Slidin' to the Island
The first day was the wildest, the weirdest, the most unexpected.
Well, of course, not counting the last one, but we'll get to that later.
Point is, when I signed on with the crew of the 65-foot, Bob
Perry-designed sloop Icon last
summer to sail the 2004 West Marine Pacific Cup from San Francisco to
Hawaii, I wasn't sure what I was getting into. Sure, I harbored the
usual Sailor Boy Island Fantasies, of deep blue water and billowing
spinnakers, of flowered leis and tall mai tais. And all those visions
did, in fact, come true. So it's safe to say that my dreams were
well-founded. It was, as usual, reality that threw me for a loop.
Take, for instance, that cool, fresh, 25-knot southwesterly pumping
across the starting line just off the St. Francis Yacht Club last July
2. It felt much more real than the forecast-but-AWOL six- to nine- knot
breeze, which had been overruled with gusty authority. "Is this what
'six to nine' feels like on the East Coast?" asked my Canadian
watchmate Kevin McMeel, a regular on Icon's mostly Seattle-based crew.
"The air's a bit denser out here, eh?"
Perhaps the air was
dense, but I wasn't, and the weather had nabbed my full attention. But
so too had our competition. The Pacific Cup employs a staggered start
over five days, with the smaller boats and cruisers setting out early
and the bigger vessels, including Icon, bringing up the rear. That way,
in theory, everyone fetches up at the finish off Oahu's Kaneohe Yacht
Club at roughly the same time. Our four-boat Division F--the last to
begin, with the rest of the 49-boat fleet already under way--had the
smallest number of competitors but included another Seattle entry, Braveheart, a flat-out Transpac 52 racer, and a brand-new 80-foot maxi from Long Beach, Magnitude 80. They looked formidable indeed.
That is, until compared with the remaining vessel in our foursome, the otherworldly Mari-Cha IV,
the 140-footer owned by Duty Free magnate Robert Miller, whose sole
interest in our little boat race was stomping the bejesus out of the
6-day-14-hour course record for the 2,070-mile passage. Bent to their
coffee grinders with arms flailing, M-C IV's
small army of maritime mercenaries from France and New Zealand hoisted
the main and mizzen in unison just minutes before the start, then
buzzed our transom on a screaming reach at a good 20-knot clip. Aboard
Icon, eyebrows skied and jaws dropped.
But not for long, for we
had our own voyage to get on with. Skipper Jim Roser nailed the start,
and after three tacks, the Golden Gate Bridge was overhead and the vast
Pacific Ocean all before us. Not much later, the tall rigs of Magnitude 80 and M-C IV
were little more than angled slits on the horizon, and then one was
gone, followed by the other. We'd wondered all week how long we'd have Mari-Cha IV in our sights. It'd been a great two hours.
Our own little match race with Braveheart
came to a close when we changed headsails from our Number Three jib to a
blast reacher and footed off to the south, leaving our closest
competition to their own devices on a more northerly heading. We were
yet to realize the error of our way.
At dusk, we cruised out
from under the blue skies above and into a dense, gray murk. There were
gusts to 28 knots. We tucked the first reef in the main. For some,
dinner was a two-part affair: Down, then back up. Chris Roberts, our
wiry bowman, took the helm and recorded a top speed of 18.3 knots, but
mostly we averaged between 12 and 15. From the windward of her twin
wheels, Icon was a blast to drive. We all took our turns. The full moon
made only intermittent appearances but cast a hazy, welcome glow to the
proceedings. That said, the first night at sea was eerie, tiring, damp,
and long. Trade winds? Spinnakers? Not so fast, pal.
broke. We saw a whale. And 24 hours into it, navigator Bruce
Hedrick--my old buddy from a crazy race we'd contested in Alaska many
years before, my link to the Icon team--came up on deck with the seemingly good news that we'd already knocked off 303 miles.
But he wasn't smiling.
Born to Surf
No, we weren't having many yuks yet. So for owner Dick Robbins, the
voyage thus far was fatally flawed. Having a good time sailing had
always been a clear priority for Dick, first aboard his old Maple Leaf
48, Sea Bear, and certainly with his next boat, the S&S-designed, 57-foot Charisma.
Of course he wanted to win, but he also wanted everyone aboard to
thoroughly enjoy the experience. It was the reason he'd decided on a
light, fast, striking sled like Icon in the first place.
A mechanical engineer by trade, for some four decades Dick had been the
driving force behind The Robbins Company, a pioneering firm in
tunnel-boring technology whose latest major achievement was drilling
the English Channel "chunnel." He inhabited a high-tech world and was
also an adventurous sailor, bush pilot, and survivor, having walked
away from a commercial-airline crash in Africa that took scores of
lives. Little wonder that when he ultimately commissioned his own
custom racer/cruiser, it had to be bold, lively, and cutting edge.
