Interview with TPYC Commodore Bill Lee in 2011.
Transpac (TP): Congratulations on your appointment as TPYC Commodore. Any big news for the 2011 race???
Bill Lee (BL): We are looking forward to a great race is 2011. To make things easier for first time and returning entries, we have made two changes. First, a sat phone can be carried in place of a SSB if it is left on full time. Second, the celestial sight is optional rather than required -- serious navigators can enter their sights in a contest. On the organizational end, the NOR has already been issued, discussions are in place with sponsors, and the Honolulu Committee had their first meeting. At this point, everything is falling together.
TP: How many Transpac races have you competed in??
BL: I have raced 5 Transpacs and one Multihull Transpac. My first Transpac was in 1971 on the Cal 37 Quasar owned by Art Biehl. They had been second to Jon Andron on Argonaut in 1969 and Art was focused to win this one. Our crew included George Olson who went on to build the Olson 30 and 40s, Don Snyder who was our winning navigator in '77, and Larry Wright who went on to be a serious Express 37 racer on San Francisco Bay. We had a great time, but unfortunately '71 was a slow year both for wind and for us.
TP: Of all your yacht designs, which one would you say is your favorite??
BL: Merlin of course. More people have had more fun sailing fast on Merlin than any other boat.
TP: Tell us about a historic turning point in racing across the Pacific.
BL: Certainly the most dramatic year for me was 1977. There were 5 first to finish contenders, two battlewagon maxis and three flyweights, Windward Passage, Kialoa III, Ragtime, Drifter and Merlin. We knew it would be good racing because in 1971 Windward Passage and Ragtime had finished within 5 minutes of each other. This was the battle between the old and the new. The heavy boats with big rigs vs the light boats with little rigs. All in the days of amateur crews, real food, Dacron sails, and celestial navigation for real. Tune in next time for more of the story.
TP: What words of wisdom would you provide for a "First Timer??
BL: Unless you are the owner, a first timer needs a crew slot on a boat. If you are really good, of course, you get an invite on a serious competitor. But what if you are a more recreational sailor looking for a great adventure? Ask around your yacht club. Maybe there is an owner who would like to go, but lacks crew, organization, new sails, energy to prepare the boat, and a team to get the boat back home. A group with varied skills can often help an owner. The handicapping system treats a wide range of boats fairly, so while a Cal 40 isn't a TP52, all have a chance to be competitive in the race.
TP: When you hit the dock in Honolulu. What's your preference, cold beer or Mai Tai?
BL: Mai Tai of course. But for serious Mai Tai connoisseurs, beware of MC4, a special formula which our hosts researched and prepared for us one year. Also be aware that for serious Mai Tai evaluation the least desirable finish time is 0600. You have been up all night, you hit the dock at 8AM and get started, but before you know it, the hot sun is beating down and the breeze has yet to fill. They taste so good, but halfway thru the second drink the men in white coats take you to your hotel in a wheel barrow.
TP: Thanks for your time Bill.
BL: My pleasure!
One owner never did finish the race. He never started. A. K. Barbee, owner of the Zoe H., arrived at the Los Angeles Yacht Club on Terminal Island at 2:00 P.M., July 4, two hours after the starting gun. There “surrounded by a mountain of personal luggage,” he sought the Race Committee’s permission to go after his boat. Permission granted, he took off across the channel in a chartered Harco 40. Search as they would, however, they couldn’t find the Zoe H. (In retrospect it seems likely that Zoe H. had already rounded the west end before the speed boat arrived in the area.)
Undaunted, Barbee went back to Avalon for the night. The next morning he chartered a sea plane, and set out again in hot pursuit. It is not clear how he proposed to transfer from an airplane to a boat. But this problem didn’t require a solution because the plane couldn’t even locate the fleet, let alone the Zoe H. (Here again it seems probable that the boats were hidden by the overcast which everyone experienced on July 5.)
In any event Barbee had to go to Honolulu by commercial carrier – by air or by sea, the records don’t say which. Neither do the accounts of the time give any solid information on why Barbee missed the boat. The kindest conclusion would appear to be that he “overslept.”
Excerpted from the Transpac history book 1906 – 1979
The Zoe H. arrived at Diamond Head light at 11:45 AM on July 22, the 24th finisher that year. Her final standing was 6th in her class, and 27th in the fleet. Perhaps Mr. Barbee was missed. Zoe H crew photo above courtesy of the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum. Mr Barbee presumably not present?
