Our Complicated Good Olde Days
Two years ago, longtime veterans were walking ashore at the end of 2,300 miles of sailing in the Transpacific Yacht Race talking about debris in the ocean and hitting more “stuff” than they had ever seen before. We’re talking about a trend line, and let’s be clear, the arrow was aimed up long before the 2011 tsunami hit Japan.
There is a Pacific world’s worth of toxic plastic degrading into tiny bits in the garbage patch calm at the center of the Pacific High Pressure Zone. On the California-Hawaii race course to the south, as a great American once said, shit happens.
The faster you go, the harder you hit (rhymes with), and our first Transpac finisher spent a lot of its crossing at speeds in the twenties. That would be Lending Club/Tritium Racing, the 72-foot trimaran that John Sangmeister bought from Artemis Racing—lengthened from its original ORMA 60 configuration, it was the original AC72 wing test platform—and the boat experienced multiple encounters with floating objects en route to missing a course record by about two hours. You could probably find those two hours in light-air slowdowns part of the way across, and you could probably find two hours in the aggravation of dealing with busted daggerboards. She’s more like a four-day boat, had the isobars lined up and saluted four days in a row.
The first time they hit, they slipped the daggerboard out of its housing, flipped it over and went on with business. Then they hit another time, and re-flipped it, and they’ve hit a few more times without major damage, but wow. The all star crew included Gino Morrelli, Howie Hamlin, Ryan Breymaier and Peter Stoneberg. One interim report: “Logs, logs, and more logs. Sailing normally, but with a large amount of vibration due to the damage.”
That was then, and this is since. Somehow Transpac first finishers have a habit of keeping the welcoming party up . . .
Now, Bruno Peyron’s 1997 passage time of five days, nine hours, set in an 86-foot cat, will stand. But none of the crew will forget the passage. Here is Will Oxley’s view from the nav station a few days ago. Blue skies and puffy white clouds . . .
With 21st century sailing aborning, in fits and pains, howzabout a moment to celebrate the West Coast Sleds, the ever so cool backbone of ocean racing in our Eastern Pacific for three decades and change, the good old boats that just keep going and going. They’ll be with us for a while to come.
Obsolescence? The closest parallel might be boats built in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, whose racing careers continued into the 1960s. Yes, those old woodies got tweaked. Yes, there were conversions from schooner to yawl, cutter, whatever. The Sleds of the moment are mostly on their umpteenth rudder, keel, rig, whatever. But they are the Eveready Batteries of West Coast big boat racing, and depending on how you count, they make up about a fourth of the fleet in the 47th running of the classic Transpac, Los Angeles to Honolulu, under way now. I can guarantee you that next year they’ll be out for the Pacific Cup, San Francisco to Hanalei Bay. In between there is Mexico via the San Diego-PV race and MEXORC. Without the big Sleds and their smaller siblings—Express 27s, Moore 24s, Olson 30s—the sailing life on the California coast would be unrecognizable.
Much of the energy and many of the boats themselves came out of Santa Cruz, where the ethos was to ignore the rating rules in favor of hubba hubba. It worked.
Bill Lee, who has a bit of background in this subject, allows that Sleds from the 1980s and 1990s are popular today because, “They continue to be successful in downwind races, they’re easy to maintain, and a Santa Cruz 70, in standard rig, is about the biggest boat you could race on the ocean without a bunch of pros.” The first SC70 was Blondie, launched in 1985 . . .
Lee designed the Santa Cruz 70, as you probably know, but he’s making a level, fair statement here, and he adds, “Even a TP52, which is a really nice boat, is less recreational. It’s more like crossing an ocean on a 49er.”
One reason for the mid-20th century longevity of the woodies fleet, Lee points out: “Developments simply weren’t moving very fast. The big improvements came later, with composites, when you could build lighter, or if you chose to not build lighter, you could push the ballast down and lower the center of gravity.” Boats have continued to get faster, and so have some of the sailors, but not everybody wants their racing on knife’s edge. Then there’s the cost side.
Southern California-based designer Alan Andrews is at sea at the moment, Diamond Head-bound aboard an Andrews design that is a veteran in its own right, Bob Lane’s Medicine Man. Alan notes, “What we call a Sled can be purchased and campaigned for a fraction of a new, faster boat. To have the same interior volume, the new boats have much more rig and keel. They go a heck of a lot faster, but with a down economy, it’s been tough to achieve critical mass.”
I think I hear Alan saying how much he’d like to be selling new designs, but, “I can’t blame the guys who want to race against similar boats, in a handicap system that seems to treat the boats reasonably fairly amongst themselves (and some say advantageously against newer boats) at less cost than a new boat, even if the new boat goes 10-25% faster.”
The 70-foot group was led today by Roy Pat Disney’s Andrews sloop, Pyewacket, (right) with quite a gaggle of the competition bunched south of the layline and considerably south of the main body of the fleet, which started days earlier. In the 50s, Horizon was doing its thing, again. The same mass of light air that slowed the second-day starters has been sitting ahead of these third-day starters like a wall, forcing them south. If a picture tells a thousand words, the tracking software serves just fine, with a lot of nearly-straight lines until the fleet began to slow in the light stuff, and then the lines get real squiggly. If you’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.
And there’s the terrific race within a race between the two woodies, Dorade and Westward, each of them a great story. Dorade, probably the most influential ocean racer of all time, has been restored to participate in all the classic ocean events that made her famous 8 decades ago. Westward has been in the Bell family since it was launched in 1962, carrying three generations on Transpac. Ocean racing is all about the food, really, and I note from the Westward blog this entry on the menu: “Twice baked spaghetti, a recipe that our grandma/mom/Inie made, so it is a traditional Transpac meal for Westward.
Looking forward to see you folks back at Howlands in due timeKimball