To Race & Not to Race: A Transpacific Odyssey

Signing on the training vessel Alaska Eagle during the 2001 Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, a CW editor experiences all the pleasure of having it both ways

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The Transpac first-timers (left to right): Len Hampton, Michael Pomerantsev, Mike Last, Richard Horne, Kristin Gerding, Dave Forbes, Bill Franklin, Bill Crispin, and Tim MurphyTim Murphy

"Let them eat wake!" says skipper Richard Crowe above the din of our whooping and hollering and high-fiving as the June 30 Transpac Race positions are announced. We’re three days west-by-southwest of Los Angeles, 13 of us aboard Alaska Eagle, the 65-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop that as Flyer won the 1978 Whitbread Round-the-World Race. But ours is no rock-star crew, and this boat is hardly stripped for speed. Hell, we’re not even racing, technically. We’re just the communications boat, cruising in company with the West Coast racers.

Yet somehow, unaccountably, we’re kicking Transpac butt. Maybe it’s an accident of scheduling, maybe the vagaries of the North Pacific High, but yesterday we posted a day’s run of 220 miles; the boat that came closest was Shanakee II, a 75-foot David Pedrick design, with 196. Today is even better: We made 228 miles, compared with Shanakee II’s 214.

In our enthusiasm, we suppress a few small details. For one thing, the start for this year's biennial Los Angeles-Honolulu Transpac Race is staggered across six days, and most of the 32-boat fleet, including the 75-foot Reichel/Pugh supersleds--Pyewacket, Pegasus, Chance--haven't yet left the dock in California. Also, the boats we're not racing against, boats that left two days ahead of us, are members of the Aloha class, boats fitted out with showers and refrigerators and anchor rollers--cruising boats, by another name. So, basically, we're mowing down a Cal 40, a Tartan 41, and a couple of Ericsons.
But after the grim quiet of our first woozy days offshore among strangers, the morning roll call brings a burst of good cheer, and our small world resolves into a happy place. Pacific High, indeed.

Talking Strategy
Alaska Eagle is a training vessel run by the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship (OCC) in Newport Beach, California. Built of aluminum by the Royal Huisman Shipyard in Holland 25 years ago, she was donated to OCC in 1982. Since then, she's sailed some 200,000 miles with student crewmembers aboard.
Ten of us--eight students, including me, and two Transpac Yacht Club radio operators--have signed on for the 2,225-mile passage to Honolulu. The students, who come with some sailing background, pay about $150 per day for this hands-on course in offshore seamanship.

For Alaska Eagle and the three OCC crew--Richard and Sheri Crowe, plus the cook, Vito Macchia--the Hawaii passage is only the first of 13 legs that over the next year or so will take them to Antarctica and back via French Polynesia, Pitcairn and Easter islands, and the Chilean channels. A new group of up to 10 students will join the boat for each two- to four-week leg.

Through a happy confluence of interests between OCC and the Transpac Yacht Club, the first leg of Alaska Eagle’s Antarctic voyage coincides with the 41st running of the Transpac Race. With us is Grant Baldwin, the club’s communications director, a man who’s sailed the course 18 times. He and Bill Crispin are aboard to monitor and record the mandatory position check-ins twice daily at 0800 and 1800 California time.

"What’s the routing strategy?" I ask Grant. As a U.S. East Coast sailor schooled in Bermuda crossings, where weather systems fortified by the Gulf Stream roar by like trucks on a busy highway, I expect a complicated answer.

"There are only two questions," Grant says. "Where is the High? And how strong is it?" He tells of the first few Transpacs he sailed, beginning in 1949. "In those days, we didn’t know about the High. We just sailed the great circle and sat."

Rich jumps in to the conversation. "You want to stay about two isobars (eight millibars) out from the center," he says. And sure enough, with today's weather chart showing 1027 millibars, and our barometer reading 1020 millibars, we've got enough breeze to keep our average speed over the course above nine knots, even with student drivers at the helm.
Although this stretch of water looks remarkably stable, this year the High's center lies farther north than usual. We've watched the eight Aloha-class boats, several of which took the textbook route south of the rhumb line, stall out a couple days ahead of us before reaching the trades. Benefiting from their experience, we stick near the rhumb line, where we find ample breeze in the high teens. We close reach for the first two days, but by Day Three we're easing sheets and enjoying a fast ride straight toward Honolulu.

