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  1998 Singlehanded Transpac

Throughout its 20-year history, the Singlehanded TransPac Race from San Francisco to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, has earned many epithets - courageous, heroic, masochistic, insane. . . But after 'toughing it out' for 14 long days at sea in the cramped confines of his Moore 24, Greg Morris characterized this odd contest with his own irreverent spin: "This race is like a bug light for weirdos with boats."

Regardless of whether you think of this year's 11 finishers as bold individualists or "weirdos with boats," each deserves a large measure of respect for solo-sailing the 2,120-mile run - a notable accomplishment for any sailor. In doing so, they join a proud association of men and women - 141 to be exact - who've completed the crossing since this biennial challenge was instituted in 1978.

Collectively, this year's competitors represented a broad spectrum of attitudes toward singlehanded ocean racing. At one extreme was multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett aboard his 60-ft trimaran Lakota, who easily met his goal by setting a new elapsed time record: 7 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes. At the opposite extreme were low-key guys like Mike Dranginis aboard his Ericson 30 Compass Rose and Bob Gay aboard his Pretorian 35 Bravo, for whom simply arriving at Hanalei in one piece was its own reward, marking the culmination of a personal rite of passage. Between these extremes were several repeat contestants who hoped to better their previous elapsed times, and a first-timer or two whose principal motivation was to enjoy a "pleasant ride" on the open ocean.

Completing the cast of characters, were two feisty combatants who had a grudge to settle: Despite hand steering for as many as 14 hours a day, Greg Morris failed to beat his arch rival and bosom buddy, Ken 'the General' Roper, who, at age 68 completed his sixth SSS TransPac, further cementing his reputation as the event's most frequent participant. Roper has put 80,000 sea miles on his Finn Flyer 31 Harrier, much of it singlehanded.

The range of boat types in this year's contest was almost as disparate as the skippers themselves. In addition to Lakota, which has broken close to two dozen ocean records around the world, there was John Guzzwell's half-size BOC racer Endangered Species; Bob Cranmer-Brown's Adler 60 Etosha, which was built for the '86 BOC race, and Morris' tiny Moore 24 with its lavender topsides, bright orange boot stripe and lime green underbelly, appropriately named Color Blind. A variety of more conventional racer/cruisers completed the field, including Giggles, a sweet Baltic 38, which Dale Parshall sailed to first place (on corrected time) among the monohulls.

Despite the uncertainties of racing to Hawaii in an El Nio year, conditions this year were milder than during several recent TransPacs, yet windy enough to allow Fossett to shave nearly a day off the previous record, set in the windy '94 race by Peter Hogg aboard the Antrim 40 tri Aotea. Nevertheless, some multihull enthusiasts were surprised that Lakota, being a 60-footer, didn't pare down the old mark by a greater margin - especially since the monohull Pyewacket bettered Lakota's time by 34 hours on her Pacific Cup crossing to Oahu. (That course is only 50 miles shorter.) But while monohulls were able to sail practically dead downwind close to the rhumbline, Lakota was forced to sail a zigzag course of jibe after jibe which, when plotted, resembled the footprints along the sands of Hanalei after a big night at the Tahiti Nui bar - the singlehanders' favorite watering hole.

As in years past, the starting line was laid off the Corinthian Yacht Club at midday on June 27. For Fossett and some others, just getting out of the Bay single-handed was nerve-wracking. Hundreds of daysailors were on the water and the tide was flooding through the Gate: "I put in countless tacks," recalled Fossett, whose boat was literally pushed sideways at times by the current. "It was definitely the most strenuous part of the race."

Meanwhile, the 60-ft ketch Etosha had been conspicuously absent at the start. Bob Cranmer-Brown woke up on race day to find Etosha's 12-foot keel stuck three feet into the soft mud beneath the Oakland Yacht Club docks, which had been the pre-race staging area. By the time she was towed out by Vessel Assist several hours later, she was late for the start. Having made three previous attempts at the Singlehanded TransPac on the same chartered boat - all of which were plagued by problems - Cranmer-Brown's greatest hope before the race had been to sail an "uneventful race." But it wasn't to be, as a litany of troubles were yet to come. Etosha started nearly an hour and a half later than the others after motoring from Oakland to the line, an act the English-born skipper would later pay for with a five-hour penalty.

