After three previous attempts at establishing a new transatlantic record, Steve Fossett's 125-foot PlayStation sailed into history in early October, crossing the pond in less than five days under sail. In the rarified world of speed sailing, especially in the realm of ocean crossings, it really isn't enough to simply establish a new record. You have to demolish the existing standards by an overwhelming margin to generate the notoriety that much of this brand of sailing appears to thrive upon. On October 10, that's exactly what Fossett and his fellow argonauts aboard PlayStation did, lopping an almost incredible 44 hours off the existing west-east record (New York to Cape Lizard). They not only obliterated the existing record—finishing the 2,925-mile course in a time of four days, 17 hours, 28 minutes, and six seconds—but they established a new mark for the most nautical miles covered by a sailboat in 24 hours—687.17!
To log that many miles in 24 hours—an impressive feat by any standard—the team had to average better than 28.5 knots of boat speed. The 125-foot catamaran's overall average for the crossing was 25.78 knots, which is almost three times faster than most sailboats normally travel. To better understand this phenomenal accomplishment, we tracked down PlayStation watch captain David Scully for an interview. The Charleston, SC-based Scully has been sailing with Fossett for nearly a decade and shares the credit in several of the latter's other sailing records [Fossett currently owns nearly a dozen outright records]. Scully is also a veteran of the 1994-95 BOC, so his insights are backed by strong credentials.
SailNet: Was the success of this trip simply a matter of the right weather pattern at the right time, or did any of the other changes that occurred between this and previous attempts (like lengthening the boat) also play a role in the success?
David Scully: The weather was certainly very important. And the fact that the boat is longer now means that we can power it up and sail faster and safer. There really weren't any other changes. We're still sailing on our original mainsail and one of the concerns was that the sail wouldn't make it. But the fact that the boat was well prepared and we were able to take advantage of this weather system, which evolved into a good system, were the most important factors.
In one previous attempt the weather dissipated and once before we were caught by the front. One of the elements at play in this game is that when you leave you don't really know what's going to happen. So you leave based upon a certain premise. You can predict weather with better than a 50-50 acccuracy 72 hours out. After that it's less than 50-50. A five-day record is beyond the knowable weather horizon. As it happens, our gates in this particular system were would it overwhelm the Azores high? Would it squash the high or would we have to contend with high pressure in the middle of the racecourse. The forecast told us it would be pretty clear for the first three days—just beyond Newfoundland—but after that it was unknown.
What ultimately happened was that the front actually flattened the high. The front was powerful enough to do that and it continued all the way to the finish line, which is unusual. Usually a front will make you look good for three or four days and then things start looking dubious.
SN: Did you have a feeling about this attempt, particularly after coming so close in previous trips?
DS: Not really. But it would have been really disappointing to miss the record this time.
SN: How would you compare this crossing to previous trips you've made?
DS: The modifications we've made to the boat allowed us to sail at over 30 knots for extended periods of time, comfortably. Before, when the boat was in its previous configuration with the shorter hulls, we were definitely pushing the edge of the comfort range at over 30 knots. Another change was that we were limited to people that could get to New York with 24 hours notice. There were certainly people on board this time who did not have as much time on the boat as some of the other people we had been sailing with. Brian Thompson and Mark Callahan [who've been integral in past attempts] weren't available for the trip. But we had enough knowledgeable crew on board to get one or two on each watch. And there wasn't an enormous amount of activity, like sail changes, etc. So we could cope with the tasks. The people who were on board were definitely good sailors. If you look at the polars and the boat speeds from this run, we were right up there relative to past performances, and the conditions were certainly helpful.
SN: What's different on board regarding the sails or any other significant gear that might have contributed to your success?
DS: I believe that the Cuben-fiber headsails we now have made a huge difference, especially the gennakers. We find that both of the ones we have are very fast sails.
SN: What was the watch-keeping system like for such an intense crossing?
DS: Actually, it wasn't an intense trip. This is a little subjective, I suppose, but though the boat was moving very quickly, the fact that the weather conditions were optimal and the boat was working well made this a smooth trip. Anyway, we basically split the watches up to put good drivers on each watch. And then we split up the less experienced sailors among both watches. There were quite a few on board that didn't have much experience on the boat. In fact David Weir had never been on the boat before we left New York.
|"There were quite a few on board that didn't have much experience on the boat. In fact David Weir had never been on PlayStation before we left New York."|
How does the onboard hierarchy work between Steve, Stan Honey [the navigator], and the watch captains like yourself? Who calls for a sail change or is it somewhat democratic?DS:
Steve always reserves final authority on decisions, but, for instance, if I felt that we should take a reef I'd run the idea by whomever is working the weather desk. One thing about this boat is that everything takes time. When were sailing it's obvious how we're performing relative to the weather front. The 20 minutes it takes to make a sail change will drop us back seven to 10 miles on the front, so you have to make those decisions very carefully. If I'm making the call for tucking in a reef, say, I'll have to make sure that the wind is actually increasing and that it's not just a puff that I'm reacting to. I'll check with Stan to see if the wind will be sustained or if we just need to drop the traveler and ride it out. On a boat like PlayStation
, you don't just snap in a reef. It's really somewhat of a last resort to make a sail change. You don't really do it on a whim. Forty minutes spent reefing and unreefing at 30 knots translates into 20 miles forfeited, and that's a lot of distance.