Beam reaching now, we’re settling into our routines and the pleasures of being at sea. We eight students form three watches, with two ingenious twists designed into the rotation. For one thing, the daylight hours are divided into three four-hour chunks, and the night is divided into four three-hour chunks. This means that over the course of three days, each person is on watch at every time of day; nobody’s stuck with every dogwatch, and nobody hoards all the sunsets. A second twist mixes the composition of the watches: Every day, one person, the so-called Secretary of the Interior, gets yanked from one of the watches to clean cabins and prep meals; on the following day, that person is dropped into a different watch. Result: You share your watches with different people, and personalities wax and wane throughout the two-week passage.

Early on, my watchmates are Richard Horne and Len Hampton.

Richard, 48, retired six months earlier as a physician in an Arizona emergency room. His slow, resonant voice masks a type-A personality, which Richard applies even to retirement. Since October, he’s backpacked through Central America, crisscrossed Spain, acquired a master dive certificate, and delivered an Endeavour 43 across the Caribbean. He’s looking for his next big adventure.

Len is counting the months (27 to go) till he retires from a Los Angeles-area school system to cruise down to Mexico and maybe beyond. He’s lived for the last several years aboard a Formosa 50 ketch with his wife, Mary.

Says Richard to Len one afternoon, "I really envy you. You’ve got a boat."

Says Len to Richard, "I envy you. You’ve got time." Aboard this crowded boat, such delicious glimpses of the human condition are standard, welcome fare.

Throughout the rotations, Rich and Sheri Crowe alternate as watch captains. Beginning with Rich’s first dockside briefing, the Crowes and Alaska Eagle give an impression of lives intertwined at the roots. Rich and Sheri spent their courtship and much of their marriage aboard this boat. Rich was her first skipper when the school acquired her 18 years ago, and after 175,000 miles and several refits, he says he knows every component from her masthead to the base of her keel. After just a few days, I believe him.

The Crowes’ offshore-seamanship teaching is both formal and informal. Every evening at 1700, the whole crew gathers in the cockpit for seminars in marlinespike seamanship, safety-at-sea strategies, or celestial navigation.

But the best lessons follow almost silently from the intelligent way Rich and Sheri run the boat, seeds planted that will flourish months or years after this passage is over. If the trend of technology is to remove daily chores from our lives, the trend of Rich’s advice is to put them back in. He challenges us to pay attention to the little details, mechanical and human, that go into a good voyage. No autopilot is installed on Alaska Eagle, so for half-hour hitches, we each steer the boat by hand, continually coached by Rich and Sheri to improve. Electric bilge pumps are installed, but they’re not routinely switched on; part of every hourly watch routine is to pump the bilge by hand, logging the number of strokes. Rich believes that such other daily routines as keeping the boat clean and sitting down to good fresh-cooked meals (this is no Dinty Moore passage) are the cornerstones that maintain a good spirit among the crew. During a sail change, Rich encourages students to look each other in the eye before winching away.

Rich is a patient teacher; still, questions about trading machines for human responsibility set him off. During man-overboard practice, somebody asks Rich whether we should hit the MOB function key on the GPS in the nav station below. "No," he barks. "That’s worthless. Focus on getting the boat turned around, and litter the water with anything you can find: cushions, water bottles."

Rich has carefully chosen every piece of gear aboard the boat. What’s most telling are his choices about what not to bring. A student asks him one day whether he carries bolt cutters aboard.

"No," says Rich. "If I have to pull the toggles, I will. But it’s far more important to check the rig regularly. We change this rig every five years."

When the student waffles about whether or not he would carry bolt cutters, granting that they’re heavy and expensive, Richard grows testy. "The mast is a lot heavier and more expensive. Focus on keeping it up."

Richard has seen Alaska Eagle through a U.S. Coast Guard inspection that’s earned her the rare "all oceans" route she needs to run trips with paying passengers to Alaska and Antarctica.

He says he’s glad they inspect the boat. "Last time the Coast Guard was here, we took apart all the through-hull fittings. According to human nature, that’s just not going to happen otherwise. But think about it. We’ve been out here almost two weeks, and what’s broke?"

His question is rhetorical; in defiance of the Law of Boats, the answer is nothing.