The wind went light that first night, leaving many skippers anxiously limping through the shipping lanes. "On the first night out I damn near ran into the side of a ship," confided boatbuilder John Guzzwell of Endangered Species. "I came up on deck and saw port lights on both sides of me. It had actually just slipped past me."

"Once you get into the trade winds, you forget about the discomfort of working your way off the coast," quipped Bruce Nesbit, who surfed his Olson 34 much of the way to Hanalei. But those first days of pounding out to sea proved to be the undoing of first-timers Jay Capell of Leilani Too and Dave Smith of Magic Carpet Ride. Capell dropped out on the second day when his boat began taking on water through her bow and Smith was forced to retire when his gooseneck fitting broke and he shredded a sail or two.

Early in the race the East Pacific High went south, so Lakota and Etosha dove down to lower latitudes to follow it, while the rest of the fleet stayed closer to the rhumbline. Although he had pulled far ahead of the other monohulls, the move put Cranmer-Brown in the path of peril on the third night. "At 2 a.m. I found myself in the direct path of a container ship," he recalls. After making radio contact, he learned that the vessel was four miles away, doing 16 knots on a collision course. Both skippers agreed to alter course, but with his spinnaker up, Cranmer-Brown was unable to veer far from the ship's path before she came down on top of Etosha. "The freighter passed so close, it took all wind out of my sails and I did a full 360 under spinnaker. I'm so lucky to be here - 10 or 20 seconds earlier and it would have T-boned me."

Once away from the coast, steady trade winds drove the fleet from almost dead astern - a rare condition relative to years past. As a result, a decades-old cruising concept proved to be the sail plan du jour.

"At first I was embarrassed to tell people I wasn't flying a spinnaker aboard Giggles," admits Dale Parshall, who gave up on his kite after flying it "on the verge of catastrophe" throughout the first day. Instead, he poled out two twin 125 genoas, flown off a twin-track headstay. "Here I was trying to do this big sailing thing and I'm flying these wimpy double headsails."

Parshall expected the sail change would allow his longtime friend and sailing rival, Bruce Nesbit, to pull away from Giggles in his lightweight Olson 34 Razzberries. But Parshall's system gave him consistent speed 24 hours a day with a minimum expenditure of energy. Giggles slowly passed Razzberries and continued to broaden the gap between them while Nesbit - and others - occasionally lost time while battling with their chutes. "I came up one night at midnight when the spinnaker was wrapped and it took me until 4:45 a.m. to clear it," laments the Mill Valley retiree.

"I brought three old spinnakers that came with the boat," says Steve Faustina of the Barnett 42 Solitaire. "I tore up one, wrapped another on the forestay and had to destroy it, then blew up the third. After that, I spent two days sewing one of them; it ran for another 12 hours and it blew up again - but not where I sewed it! I guess I'm a pretty good seamstress," laughed the ex-Oakland cop.

By the end of the race, Bob Gay of the Pretorian 35 Bravo had the most extreme viewpoint, however: "I hate spinnakers with a passion! They should make them illegal."

Meanwhile, with a sage-like wisdom accumulated over five previous SSS TransPacs, the General (Ken Roper) had his own solution to dead-downwind running. He'd had a special sail made for Harrier, constructed from two three-ounce genoas attached to a single luff tape. "I can sandwich the two halves together as a single jib with the sheet tied through both clews, or I can separate them and use them as a double headsail poled out." Roper's innovation - and his tenacity - won him first in class for the first time.

Most other skippers eventually bagged their chutes for good and used the double-headsail arrangement - which is not allowed in most other races - for the remainder of the trip.

By the time Lakota was halfway through her record run, the rest of the fleet was still acclimating to their solitary life at sea. During the crossing, they would experience day after day of glorious trade wind sailing regularly punctuated by squalls and wind shifts, but no horrendous weather hit and no one was ever completely becalmed. The strongest wind reported was a gust of 42 knots, while 15 to 25 was the norm.

The two dropouts notwithstanding, there was no major damage to any of the remaining 11 boats or bodies throughout the race, although there were plenty of blown sails and at least three racers got severely whacked on the head by their booms.

