Local skippers manage their hopes, strategies and fears for the 48th Transpac
On Christmas morning when Dana Point’s Chris Hemans was 6 years old, he ran downstairs to get a look at what Santa had put under the tree. To his amazement, he found an 8-foot Sabot sailboat (how Santa got it down the chimney wasn’t questioned). By Christmas night, Hemans was a sailor for life.
Decades later and now the father of two sailing girls, Hemans is gearing up for his second Transpac Yacht Race this month, crossing more than 2,200 miles of open ocean from San Pedro to Honolulu. Hemans will steer his 46-foot sloop Varuna, joined by six friends he’s sailed with for 30 years. For Hemans, like so many sailors, the Transpac – established in 1906 and one of the world’s oldest races – represents one of a handful of worldwide ocean race must-dos. It’s a race that has a rich history, with such past record-setters as Olympic gold medalist and America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts and iconic sailor Roy Disney. But it’s also a race that has a festive vibe – more than 300 volunteers in Hawaii make sure every boat gets its own mai tai party at the finish. Finally, it’s not easy; sailing across thousands of miles of open ocean will always be an accomplishment of a lifetime.
“I always dreamed of doing it, but work, kids, school always got in the way and I never got to,” Hemans says. That is until the last running of the Transpac, in 2013, when he completed the race in Varuna, a boat he bought specifically for the race less than a year before. In that first run, and after more than nine days at sea, Hemans and his crew took fourth place, a mere four hours out of first place. This time, his float plan includes a win.
But that’ll be tough, since in a race that crosses an ocean, there
are more unknowns than points on the compass.
For one thing, because the 62 participating yachts range from 30 feet to 105, and include not only monohulls but multihulls that skim across the water at over 20 knots and complete the race in less than five days, times are not only adjusted (i.e., handicapped), start dates are staggered over a week. Slower boats will start on July 13, a Monday; slightly faster/bigger boats start on Thursday, and the big kahunas set sail on Saturday, July 18. So each wave of competitors will get different conditions and wind. Get the short end of the wind stick and you may as well be dragging an anchor.
“True, one of those starts will be more advantageous because of wind, so all you can do is hope,” says Newport Beach native Ross Pearlman, who has the easy smile of a grandfather but the energy of a 10th-grader. He’ll be competing in his seventh consecutive Transpac in one of the more comfortable entries in the race, his Jeanneau 52, Between the Sheets.
That comfort will be welcome in the notoriously rough first leg of the race, when boats must hammer their way out and into the trade winds.
“The first three or four days are definitely the hardest, when you don’t have your sea legs yet and the boat’s leaning over and bashing into the waves,” says Len Bose. Bose is a Newport Beach yacht broker who carries the quiet confidence – and white hair – of a lifelong sailor with nine Transpacs under his keel.
This month he’ll do his 10th aboard Horizon, a Santa Cruz 50 that has done well in past races. The bashing and leaning of the first leg is essential, he says, because getting out into “clean air” – wind unaffected by land – and finding the trades is what wins the race.
But it’s not just about pointing the bow toward Hawaii, gritting your teeth and gripping a lifeline. In fact, do that and you’re almost certain to lose. The navigator’s job is about finding the fastest – not necessarily the shortest – route to Hawaii. Almost always that means sailing more than the 2,226 nautical miles that make the great circle route. Specifically, it means sailing well south to avoid getting trapped in the light winds near the center of the summertime Pacific high-pressure system and finding the perfect wind gradient for a fast sleigh ride into Honolulu.
“It’s that perfect balance between sailing out of your way and finding more wind that makes up for it,” explains Pearlman. That delicate job falls to each boat’s navigator, and as Pearlman says, “You commit to that line pretty early and live or die by
That’s because if the navigator gets it wrong, his crew’s race is likely over before the midway point, says Bose, who has navigated a few Transpacs. “By day four or five, if you haven’t set yourself up with the lead and a boat gets 50 miles ahead of you, it’s pretty tough to catch them because typically you’ll have winds all the way across from there. It’s not like they’ll hit a dead spot,” he says.
And that’s why he gave up the navigator’s chair long ago. “It’s a difficult moment to come up and tell seven guys that you screwed up and we’re pretty much out of the race,”
Of course, there are factors other than weather that could get a boat back in the race. One is a competitor breaking something. Which is common, especially since despite the balmy trade winds and the mai tais at the finish, the Transpac is anything but a pleasure cruise. Sailors are driving their boats hard and the sea isn’t exactly known as forgiving.
“We know we’re taking risks when we’re pushing the boat, but that’s why we’re out there,” says Pearlman, who brings backups for as much as he can, including four spinnakers, extra halyards, sheet guides and blocks. But there are still breakages that can really ruin your race. Rudders, for instance.
“You really don’t want the rudder to fall out of the boat,” Rhode Island’s Dan Nowlan, a multi-race veteran and the 2015 Transpac commodore, says with absolutely no irony in his slow and steady ahead voice perfect for calming a bunch of sailors about to cross an ocean. For one, he says, rudders are slightly important, and two, the lack of one leaves a rather big hole in the boat. Other buzzkills include breaking masts, rigging and booms.
Or hitting a coral reef in the dark of night, which a Los Angeles sailor pulled off in 1989 when he drove his 42-foot sloop onto a reef at 12:45 a.m. going 11 knots. He was a mere 200 yards from the finish line. Reef cuts, broken ribs, and, we assume, a fractured ego were the only injuries, so most sailors would call that a win.
Especially these. “The biggest fear by far is someone getting hurt. The race comes second to that,” says Hemans. Bose agrees, and so far, the worst thing that’s befallen him is his hotel room not being ready after 11 days at sea. “I fell asleep on the lawn and got eaten by some ants,” he says.
At the top of the list of bad, he says, is a crewmember falling overboard. A good rule of thumb is to stay on the boat, or, as Pearlman’s boat name instructs, between the sheets.
Only one time in the history of Transpac has a sailor broken that rule. In the 1951 race, Ted Sierks fell off the 73-foot cutter L’Apache 1,000 miles out of San Pedro when a lifeline gave way. Another crewmember threw him a life ring. The crew dowsed the sails and brought the boat around to search for Sierks, but couldn’t find him – despite it being daylight hours. The crew, and Sierks, held out no hope of rescue; miraculously, 24 hours later a Navy destroyer recovered him.
While accidents like these can always happen, there are several reasons the race is safer now. All boats have GPS tracking technology and sophisticated communication systems, and must pass a pre-race checklist of safety equipment. It has made the boats safer and the navigating easier.
“Before, when you were out there you navigated by the moon, the sun and the stars. And there were boats who missed the islands altogether,” says Nowlan.
But who knows, perhaps those boats had bananas aboard, or women, or no one wore a lucky T-shirt – all things some sailors believe can sink race chances faster than a broken mast or inconveniently placed coral reef.
Hemans has his own way of thinking. “Bananas will be on the boat. Banana bread will be on the boat. They’ve always brought us luck. So we have zero superstitions,” he says.
Pearlman also doesn’t believe in superstitions, fortunately, since his start date is the 13th. “I didn’t even think about that until you brought it up,” he says, fairly convincingly.
“I guess if we believed in superstitions we wouldn’t have women on the boat, but my navigator is a woman. So while I don’t want to jinx myself – no, we don’t believe in
Bose, however, is taking a more … shall we say, traditional stance.
“We’re very superstitious. There’ll be no banana of any type on the boat. There won’t even be a banana muffin. And you’ll see some lucky T-shirts,” he says. “But I’ll change. After all,
it’s a long race.”
Let’s hope not too long.