In 1977 the yacht Merlin, designed by Bill Lee, set an elapsed time record of 8 days, 11 hours, 1 minute and 45 seconds. This record would stand for 20 years. Ending Merlin's record, in the 1997 race Roy P. Disney sailing the familys Turbo'd Santa Cruz 70 Pyewacket finally broke the record by getting to Honolulu in 7 days, 15 hours, 24 minutes, and 40 seconds. Taking almost a day off Merlin's long lasting time.
In 1999 Roy E. Disney built a new Pyewacket, a 73 foot maxi ultralight designed by Reichel/Pugh. He then recaptured the record from his son with an elapsed time of 7 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes, and 27 seconds. The record fell once again in 2005, with Hasso Plattner's Morning Glory, a maxZ86 from Germany. Morning Glory was the scratch boat when it led a five-boat assault on the record for monohulls. She finished the race in 6 days, 16 hours, 4 minutes, and 11 seconds to win "the Barn Door" trophy, a slab of carved koa wood traditionally awarded to the monohull with the fastest elapsed time.
In the double-handed division, Pegasus 50, sailed by Philippe Kahn and Mark Christensen, set a new record of 7 days, 19 hours, 38 minutes and 35 seconds. They pioneered use of an iPhone, with Fullpower-MotionX GPS technology.
On July 7, 2009, Alfa Romeo II beat the Morning Glory record for best day's run set in the 2005 race, by sailing 399 nautical miles (459 mi; 739 km) in 24 hours. The next two days she broke her own best-day record by sailing 420 nautical miles (480 mi; 780 km) and 431 nautical miles (496 mi; 798 km). Also first to finish the 2009 Transpac, Alfa Romeo II set a Transpac race elapsed-time record of 5 days, 14 hours, 36 minutes, 20 seconds. However, because she must use "stored power" (a diesel engine) to move her controls, Alfa Romeo II, sailing in the "unlimited" class, was not eligible for the traditional "Barn Door" trophy, but instead was the inaugural winner of a new trophy dedicated by Trisha Steele, called the "Merlin Trophy". The new "Merlin Trophy" started a new tradition in Transpac awarded to the most advanced and radical boats allowed to race.
In 2017, multiple records were broken. Comanche set the new Merlin trophy elapsed time record at 5 days 01:55:26. Comanche also set the best 24 hour distance record at 484.1 nm, a new Transpac record, a 20.2 knot average speed. Mighty Merloe set the multihull elapsed time record at 4 days 06:32:30.
In 2008, Doug Baker, with his four-year-old Magnitude 80 speedster ripped about 3 1/2 days off Kathmandu's 1994 elapsed time record, sailing to Tahiti in 11 days 10 hours 13 minutes 18 seconds (average speed 13.0 knots). He said, "When you have a boat like this, any record is always your goal. It's an adventure, not just a race."
In 2007 the 44th Transpacific Yacht Race kicked off Transpac's second century: the longest of the two oldest ocean races in the world, which were first sailed in 1906. That was the year of the great San Francisco earthquake, which literally altered the course of the former event. Clarence MacFarlane of Honolulu invited West Coast sailors to race to the Hawaiian Islands from San Francisco, but the city's devastation forced the three entries to start from Los Angeles, as the race does today. The finish is off the Diamond Head lighthouse just east of Honolulu, establishing a distance of 2,225 nautical miles.
Sailing the Transpac stirs a variety of emotions and lifelong memories. For some it's the rush of danger, for others a beautiful adventure, and for many it's both. Russell Coutts, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time America's Cup winner, said after sailing on the record-setting Morning Glory in 2005: "This is one of the best offshore races I have done . . . very strategic for the navigators mixed with some fantastic downwind rides. Definitely a race not to be missed."
Race veteran Jon Andron: "The daytime's mellow, the night gets lively, sometimes scary. As Dennis Durgan once said, 'The last three days of the Transpac is like riding a derailed freight train through the tunnel of love.'"
Since 1949 the fastest in the fleet have traditionally competed for the unique Transpacific Yacht Club Perpetual Trophy---a 3 1/2 x 4-foot plaque of hand-carved Hawaiian koa wood---better known as the "Barn Door." Smaller boats unable to match the larger ones in sheer speed compete for a prize more reflective of crew performance: the King Kalakaua Trophy, a metallic model of a sailing canoe, for the best corrected handicap time.
