaker repaired with duct tape behaves as the sun warms the adhesive were classic. They finished the second leg only 13 hours ahead of us, which meant we had easily won the second leg. The ownership of Karakoa was irate. Although the boat had managed to make it to Guam under difficult conditions, the syndicate didn’t change anything except crew. Three replacements were flown in from the Philippines. New sails were also delivered to Karakoa in Guam along with sponsor graphics for the hull and sails. We had torn up one jib and two spinnakers nearing the end of the second leg. We set up shop with our sewing machine, spare sailcloth, and thread on the lawn of the yacht club and mended the jib. One spinnaker was declared DOA and the other was boxed and shipped back to California. A phone call located a $600 spinnaker at the used sail store, and one of our crew brought it as baggage two days before the third leg started. The third leg proved to be a classic downwind run. We didn’t expect to win this leg but discovered once again that timing is everything. Karakoa sailed into Leyte Gulf and the Suragao Straits against the tidal current. The three knots of current that she battled were going with us when we made the straits. The oldest member of our crew had served in the Navy after WW II in this area and was adamant about timing for this run. We finished in Cebu with a six-hour lead. He also provided us with such homilies as: stay on the left-hand side going into a trade-wind squall, and gybe the boat when there’s a bad spinnaker wrap. With the three ocean legs behind us and a clear win, we were stunned when the competition asked to divide the race into two classesone racing and one cruisingand split the prize. After we refused the suggestion, we thought the matter was settled. We arrived in Manila and were notified that Karakoa had protested our rating. The protest committee refused to hear the protest as their race rules specifically forbid questioning ratings after the start of the race. Refusing the hearing also precluded any discussion of Karakoa’s rating, which had never been certificated. Not all stories have a perfect ending despite the classic tale of the Tortoise and Hare. We did win the $25,000, but the race sponsors presented the money to us privately the day after the award ceremony. The press releases heralded the Philippine boat as the winner because she had taken line honors. Some members of the yacht club were so embarrassed by the behavior of their fellows that we were given a free haulout to salve some guilty consciences. A light air or downwind race might have ended differently. But ocean races never give a weather guarantee. Crossing an ocean requires being prepared for the worst. Spare parts, nearly 200 pounds of tools, backup gear, knowledgeable crew, and experience can give you an edge that isn’t necessarily reflected by dollars spent.

By Ocean Navigator