You wouldn't expect experienced offshore sailors to have head-butting contests with their booms, but the severe sleep deprivation inherent in the SSS TransPac is bound to cause slow reactions and errors in judgement. As Steve Faustina found out, a slap in the head is a particularly effective wake-up call. "I left the blood on the deck for days to remind me: 'that's your blood down there, and you don't want to lose any more.' "

The low-slung boom on Greg Morris' Moore 24 smacked him on the left side of his head, sending him reeling. Before he could completely catch his balance, it came back again and popped him above his right eye. Luckily, Greg is as tough as a pit bull, so he recovered quickly. But that wasn't the worst of his problems.

After two previous attempts, no one was more determined to race hell-for-leather from start to finish than Morris - including Fossett, who sails "very conservatively" when singlehanding. Morris hand-steered as much as he was physically capable and never gave in to fatigue if a sail change was called for. But despite his best efforts a faulty installation slowed him down.

When his autopilot stopped functioning properly, Morris realized he needed to drill a hole and sink a bolt through the unit's control arm, where it attaches to the rudder stock. He had a cordless drill and one sharp drill bit the proper size, but with the boat lying under bare poles and Morris' body shoehorned as far aft as possible, so much water spilled in through a small access hole in the transom that he had to bucket it out every 30 minutes for fear Color Blind would sink. While being tossed by the swells, trying to complete the job was slow, torturous work. When he eventually finished the hole, it was an eighth of an inch off and he had to begin again. Finally, after five long hours he raised sail again, but the setback would cause him to lose a position in the ranks. Unfortunately, getting Color Blind squared away before the race was a frantic effort; he'd only sailed her offshore twice.

Mike Dranginis also had a potentially grave problem, but he too made do. "About the fourth day out I worked the foot pump and there was no water." The jarring motion of the boat had cracked his system's plastic piping, allowing both his fresh water tanks to drain into the bilge. Luckily he'd stashed bottled water all over the boat. "I think you really have to have redundancy built into everything, because you never know what's going to break."

Most TransPac'ers had plenty of high times, however, to balance out the difficulties. This was the inaugural ocean cruise for John Guzzwell's custom-built, 'Guzzwell 30' Endangered Species. He only had an asymmetrical spinnaker, and wasn't set up to run double headsails, but ". . . with the genny poled out and two reefs in the main, you could drive that boat in 40 knots. It just screams along," he confides with a proud smile. "I would just sit in the hatch laughing my head off watching that wake going by - it was like being on a destroyer."

Etosha reached a top speed of 21 knots on her way to taking first-over-the-line honors among the monohulls. The accomplishment was particularly notable since she'd sat idle for six years before her new owner, Steve Gale, and charterer Cranmer-Brown put her through a frantic six-week renovation process just prior to the race. One night at sea the skipper made a particularly poignant log entry: "I lie in my bunk and watch the wind instruments at the masthead while the boat tears madly through the night under spinnaker, like a wild horse shaking its head with sheer exuberance over its speed. Every once in a while the keel would give out a loud moaning cry to the whales below as we hit 18 knots and I pray for nothing to break."

As Bruce Nesbit put it, "The scenery out there is dark blue water, light blue sky and puffy white clouds. That's it." Nevertheless there were occasional signs of life. Racing along at speeds as high as 12.5 knots, Endangered Species attracted a huge school of dolphins one day. "There must have been a hundred of them and they were surfing with me down the waves. One of them kept leaping up and doing somersaults. It was a really unique experience - so beautiful."

Other boats had less attractive visitors. One night when Nesbit came up to deal with a squall, a huge white sea bird was sitting on his stern pulpit. Bruce was enjoying his company as they sat side by side until the bird suddenly pooped all over the cockpit - and Bruce's leg.

Oddly enough, the General had a similar-looking visitor about the same time during the trip. And sure enough the uninvited guest left an unwelcome deposit in the cockpit of Harrier also. To add insult to injury though, before he flew off he also regurgitated a half-digested flying fish onto the cockpit floor.

One of the strangest sightings, however was made by Bob Gay. I'd been hammered by squalls for 36 hours when I looked up and saw the moon through a gap in the clouds. Then behind me I thought I saw a waterspout that was arched at the top." Befuddled, he radioed the General about it, who explained that it was, in fact, a 'moonbow' - similar to a rainbow, but with different shades of gray instead of the full spectrum of colors.