Transpac stands apart from other major ocean races as essentially a "downwind race," as determined by normal weather patterns in the eastern Pacific north of the equator. After two or three days of slogging on the wind, the fleet encounters the "Pacific High," a mammoth, wallowing blob of high pressure rotating clockwise between Hawaii and the West Coast of North America. As boats reach the lower edge of the high the wind bends aft and turns warm spinnakers go up, shirts come off, and sailors usually enjoy a pleasant ride the rest of the way. But sailing directly into the Pacific High's light winds is competitive suicide.
With improved weather information following World War II, competitors were able to note the position of the High and chart their courses along its lower edge on a southerly loop, sailing farther but faster to Hawaii. Later they optimized their boats for downwind performance. The current monohull record holder is Morning Glory, a Reichel/Pugh-designed maxZ86 owned by industrial software magnate Hasso Plattner of Germany. His boat led the way in 2005 with an elapsed time of 6 days 19 hours 4 minutes 11 seconds, knocking 19 1/2 hours off the record set by the third of Roy E. Disney's Pyewackets in 1999. The former vice chairman of the board of the Walt Disney Co. was only 2 1/2 hours behind on his fourth Pyewacket, also a R/P maxZ86.
Windward Passage 1971
Disney then retired from racing after his 15th and final Transpac over 30 years. At 75, his age matched the number of entries, the second highest next to 80 in 1979. Multihulls have not played a major role in Transpac, but there is an official record set in 1997 by Frenchman Bruno Peyron's 86-foot catamaran, Explorer, with a time of 5 days 9 hours 18 minutes 26 seconds. Along with the boats, the soul of the race is evolving with modern times.
There have been all-woman crews, as well as in 1997 a crew composed entirely of men with HIV and AIDS who carried a message of hope on the horizon for a cure for the disease, and in 2003 and 2005 a team of disabled sailors representing Challenged America of San Diego competed well on equal terms. The Aloha class, suggested by the late Hugh Lamson, was introduced in 1997 to accommodate boats that while older and heavier or blessed with modern interior comforts ranging from air conditioning to big-screen TVs and freezers, still wanted to race to Hawaii.
Age hasn't mattered much. Crews have averaged as old as 68.17 (Bubala in 2005) or as young as 22.57 (Andron's Argonaut in 1969, sailing his father Mort's Cal 40). The crew included Jay Araujo, the 38-year-old navigator. Andron was 22, his brother Geoff 24. The others were Gary Weisman and Jimmy Smith, each 17; John MacCoshan, 18, and Bob Sanford, 22. Without Araujo, the average age was exactly 20. They won the King Kalakaua Trophy. Andron said, "We were convinced that it was impossible for anybody to beat us. We were kids and that was the attitude we had." Morning Light, the team that hopes to replace Argonaut as the youngest ever to sail Transpac, should have it so good. "I think they're gonna be terrific," Andron said. "It's a great idea." But first they should hear from some of the veterans so they'll know what they're getting into.
Morgan Larson, a world-class sailor in boats large and small, said, "There is no better feeling than surfing down the Molokai Channel towards the most famous finish of all the offshore races in the world. You pass Diamond Head under spinnaker, then pull into Waikiki and the big aloha welcome."
Dale Budlong offered a different impression: "Sometimes it's almost like sheer terror when all the instruments go out and you're in a squall in the middle of the night and you can't see anything and it's blowing probably 40 [knots] . . ."
Mark Johnson, reading from the log of his late father, Robert, on a race aboard Ticonderoga (affectionately known as "Big Ti") in 1965: "We turned down 1,000 miles from Honolulu, hoping to sail the edge of [a storm]. The wind built up to 50 knots, dead aft. We hit 20 knots plus. The crew were like maniacs, like dope addicts. Finally, the spinnaker exploded into confetti and the main ripped from leech to luff halfway up, and the madness was over."
Dave Ullman is reassuring: "You get used to sailing in 18-25 knots of wind, like it's nothing." John DeLaura, the fourth and most recent of "clean sweep" winners in 1993: "I always go back to the oceans. The sea doesn't scare me, even if it gets pretty rough out there"
Stephanie Baker was just a girl of 12 in 1957 when she sailed with her mother Martha, a single mom, and wrote in the ship's log: "In the morning there was lots of wind, but that was my favorite watch, when the sun comes up and the birds are flying." And then as Oliver Henrickson, a veteran of the 50s, said: "You can smell the island about a day before you get there. And it smells real good."
Gary Weisman, who sailed his first Transpac at 17 with Andron and his most recent in 2005 on Pyewacket: "The Transpac Race is the absolutely best way for a young person to spend the summer." An older person, too.