In Jim Roser, the professional skipper and competitive racing sailor who'd overseen a major refit with Charisma,
then helped Dick cruise and campaign the boat throughout the Pacific
Northwest and on offshore races like the Vic-Maui (from Victoria,
British Columbia, to Hawaii), he had a very willing co-conspirator. But
the central member of the design team, naval architect Bob Perry, at
first glance might not have been as obvious a choice for the project.
Bob had certainly made his mark with such seminal modern cruising
designs as the Valiant 40, but he was equally renowned for such
heavier, full-displacement, Taiwan-built boats as the Baba 30 and many
others. And Icon, most assuredly, was not your daddy's Baba 30.
But Dick, like Bob, resides in Washington state, and he was a longtime
admirer of the Seattle-based designer's work. A collaborative effort to
bring the notion of Icon to ocean-sailing fruition was soon under way
(see "A Design Brief Fulfilled"). The boat they envisioned had to be
nimble and quick, but also strong--"bulletproof" was the operative
word--and easily cruised by two couples. It took a full year of weekly
visits to Bob's office before the design team had what it was searching
For reasons of cost and quality, Icon
was built in New Zealand at Marten Marine of high-modulus, pre-preg
carbon fiber. And everything was carbon: the hull, deck, interior, and
Southern Spar rig. A retractable keel was specified to provide upwind
grunt on the racecourse and shallow draft when cruising. Wholesale
portions of the accommodation plan and other hardware--some 4,000
pounds worth--were fitted so they could be readily removed to transform
the boat from cruising to racing mode. And in every nook and cranny,
the attention paid to style and detail was impressive.
Jim Roser once said the seed that became Icon had been planted during a Vic-Maui race aboard Charisma:
"We buried the bow quite successfully a couple of times, and Dick
learned what it's like to not surf. We came to the conclusion that it'd
be real cool to have a surfing boat, one that could go destination
racing and then cruise wherever you wound up."
It proved to be a doable plan, and since her launch in 2001, Icon
had already finished a Sydney-Hobart race, a Transpac, and a Vic-Maui
and had cruised the coastlines of New Zealand, Australia, and Alaska.
Now, pounding to weather off the coast of California in the Pacific
Cup, we all wanted a taste of what had been the boat's genesis and
inspiration. We were ready for a little surfin', too. But it was going
to take a little patience.
Sharks vs. Jets
Our initial mistake had been diving south too early, for it soon became
apparent that weatherwise, the 2004 edition wasn't going to be a
"typical" Pacific Cup (see "Skirting the Pacific High"). But we'd dealt
ourselves this hand of cards, and now it was time to play them.
The one thing we had going for us was a versatile, talented, and
motivated nine-person crew, which skipper Roser divided into two
watches designated as the Sharks and the Jets. The latter was composed
of the captain himself; his wife, Robin (not only an excellent driver
but also one of the great sea cooks of our time); owner Robbins;
navigator Hedrick, who'd been this way many times before; and bosun Joe
Greiser, whose constant attention to the serious, never-ending matter
of chafed spinnaker halyards and other potential breakdowns was unsung
We Sharks were led by watch captain McMeel,
with an endless supply of raucous sea stories from his 80,000 miles of
offshore voyaging that kept us entertained through many a long
evening's trick; bowman Roberts, a transplanted Bostonian whose love of
sailing was pure and infectious; and young sailmaker Karl Funk, a late
addition to the team who brought an inshore racer's unrelenting focus
to the long-haul enterprise. As the resident cruiser in this mix of
vastly experienced racing sailors, my main goal was to avoid mucking
things up. At times, I enjoyed mild success. But not always.
For I was soon to learn that driving a rocket like Icon
at double-digit speeds on a black night in shifty breeze under a big
kite can be a mighty challenge. And I was in for yet another surprise.
Especially in the wee hours, the Pacific trades were anything but a
flick-the-switch phenomenon of steady, pumping, reliable pressure. They
were fluky, fluctuating, and maddeningly elusive, with instant, radical
shifts of 20 through 50 degrees and more. At least when I was at the
When the wind clocked to the north just before
dusk on our second day under way, we'd hoisted a reaching spinnaker,
hung a slight right, and began making tracks directly toward the
islands. With that, the official rivalry between the Sharks and the
Jets was on. Bruce filed the following Fourth of July dispatch to
Icon's shoreside followers the next day: "The slow watch--the
Sharks--set a new record for round-ups early on until skipper Jimmy Jet
went on deck to teach them how to sail."
It was a bit more than
I could take, and when Bruce was sleeping at the next watch change, I
issued my own e-mail rebuttal: "Let's just say there are two ways of
steering to Hawaii FAST under spinnaker. One is 'low and slow' Jets
style, one is high and quick. Yes, at times, when chances are being
taken, when miles are being made, the occasional spinout does occur.
When you're trying to make up for the off watch, there's no other
option. So now, while the Jets are cooled, it's time once again for the
Sharks to get Icon up to speed. Fins up! Icon clear." That was my story, and I was sticking by it. I could've signed it, "Easily Amused." But, in fact, Icon was a very happy ship, and the sailing was getting better by the day.