An Emergency, of Sorts
On July 1, our fifth day out, the last and fastest Transpac boats cross the starting line off San Pedro, a fact that will put our early cockiness into better perspective. These boats knock off 24-hour runs of well over 300 miles. Among the fleet's 32 boats are several Transpac icons, including Merlin's Reata, a Bill Lee-designed 68-foot sloop that, as Merlin, set a record in 1977 of eight and a half days that stood for 20 years. This is her 12th running, giving her and the Spencer 65 Ragtime the shared title for most Transpacs sailed. Also on the course is Roy Disney's Pyewacket, the boat that in 1999 set the present race record of just under seven and a half days.

But this year, Pyewacket’s got her work cut out for her; two more-recent Reichel/Pugh sleds will be challenging. Chance, sailed by Bob McNulty and a crew who swept the 1991 Transpac aboard a Santa Cruz 70, is considered the fleet’s scratch boat. The newest supersled is the $3.5 million Pegasus, owned by Philippe Kahn, the 49-year-old founder of Borland Software, and navigated by Mark Rudiger, known for his successes aboard EF Language in the last Whitbread Round-the-World Race.

Just outside the margins of Transpac history, July 1 is notable for another reason. It also happens to be my first wedding anniversary.

By some divine grace, the Transpac outfit has scored an Iridium satellite phone, and we aboard Alaska Eagle possess it. The presence of the phone is common knowledge among our crew, but Grant has made perfectly clear that it’s only to be used for official traffic and really big emergencies. Sheepishly, I tell him mine.

I’m sure everyone has a moment when the surreality of our place in the acceleration of time and technology crystallizes; mine came when my love--who was in a car driving down I-76 through Pittsburgh--answered to that ring.

Most of us aboard Alaska Eagle are married men traveling singly, and as the ocean miles roll by and as we come to know each other more deeply, our conversations often turn to that time-honored conflict between love and wandering. The problem, as I see it, is that wandering can be so difficult á deux. If one person is truly wandering, following the trail of her or his private whims, then mustn’t the second person necessarily be following the first? And yet I hold this truth to be self-evident, that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to wander, perhaps even aimlessly.

In Rich and Sheri Crowe, we have the model of a relationship that’s built on wanderlust. Says Rich, "Sheri and I have an agreement. If either one of us comes home and says, ‘I quit my job,’ the other will hold out a hand and say, ‘Congratulations.’" A corollary agreement is that neither will accept a promotion that means taking time away from the next boat goal.

But they’re the exception.

Of the students, Kristin Gerding is the only woman. She and her fiancé, Bill Franklin, are young architects who live on a 47-foot Ed Monk-designed ketch in Seattle. This is their first offshore voyage.

"What strikes me as interesting," says Kristin in her journal, "is that every guy here except one is married and has children: some grown, some young. The wives didn’t want to come. Basically, I’m in the minority as a woman who wants to sail with her partner. One man, Len, is doing the learning so that he can go back and teach his wife. But most other stories are of a wife who has no interest. For a pastime that can potentially take you away for weeks or months at a time, I find it odd that men choose to pursue it, or that they’re able to. I would think that this pastime, because it’s so expensive and time-consuming, should be a family thing. Maybe it is. But I’m just surprised how few women wanted to come on this trip. I guess I expected single men."

For my part, I honestly don’t know what sort of voyaging my wife, Marina, and I will do together. I only know that voyaging is something I’ll do.

I enjoy several conversations around this topic with Vito, the ship’s cook. I tell him about a poem I’d read called "Two Loves." A man named Bill wakes up next to his wife, takes the dog out back while wife and child sleep inside, and guiltily wrestles with a decision. Then he gets in the car. A long double-entendre about "Mary" follows. Through the body of the poem, humdrum Bill is transformed into a swashbuckling dandy. The fantasy terms are libidinal, meant to be read as sexual, till in the last line it’s revealed--aha!--that "Mary" is his boat.

Punch line: It’s not infidelity when your second love’s a boat.

"So what is it about Love American-Style," I ask Vito, "that equates time alone on the water with adultery?"

This is the sort of puzzle Vito enjoys; he's just now trying to solve a version of it himself.
Vito's signed on aboard Alaska Eagle for six months. Come November, the boat will rest for nearly a month at the dock in Puerto Montt, Chile, waiting for the favorable season to head south to Antarctica. He's wrestling over whether to travel around Chile for those few weeks or return to his family (wife, grown kids, grandkids) in California. "My situation is not like Rich and Sheri's," he says. "They've got their family with them."