Among other notable log entries, Cranmer-Brown once found himself smack dab in the middle of a full naval exercise 1,200 miles offshore. After sailing in isolation for days, Nesbit was suddenly blasted by intense search lights one night. The source was a Coast Guard patrol plane that was looking for two Pacific Cup boats which were thought to have been in distress. Delayne Brink, a school teacher from Seattle, was sitting in the cockpit of At Last one day, lamenting the recent shredding of his spinnaker and thinking to himself, "Too bad my sailmaker's not around," when he noticed a passing freighter. After raising the ship on VHF to chat, another voice came over the airwaves: "Is that you, Brink?" Ironically enough, it was Brink's Seattle sailmaker who was sailing nearby. "Sorry," he said. "No time to repair your sail now. I'm racing in the Pacific Cup!"

Getting enough sleep to function sensibly is obviously one of the greatest challenges of a solo ocean race like this. But each sailor dealt with the problem in his own way. Fossett set a one-hour alarm clock in addition to a radar alarm to alert him if traffic was nearby, and a speed alarm which would sound if Lakota topped 27 knots - her top speed is 31! Others set egg timers which allowed them only 15 minutes sleep at a stretch. Then there was Mike Dranginis, who swore he got more sleep than he does at home.

Although the object of this race is to go it alone, each time it's run we're told there's a heartfelt camaraderie that grows throughout the event as these like-minded souls get to know one another through daily radio call-ins via SSB and VHF.

"The part I liked most was the company," noted Bob Gay, who figures himself to be the least experienced sailor in the group. "Everybody was talking about different rigging styles, how to set your sails, where the high was sitting and what they were planning to do. Several guys were very serious about winning, but at no one else's expense. No one would ever withhold knowledge of a weather situation in order to win."

Because position reports were given twice daily, each sailor was able to plot his competitors' paths, compute their handicaps and know exactly where he stood currently in the standings on corrected time - while friends and family back home followed the action on the SSS Web page (www.sfbaysss.org).

As a result, those who were in danger of dropping back in the ranks - and gave a damn - pushed as hard as possible during the final two days. Internally, their bodies underwent a struggle between the adrenaline produced by arrival anxiety and the debilitating effects of sleep deprivation. Fossett, on the other hand, had experienced the elation of finishing days earlier. He celebrated his record run with a "huge Mai Tai" and flew off to the Great Lakes, where he would break yet another record in the Chicago-to-Mackinac race.

"With about 15 hours to go," said Cranmer-Brown, "I decided to put up the biggest spinnaker I had and go for it, but I kept falling asleep at the wheel. I ended up hand steering wing and wing 'til the finish."

Morris too, eventually ran out of steam. "About three days out I knew I was getting ready for the sprint to the finish, and I knew how things were shaping up, but I just crashed for eight hours. Before that I'd never let myself sleep for more than 15 minutes at a stretch."

A day and a half out, Color Blind was an hour behind Razzberries (on corrected time) and At Last was an hour ahead. They all pushed as hard as possible, getting little or no sleep the last 24 hours. But in the end, each boat held its position. Nevertheless each had an emotionally-charged finish.

"That was a fantastic day," recalled Nesbit. "The seas were fairly calm, the wind was strong and the boat was going eight or nine knots all the time. I'd get up on a wave and surf it forever."

Meanwhile, 48 miles from the finish "all hell broke loose" aboard At Last. Her mylar headsail blew its tack and got wrapped around the headstay, then the sheet got wrapped twice around the end of the main boom, keeping Brink from quickly getting things under control. "I had visions of the stick coming down - it was whipping and wiggling like a noodle!" Eventually, though, he got it together and was the first in his class to cross the line.

As finishers sailed into the sweeping crescent bay beneath the green slopes of Bali Hai, broad smiles replaced frowns of fatigue. "What a great psychological payoff," beamed Dale Parshall of Giggles, who corrected out an hour ahead of the General to finish first in fleet. "There's so much emotion involved in the accomplishment - it's deep-rooted stuff."

Although there are always more talkers than doers when it comes to the Singlehanded TransPac, the next event, in the year 2000, has already generated a lot of chatter. At least half of this year's fleet have shown interest in making another run, as have many other members of the Singlehanded Sailing Society. Veterans of past races are often lured back again when they are reminded that few other endeavors bring the same sense of camaraderie and personal fulfillment.

Solo ocean racers are indeed a breed unto themselves. As Bob Gay put it, "The Singlehanded Sailing Society is an organization of people who don't usually join anything - the ultimate un-yacht club."

- latitude/aet


1998 Latitude38