Dude, you’ll never guess where I am,” said Andrew Guhle, 19, to someone on the other end of his cellphone. It was the end of June 2006, and we were about to begin the final leg of a 7,000-mile trip that originated in New Zealand and would end in the Pacific Northwest.
I’d left New Zealand at the end of March with three guys-and no, I’ll never do another passage with an all-male crew. After we landed in Papeete, Tahiti, I dumped them in exchange for Andrew, a family friend; Dennis Foote, with whom I’ve crossed the Atlantic before; and Barbie Dahn, who was recommended to me by cruising veteran Beth A. Leonard. The four of us laughed all the way to Hawai’i.
Dennis and Barbie left the boat after we arrived in Hawai’i, and now I was ready to resume my journey with my latest crew-Andrew and three other teenagers-aboard Delos, our 53-foot Amel Super Maramu 2000 ketch. As Andrew finished diving on the mooring buoy, I called, “Line free?”
“Most def,” came his teen-speak reply. “We’re stylin’.”
As we cleared the reef that fringes Kane’ohe Bay, off the island of O’ahu, Kate Craft-Otterbacher, 17, had already been hoisted aloft in her bosun’s chair to inspect the rigging; she’d swung between the main and mizzen like a circus performer. And as we navigated the ship’s channel, my son, James Regulinski, 16, stood reef lookout. Eighteen-year-old Gabe Costa, our designated ship’s boy, stowed the fenders, then moved forward to the bow for his first underway look at a cerulean sea.
“Sweet!” he observed.
After we shot the pass, the North Pacific swell began gently to rock Delos, which my family had cruised on for five years. Then more cellphones came out. Welcome to teen world, I thought, and wondered again whether my brainstorm-to cross the Pacific with an all-teen crew-had been a giant mistake. A generation that relies on e-mails, instant messages, and iPods would have only the SSB and each other for the next 2,700 miles. What’s more, if anything went wrong, their parents would probably hunt me down and hurt me.
Plenty of other captains might think I’m crazy, but I’ll bet Roy E. Disney doesn’t.
In this year’s 44th Transpacific Yacht Race, Disney, a veteran of 15 Transpacs, will back Morning Light, a Transpac 52 manned by the youngest crew in the history of the race. A film crew will document the team’s training as well as the passage. I guessed that my enthusiastic group of teens, just as eager to cross the ocean and willing to work for food, could provide a preview of what Morning Light might face. After all, except for the $7 million or so cost difference, we were in about the same size of boat, and we planned to cross a colder section of the same ocean, sailing around the north end of the same Pacific High. Granted, we’re cruisers, not racers, so we weren’t in a hurry.
Morning Light’s crew-selection process involved essays, resumes, and tryouts to winnow 500 applicants down to 15. (See “A Cruising Kid Grows Up to Be a Trans-pac Finalist.”) For Delos, the process consisted of gathering my son and a few of his friends, then saying no to twice as many volunteers as I could take. Like the crew of Morning Light, my crew’s bluewater experience ranged from seasoned cruiser to duffer. Kate, the engineer, and James, the mate, had both grown up on cruising boats, with seven transoceanic passages under their low-riding belts. At 13, Kate (and her younger sister, Erin) had helped hand steer Grace, their family’s Tripp 50, across the Atlantic. (See “Working the Night Shift,” October 2003.) James stood his first storm watch on Delos at 11. Andrew had just completed his first long passage while crewing for me from Tahiti to Hawai’i, which explained why a 20-foot Polynesian outrigger was now lashed to my foredeck. Gabe had never been to sea. His qualifications were his strength, people skills, and great bass singing voice. As captain, I contributed 45,000 ocean miles of experience and increased our average age to 24.
We set off north on a beam reach through 15-knot trades. A few hours later, Gabe suffered mal de mer, so we tucked him under a blanket in the cockpit, gave him ginger ale and a straw, and assured him that it happens to everyone. Staying healthy and fit was a concern for all. Andrew, who’d learned during the passage from Tahiti how much muscle mass can be lost at sea, contrived weightlifting machines out of water jugs and pulleys to stay in shape this time. Kate preferred to dance through her night watches, while James enjoyed climbing to the spreaders.
Our large crew made for a light watch schedule of only five hours a day. Dinner-prep duty, a challenge for nearly everyone, was pulled every five days. As most teens eat more than most adults, food preparation was more or less a constant community effort as long as weather permitted. We’d provisioned accordingly. Billionaire Disney is paying all the expenses of his college-age crew’s training and race; I may have spent a proportionate percentage of my net worth on the Costco provisioning run that filled every square inch of the rental car with high-carb staples, energy drinks, and sour gummies.
The passage’s first week began well. Constant trade winds pushed us along at eight knots. Gabe recovered. The crew bounded on deck for sail changes. Though Delos is highly automated, her poled-out spinnaker and ketch rig were new to most of the teens. Four near-strangers adjusted to the enforced togetherness, trading stories as they worked. Kate, home-schooled on Grace until her sophomore year of high school, was about to leave home for college; she had to decide on her freshman classes while at sea.
Gabe was also about to begin college, though he still had a summer of farm work and a reunion with his girlfriend to which to look forward. Andrew, who was returning home after three months in the tropics, was happily anticipating being back at school and seeing his family. James was teaching himself trigonometry while shepherding Delos, on which he’d lived from the ages of 10 to 15, to a new life in the state of Washington. We’d bought the boat in France in 2000, and James considers Delos his childhood home, but this was the first time we’d ever sailed her in U.S. waters. I taught Andrew how to navigate and plot our course; James explained the workings of the Amel Super Maramu; everybody taught Gabe watchkeeping.