Vito’s a furniture maker in his early 50s. About 10 years ago, after a glimpse of mortality, he decided he wanted to go cruising. He’d never sailed. He told his wife, Adele, of his new plan.

"Great," she said. "You go learn how to sail, then let’s get the boat and go."

So he did. He went to OCC and took courses from basic to offshore sailing. After a couple of years, when he felt comfortable with his sailing skills, he said, "OK, honey, let’s go. There’s a 50-foot Beneteau in San Diego that’s just right."

"I’ve been thinking about it," she said, "and I’m not going. I don’t want to be away from the kids."

Vito was stunned.

"But there are lots of ways to stay in touch," he said. "Telephones, e-mail."

"That’s not the same as picking the kids up and squeezing them," she said. "But you go ahead if you want to."

Since that conversation, he’s logged more than 40,000 miles with Rich and Sheri aboard Alaska Eagle, and he now receives offers for more crewing positions than he has time to accept. His sailing trips have taken him to England and Tasmania and the islands of the South Pacific. More important, he’s observed enough dysfunctional couples on boats, where one of the pair wants to be cruising and the other one doesn’t, that he counts himself a lucky man to be married for 33 years to a woman who knows her own mind yet gives him her full blessing (no strings attached) to wander as he desires.

The Competitive Edge
By July 6, the wind has come aft, and we've been bowling along on a spinnaker reach for two full days, wearing shorts and T-shirts. When our shipmate Bill Crispin, the second Transpac radio operator, announces after the 0800 roll call that the three sleds greeted sunrise tightly in sight of one another, a surge of interest in that high-seas contest follows briefly. While Shanakee II has taken off out of our range, still we've passed other boats of the Aloha fleet: Sea Dancer, an Ericson 35, and Gecko, a Tartan 4100.

As we newcomers listen to Rich and Sheri, we realize that for Alaska Eagle, this seemingly deserted stretch of ocean is densely populated with friends. Navigating Shanakee II, about 300 miles ahead of us, is Brad Avery, OCC’s director. Skippering Bonaire, a Moody 65 that’s owned by OCC, is Gil Jones, a longtime pal of our comms officer, Grant Baldwin. They’re less than 100 northwest of us. Closer still is Stardust, a Wylie 46 sailed by Peter and Patricia Anderson, a couple who sailed together aboard Alaska Eagle in the 1987 Transpac, a passage during which he proposed and she refused. But he persevered, and in 1993 they married, and now here they are, sailing their own boat to Hawaii.

By July 5, our ninth day out, we’re hoping to be the second boat across the line. Our watch rotations turn into cutthroat competitions for the best half-hour run toward Honolulu.

"Woohoo!" I say, coming on watch just after lunch. "Check it out. Boatspeed: 10.8 knots!"

Kristin had the wheel before me. "You’re just now getting those?" she says.

David Forbes, Bill Franklin, and I spend most of the afternoon lost in the tight poetries of sine, cosine, and velocity made good. Our rhumb line to Hawaii is 240. But with the wind at 060, steering directly toward our waypoint not only slows boatspeed but also raises the specter of a wrapped chute. So the question is, How much faster would our boatspeed have to climb to merit steering 15 degrees higher? Or 30 degrees? We know there are computer programs and books that could clarify all this for us, but we don’t have them at hand. Instead, we try to dredge up the high-school math most of us dozed through.

"The sine of 75 degrees equals one over y," says Bill. "Or y equals one over the sine of 75 degrees."

Which is all well and good, except none of us can puzzle out how to actually do a sine computation, even after Mike Last produces a scientific calculator he pinched from one of his kids on the way out the door.

"How about this," suggests Dave. "We make angle A equal 30 degrees. Then y equals two, z equals one, and x equals the square root of three."

Somehow, from these facts we convince ourselves that at eight knots, you need to pick up an extra half knot of boatspeed to justify every 15 degrees away from the rhumb line. After all this, Rich comes on deck and says, "Honolulu’s that way," and points to port.

Meanwhile, for all our trash talking, we imagine it’s nothing compared with the intensity aboard the three sleds. Nearly 1,000 miles down the course, they’re still within three miles of one another. As of the morning roll call, Pegasus has slipped from first to third place on a gamble that took them south looking to reach the full trades first. Philippe Kahn has posted the following note on his website: "Strategically, we’re where we want to be: in the south position. The winds should now start to fill consistently for us before them, and with the expected 20-plus-degree right windshift that we expect, we end up in a controlling position. We wouldn’t exchange our position with any of our competitors." Kahn’s words will be prophetic.

