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.
The Transpac Race 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.
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.