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The 2017 Transpacific Yacht Race – “Normal” Weather Returns and Records Fall

For the 49th edition of the Transpacific YC’s biennial 2225-mile race from LA to Honolulu, “normal” weather conditions returned to the North Pacific course area after the previous two races having been affected by unusual patterns associated with El Nino. The compression of the three start dates into four days rather than six was also meant to minimize the impact of the fleet possibly racing in different conditions and thus introducing a possible bias on overall corrected time trophies such as the King Kalakaua Trophy.

Unlike the previous two races, this year’s race had all classes starting in the typical Transpac wind pattern: a westerly sea breeze to the West End of Catalina, followed by increasing breezes offshore and staying more or less at 15-20 knots the entire race. The fastest boats generally sailed in more breeze in proportion to the others since the breeze dropped slightly on the course after the first finishers in Divisions 1 and 3, hence their top finishes in the overall results.

It was this relative consistency in strength and direction that allowed this race to deliver what the past several races could not: new course records in both the monohull and multihull divisions. And the new record times set were significantly faster than the previous marks set in 2009 and in 1997, respectively, a testament to the vast increase in design and technology found among the latest generation of the world’s first-to-finish contenders in both categories.

HL Enloe’s ORMA 60 trimaran Mighty Merloe was the first to shatter a course record, crossing the finish at Diamond Head after only 4 days 6 hours 32 minutes 30 seconds of racing, over a day faster than the multihull record of 5 days 9 hours 18 minutes 26 seconds set by Bruno Peyron’s Commodore Explorer and held for 20 years. This remarkable time represented an average speed on the course of a blistering 21.7 knots.

And with a stripped-down boat and crew configured as light as possible just for Transpac, Jim Clark’s 100-foot Comanche led by skipper Ken Read also crushed the course record for monohulls, beating Alfa Romeo’s 2009 time of 5 days 14 hours 36 minutes 20 seconds by over half a day, setting an impressive new mark of 5 days 1 hour 55 minutes 26 seconds. This represents an average speed of 20.2 knots over the course, a pace that Comanche navigator Stan Honey said was “a remarkable feat for this amazing boat and its crew.”

Other remarkable feats of speed were seen in the finish times of the latest generation of Transpac 52’s, a class born in this race 16 years ago and this year finishing in just over 7 days – averaging in the low teens in boat speed over the course. Since its introduction in 2001, dozens of TP52’s have been built and raced all over the world, with steady development and refinements in design that have made these boats among the fastest for their size in the history of sailing. A recent re-birth of this class closer to its design roots is represented in the new Pac 52’s, a variation more versatile and offshore-friendly than the other TP52 class designs currently competing in day races in Europe.

Two boats in this new class competed in the 49th Transpac – Frank Slootman’s Invisible Hand and Tom Holthus’s Bad Pak – with these two being First and Second, respectively, in overall scoring. Hand’s elapsed time of 7 days 1 hour 20 minutes 10 seconds was the fastest on record of any boat under both 60 and 73 feet in length. Slootman’s 12-year old son Will was on board, one of the youngest crew members on any boat in this race, and an encouraging sign for the future health and interest in the Transpac.

And by getting a 2-day head start on these Division 1 boats and by sailing well in much the same solid breeze the faster boats had on the race course, Chris Hemans’s Rogers 46 Varuna in Division 3 took the final podium position in the overall results. Hemans’s team – which included his 14-year old daughter Gray - raced to an impressive elapsed time of 8 days 11 hours 26 minutes 49 seconds, a feat that earned them a course record for boats under 50 feet in length overall.

Another design class of boats inspired by Transpac are the Sleds of the 1980’s and ‘90’s, who are still being actively raced with a healthy 8-boat turnout in Division 2. Roy Pat Disney’s Andrews 68 Pyewacket won the class in corrected time, but the sentimental favorite was the boat that is often credited along with Ragtime to have started the genre of first-to-finish light weight offshore boats (ULDB’s): Bill and Lu Lee’s 67-foot Merlin. After an extensive renovation of the interior and a new keel - and with some of her original crew from her Transpac debut in 1977 - Lee and the Merlin team demonstrated that this breakthrough boat he designed and built 40 years ago can still be competitive, taking third place this year after her record-breaking debut…a record that stood for 20 years.

Other class winners were John Schulze’s Santa Cruz 50 Horizon, whose perennial streak of wins in Division 4 was only interrupted in 2015; Larry Andrews’s Summit 40 Locomotive, who was thrilled to win in his first-ever Transpac; a team of Canadians led by Christopher Lemke and Brad Lawson from Calgary, Alberta on their Hobie 33 Dark Star; and Rodney Pimentel’s Cal 40 Azure in Division 7, who was awarded time after performing a mid-ocean transfer of fuel to a Division 4 entry - Jay Spaulding's SC 52 Medusa – who called for help after discovering water in their fuel supply.

Another feature of the 2017 race was unfortunately similar to that of the 2013 and 2015 races: the amount of floating objects and debris encountered by racers on the course. Since the devastating tsunami in Japan in March 2011, millions of tons of debris had been washed into the North Pacific and distributed by winds and currents throughout the region. This merely added to this problem observed to be growing over decades of increased shipping and fishing traffic, with nearly every entry in the race encountering sightings or impacts.

The most notable example was an impact suffered midway in the race by Manouch Mashayedi’s Rio 100, the Division 1 fixed-keel Barn Door trophy contender who hit an object of sufficient size to break their port rudder and threaten to sink the boat from the resulting damage. The inventiveness and quick action of the crew not only secured the hole in the stern section of boat, but careful sail selections along with measured use of their emergency rudder in combination with the remaining starboard rudder allowed them to keep racing and still finish in time to claim the Barn Door prize once again with an elapsed time of 6 days 17 hours 9 minutes 9 seconds, just a little over 1 hour slower than the all-time Barn Door Trophy time set in 2009 by Hasso Plattner’s R/P maxZ86 Morning Glory, but the fastest of any monohull with a fixed keel.

For his efforts in effecting the critical repairs needed to keep Rio 100 in the race, crew member Jeff Massano won the Don Vaughn Award for the most valuable crewman on the first-to-finish monohull Barn Door Trophy winner.

There was only one retirement in this year’s race: Mark Dowdy’s SC 50 Hana Ho had engine troubles just a few days into the race and elected to return to the coast, with all safe aboard.

This 49th edition of the race was in all a great addition to Transpac history, and with the increasingly easier access of satellite tele-communications enabling written stories, photos and even videos from the race course, we expect the next 50th edition to be even more entertaining and exciting both for those participating and their loved ones ashore sharing in this oceanic adventure.