This voyage, in addition to coinciding with the Transpac, also coincides with a full moon, which makes tonight's 0200-to-0500 watch a lovely moment on the planet. With the breeze coming evermore aft, Sheri spends more time coaching us through the narrower steering window. Normally I'm content to steer down a moonbeam as the apparent wind veers and backs around me. But Sheri challenges us to steer according to several inputs: true wind, apparent wind, compass course, spinnaker leech--and after all that, sure, a moonbeam.
Our conversations in the middle of the night, as we huddle in the cockpit awaiting our hitch at the helm, are some of the best. Sheri tells us about trips past and future through South America and about the Spanish-language courses she's taken to prepare for the next trip. On deck with us is Michael Pomerantsev, a Ukranian-born Russian who knows a thing or two about hiccups in translating. His voice is a cross between Peter Lorre and Boris Badinov from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, but he proves in the end to be a keen wit and a most amusing watchmate. He tells a story about going to France and knowing just a little French but carrying a dictionary around with him wherever he goes. Friends have recently had a baby, so he goes into a store to find a present. He spends a while looking around, stumped, for a pacifier. A woman approaches him to ask if he needs any help. He stumbles over what to say, gets out his dictionary, and says, "Yes. Please can you show me your nipples?"

Dueling Barometers
While the atmospheric pressure in this stretch of Pacific remains quite stable around 1020 millibars, the shipboard emotional barometer has fluctuated from the spirit-sapping discomfort of the first few days to the high-pressure ridge of getting to know the boat and this ocean and our mates. But around the eleventh day, and I don't think it's just me, we experience another dip.

For one thing, our progress against Axapac, a Wylie 39, and Willow Wind, a Cal 40, boats we thought we’d catch two days ago, is at a standstill. For a whole day, Axapac has kept a 40-mile lead on us. And Bonaire, which we also thought we’d pass two days ago, looks poised to cross the line with us. There’s even the low-grade threat that the sleds, which left five days after us, will beat us in. Pegasus has pulled into the lead and is ticking off 330-mile days, compared with our 190s.

The sure sign of a dip comes when someone yells that we’ve got a fish on the line. Till now, that call has brought virtually all hands enthusiastically on deck.

Rich says, "Whose fish is that? Vito, you’ve got a fish on the line."

Vito says, "I’m not fishing. I think we need a clarification on who’s fishing."

But the lull is temporary. By July 8, expecting we’ll make landfall by the next morning, the thrill returns. At the 1800 roll call, we learn that Bonaire, which had gone well north, has jibed and is right on our tail. Sure enough, shortly after sunset we see her nav lights over the eastern horizon. A little later, we see jetliners leaving Oahu for North America. Then, just off to the south, the loom of Molokai Light.

Normally, the watch after dinner is a quiet time. Not tonight. Michael Last, a physician from Palm Springs who’s ordered a new Amel Super Maramu for his imminent retirement, has loaded the CD changer with ZZ Top and Queen discs; the cockpit is awash in adrenaline. All night, through the loud and eerie carnival sounds of Night at the Opera B-sides, we add sail and push harder.

I can’t remember the last time I awoke feeling like a kid at Christmas. But waking up and coming on deck under Diamond Head was one of those times. Around dawn, we scramble around, cleaning the boat and ourselves, and with Bonaire still in our wake, we cross the line just after 0900, extremely charged to be the third boat to finish.

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| Tim Murphy|

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| Alaska Eagle on arrival in Honolulu* * *|

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But of course, we aren’t racing.

Epilogue
After 2,300 miles, Pegasus beat Pyewacket by an hour and three minutes. "The only time we were out of sight was today," said Roy Disney. Pegasus finished in eight days, two and a half hours.

For the crew of Alaska Eagle, the Transpac standings took a distant back seat to our small world, which two weeks earlier had been a world of strangers but couldn’t be farther from that now.

On our last day at sea, during our evening gathering in the cockpit, Vito tells of his first offshore voyage some five years ago aboard this same boat and of all the things he learned then and since about boats and about people.

"Now look at me," he says with the hint of a grin. "I'm a bum."
May I live to become such a bum, I think to myself.

Tim Murphy is Cruising World’s executive editor. Information about Alaska Eagle is available from the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship website (www.occsailing.com).