Also, when the frontal system is young, it's moving much more quickly than the boat. We started out about 270 miles ahead of the leading edge of the front that carried us across. The front gained 100 miles a day on us. As it got offshore from New York, it started to slow down and we could keep pace with it. We actually shoved off on just the first whisper of breeze from that front.
Do you remember any particular highlights from the five days?DS:
It's a depressing reality that when things go well they're usually not very exciting. It's the same in business as it is on the sea. When things go according to plan, there aren't that many stories to tell. It's only when things get screwed up that you've got stories for the bar.
My impression was that the navigation was spot on, the crew performed flawlessly, and nothing broke. According to Stan's log, the course we covered was actually 40 miles less than the established course length. We sailed less distance than the rhumb line. We were absolutely flat on the great circle route. The thing that is exceptional in my mind is that it was such a smooth trip.
|"According to Stan's log, the course we covered was actually 40 miles less than the established course length."|
SN: After the boat broke the 24-hour record, Steve was quoted as saying that you wanted to push even harder to run the miles up. Is that right?
DS: I mentioned to Steve at the time that we were on track for a 24-hour record, and I think he thought I was suggesting we alter course to maximize speed, but I just wanted to make sure that he was aware of our progress regarding the record. We might have made some changes to increase speed and it would have been nice to pick up those additional miles to get the record over 700, but none of us wanted to do so at the sacrifice of our real objective—the transatlantic record.
SN: Now that your team has accomplished this, what's the next step? Are there other records that Steve has in mind to tackle? Is he still keen on the Jules Verne record [nonstop around the world]?
DS: There won't be a Jules Verne attempt this year for PlayStation. That's definite. We'll be in Southampton in early November to do the Cowes–St. Malo record. While the crew is there we'll try to get the boat south to the Med. From there the Marseille-Alexandria record is something we might do and there are some other records in the Med that Steve is considering. Also, the Route du Discovery from Cadiz to San Salvador is a possibility. The boat will get a new mainsail and this year we'll shoot for some local records culminating with the Discovery Route. Other possibilities that have been mentioned are the Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro record.
We're also going to be interested to see what Olivier de Kersauson does with his new trimaran Geronimo
. It will be interesting to see what kind of speeds he can manage. Steve has already gone on record saying that a 750-mile day is possible, and maybe more.
SN: So what was learned in the process of this crossing, if anything?
DS: I would say that the thing that this crossing proved is that stability is no longer the limiting factor us. From here we'll start increasing the strength of our sails. The next sail inventory will be built for higher apparent winds so that we can push the boat even harder.
SN: What about on a personal level? What sort of sailing keeps you busy when you're not chasing records aboard PlayStation?
DS: Well, one change for me is that I'm not really sailing monohulls anymore. I'm racing my Hobie Cat [a 16] and I have a Nacra 6.0, and that's really what I do when I'm at home. I find those boats a lot more fun than a sit-in type boat.
Making it OfficialIn early November, the World Sailing Speed Record Council ratified PlayStation's two recent records, and issued this proclamation: "Playstation soundly smashed the 11-year west-to-east transatlantic record of Jet Services V, which was six days, 13 hours, and three minutes. From Ambrose Light Tower, New York harbor, to Lizard Point, southwest England (the established course of 96 years) the giant cat took 4d 17h 28m 6s.
"During the passage, she logged in full compliance with WSSRC checks, a 24-hour distance run of 687.17 nautical miles, 28.63 knots. The 24-hour period ended at 2200 UTC on 7th October. This beat Club Med's existing 655.13 miles….The new transatlantic speed is a way above other ocean records on the current list and comparable to that of ocean liners and even inshore sailing sprints, which only have to keep it up for half a kilometre!"
PlayStation's feat over the 2,925-mile course puts her in elite company since for almost a century attempts at besting the Atlantic under sail have have occupied the focus many superb sailors. Check out the following list, which is only a partial history:
Vessel Skipper Year LOA Time
Atlantic C. Barr 1905 185 feet 12d, 4h, 1m, 9s
Elf Acquitane I M. Pajot 1981 63 feet 9d, 10h, 6m, 34s
Jet Services II P. Morvan 1984 60 feet 8d, 16h, 36m
Fleury Michon P. Poupon 1987 72 feet 7d, 12h, 49m, 34s
Jet Services V S. Madec 1990 72 feet 6d, 13h, 3m, 32s
PlayStation S Fossett 2001 125 feet 4d, 17h, 28m, 6s
Shortly before this article was compiled, PlayStation established another new record, sailing around the Isle of Wight in 2 hours, 33, minutes, 55 seconds. For additional information, log on to www.fossettchallenge.com or www.sailspeedrecords.com.