As the crew got to know each other, they began to show their own teenlike forms of affection by means of pranks. Watchstanders might rouse from their slumber to find a dead flying fish on their pillow or their favorite watch snack held hostage. These sailors learned how to annoy each other as well as any siblings.
Using a laptop and SSB radio, I’d been downloading GRIB files since April. All summer I’d watched as lows marched every four to six days into the Pacific High just north of 36 degrees latitude. Like monstrous, ever-changing eyes, they maintained some of their shape and wind direction inside the high, presenting the seductive alternative-to non-racers-of a shortcut through the high without requiring much motoring. When we were far enough north to allow it, we nudged toward the east, hoping my calculations were correct. A week into the trip we’d managed to piggyback onto one of the lows, maintaining wind for a few more days. As the wind diminished toward the low’s center, we were able to set the mizzen ballooner, a favorite light-air sail that’s good for a broad reach between 120 to 150 degrees apparent. With the windvane that’s attached to the GPS set at 120 degrees, I told the crew the sail could only take 15 knots of apparent wind, but I didn’t explain that a vector change to 90 degrees would increase the apparent wind. The next day, when the wind gusted and changed direction, Kate chose to stay the course over sailing the wind. With a huge bang, we blew out our only mizzen ballooner.
Our speed slowed, and so did the wind. The sails began to slat while the seas still stood at nearly 10 feet, and the ensuing discomfort led to a downward spiral in morale. Then the fog set in.
The calm dragged on, and we fired up the engine. The fog made our crew nervous; they began to discuss how quickly an unseen freighter could collide with us. We settled on scanning the radar every 10 minutes. The laptop was used as a movie theater for the off watch, enhanced by the “awesome special effects” of sloppy 10-foot seas. Even the hint of a fish strike became cause for a dash to the stern with a gaff hook. Creative pursuits devolved from guitar playing and watercolor painting to the impromptu tattooing of various body parts in permanent marker.
We waited for wind and motored. The engine began to overheat. I set Kate and Andrew to consider the problem. James took advantage of the mainsail’s downtime to repair the in-mast roller furler. With the eternal optimism of a fisherman, Gabe patiently untangled lines while he talked philosophy with James. Poker was played, coffee drunk, electronic photos of loved ones shared, navigation and plotting mastered. Instead of retreating to iPods, journals, and electronic games, the crew began to sit up with each other during watch, share blankets, or stop by the bunk of a crewmember who was feeling down. Life stories were traded, secrets confided. Confident that the nearest boat on the cruising net was 200 miles away, we celebrated July 4 by setting off expired flares.
Morning Light’s team participated in trust- and team-building exercises. Our crew learned trust while crawling across the deck in a beam sea to relash jerricans and secure Andrew’s outrigger; they discovered teamwork while handling the unfamiliar spinnaker and pole and every time a repair was performed or a new skill shared. After 10 days, the crew had undergone the magic of the passage: They bonded through bad jokes, mutual respect, and discovery. They worked on answers to alternative energy, philosophized, and engaged in the soul-baring, honest examination of self that comes with a lot of time to think.
After three days, the fog gave way to a gray sky. Then we noticed the long, slow swell that’s usually the precursor to wind. A feeble ring of sunlight became cause for celebration.
The gym went back into operation. The night watch resumed dancing, singing, and working out. The sea began to acquire color, and the crew sought their abandoned sunglasses. One day away from landfall, we spotted a sunfish loitering on the surface. Later that afternoon, black and white Dahl’s porpoises followed us, looking like miniature orcas.
With the sea mammals’ appearance came a resurgence of enthusiasm for the final push through the log-strewn shipping lanes of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We crossed to the Canadian side of the strait at sunset, just as another dripping fog settled in for the night. I doubled the watch, staggering their hours; one crewmember would stand at the bow pulpit with a foghorn while one stayed in the cockpit monitoring radar and radio. Like an anxious parent, I repeated instructions for waking me and tried to settle into sleep for a couple of hours.
When I awoke, I found that the watch had cleared the saloon table and set up the chart of the strait, using an orange M&M to show our position as plotted every 30 minutes. Unfortunately, James spotted the M&M upon waking for his watch and scarfed it down.
“Dude!” Kate admonished.
The fog disappeared as the lights in Victoria, British Columbia, sparkled into view, allowing us to recross the
north-south shipping lanes and head up the west side of San Juan Island.
Confident that the kids were far enough off the coast to manage the navigation, I tried for another round of sleep.
It was Gabe who woke me half and hour later: “Whales! Can we go see them?”
We turned toward them and spent a magical hour watching the pod as they frolicked and danced, greeting the morning. Then, just as we rounded Henry Island, only a few hours from home, we sighted another pod headed our way. I cut the engine, and they continued to swim toward us. Incredibly, half a dozen five-ton beauties encircled Delos. They splashed and dove under the bow for 10 mesmerizing minutes, providing the best whale watching of a lifetime.
“This is totally sick,” one sighed.
The moment, and the orcas, passed. Out came the cellphones: “Dude, you’ll never guess where we are.”
Morning Light’s crew is going to have the time of their lives. Probably not quite what Mr. Disney expects, but dude, you gotta love these kids.
Christine Myers has cruised aboard Delos with her family of five since 2000. Gabe Costa is a sophomore at the University of Chicago. Kate Craft-Otterbacher is a sophomore at Kalamazoo College, in Michigan. Andrew Guhle attends classes and paddles in Vancouver, Washington. James Regulinski is a senior at Sehome High School, in Bellingham, Washington.