We peeled spinnakers from the reaching kite to the big A2 masthead
asymmetric, a sail we'd carry for several days and well over a thousand
miles without ever considering a change. Though the boats to the north
of us were pulling steadily away, we continued to knock off daily runs
in the 250-mile range. There were small changes from the everyday
routine: One afternoon, we backed down the boat to clear a fishing net
from the keel; on another, we were hailed via VHF by a lonely solo
sailor who'd lost her SSB and wanted her friends to know she was OK.
But mostly we worked together to sail Icon as fast as we could, for she was the center of our shared universe.
And by coincidence, Chris, Joe, and I celebrated birthdays within a day
of one another, and Robin's great meals made them very special
occasions. Chris took to the keyboard to post this birthday greeting:
"Magical moments aren't hard to come by on this amazing body of water.
Karl saw his first flying fish and then his second, which soared a
solid 75 feet before plunging into a wave. The ocean makes a sweet,
harmonious hum as it whizzes past the hull. The clouds--black, gray,
white, purple--all billow and swirl with sun bursts and blue skies
busting through. And speaking of blue, the color of the ocean is
amazing--everything you can imagine in the word 'aqua,' and then some.
"We all collaborate and work hard at finessing the sails to the wind,
which in turns caresses us, teases us, and punishes us but always keeps
us guessing, optimistic, and busy. Meanwhile, Icon delivers us safely
through this magical nature."
It was pretty hard to think of a better birthday present.
Squished in the Squash Zone
"Drive it like it's stolen!" were Jim's parting words of advice as he
disappeared down the companionway at the change of yet another watch.
And we did as instructed, tweaking and trimming for all we were worth.
As we closed to within a couple of hundred miles of the islands, our
fate was sealed: Mari-Cha IV
had already finished in foregone conclusion, posting a new Pacific Cup
record of 5 days, 5 hours, and it was clear we'd bring up the rear in
our class. But we were still sailing hard, jibing up to six times a day
to optimize our heading or to try to sniff out better breeze.
Even so, the Transpacific veterans in the crew remained chagrined by the
relatively light conditions we'd experienced on the voyage. "Even the
squalls on this trip have been a little disappointing," said Kevin. "El
Pacifico has lived up to her name." But for me, a rookie in these
waters, ignorance was bliss. You will never, ever hear me complain
about steady boat speeds of 12 to 14 knots, or better, hour after hour
after hour. It'd been a funky beginning, sure, but the foulies and jibs
were distant memories of a trip that'd gotten warmer, clearer, and more
fun with each passing day.
So I guess it was only poetic
justice that on our last night of racing, we'd have to pay the piper
one final time--OK, make that two--before that first, fruity libation
We Sharks had drawn the 2200-0200 watch, and as
predicted, the compressed trades were staunch and building as we closed
in on the peaks of the island chain. The anemometer hadn't risen above
20 knots for over a week, but it was there now. And was that more
breeze under the dark cloud closing fast on our hip? At precisely that
moment, the big A2 exploded, Chris hollered, "All hands on deck! The
chute's gone!," and Icon
instantly descended into a scene of controlled chaos. As I ran forward
and began a mad grope at the untamed masses of sail cloth, all I could
think of was that apocryphal ocean racer's lament: "We put 'em up, God
takes 'em down."
Twenty minutes later, we had a rugged A3
spinnaker up and drawing. Dick was philosophical about the destroyed
A2, saying, "I guess we got our money's worth out of that sail." But
after changing watches, we learned the night wasn't through with us
yet. Only now it was the Jets' turn for drama.
Jim took the wheel and wouldn't let go as the wind gusted to 30 in a fresh squall, and Icon
plowed through the waves at 20 knots. All well and good, except for one
thing: There was a large island directly in front of us. At 0430, the
call came below: "Everybody up. Time to jibe."
The lights of
Maui were right there; yup, it was definitely time to swing the wheel.
We'd already pulled off countless jibes, day and night, without a
hitch, but not this time. Something happened to the tack line, or maybe
the spin sheet; it was under the bow! "Sheet on," someone yelled.
"Well, um--" said I. The sail took a big, flapping wrap around the
headstay, and then another full twist, just for good measure.
At least it was dark. We could sort out the mess without anyone seeing.
The Rearview Mirror
Hours later, with those leis around our necks and another round of cold
cocktails by the yacht-club pool, there was little mention of the two
hours it took to clear the decks and hoist one last chute one last
time. It was much better to recall that crisp, early light over Oahu,
how we all got a final turn at the helm, and what a joy it was to notch
17 knots on the speedo as Icon rose, plunged, and surfed before the big following swells. Spinnaker wrap? What spinnaker wrap?
As expected, our time of 8 days, 22 hours earned us fourth place in a
fleet of four, on both elapsed and corrected time. Did last place, I
wonder, always feel this good? Truthfully, it didn't matter to me one
way or the other. All I really wanted to do was go back to California
and try it all over again.
Herb McCormick is CW's editor.