Team Van Dyke in the maw of the beast off fabled Cape Hatteras.
Sitting on a balcony overlooking the shimmering Atlantic Ocean in Virginia Beach, VA, a weary Mike Worrell tries to explain his eponymous race as best he can. With remarks that appear patented for the media, he compares it to the Tour de France and the Whitbread Round the World Race. Then he describes the physical abuse and fear that the competitors face, trying to impart to his listener a sense of the drama that he sees in this epic battle with nature. But, when asked why he started this affair back in 1976, he pauses and deliberates. "To me it's the personal challenge of doing something that puts you in danger, where only your wits and ability to deal with your surroundings can assure your safety. Then overlay top competition and you've got an extreme sporting event," he says.
Like a nautical steeplechase, the Worrell 1000 is a 12-stage distance race that starts in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and bolts up the coast to finish in Virginia Beach, VA. The legs range from 60 to 121 miles in length, and, depending on the wind, can take from three to 18 hours to complete. The race is staged aboard two-person beach catamarans, which for this year's competition were Inter 20s. These 20-foot, twin trapeze cats can easily exceed 25 mph, and according to some competitors this year, they possess an alarming predilection to capsize.
Close finishes are becoming a hallmark in the Worrell 1000. Here the Dutch team hit the beach on one of the early legs.
Like most exacting offshore events, the Worrell 1000 requires multi-talented competitors: Worrell racers must be able to read a GPS while contending with incessant and blinding spray. They must be well skilled in heavy weather seamanship, and be able to sail a beach cat well in a wide variety of conditions. A steady hand with a tool is mandatory, but above all, a would-be winner must be comfortable guiding the small fiberglass craft through giant surf to a soft landing on a sandy beach. Sounds easy, right?
This year the Worrell 1000 began in perfect sailing conditions. The fleet broke records for elapsed time on three of the early legs and unruly weather was nowhere to be seen. Neophyte Worrell sailors wondered what the fuss was about. But they got an abrupt reality check by Leg Five when the night racing began.
The Worrell has become famous for lulling competitors into a false sense of security during its early legs. Daytime reaching up the Florida coast in moderate breezes is quite pleasant, but the race turns ornery at the Georgia border. This year, the second night leg from Isle of Palms, SC, to Myrtle Beach exposed the beast for what it is. Twelve hours into that leg, the erstwhile light winds disappeared, giving way to a northwest blaster that spun in at 35 knots, punishing teams that had ranged offshore looking for wind.
On board Pyacht, Whitbread veterans Tom Weaver and Richard Deppe had drifted 10 miles out looking for breeze when the new wind filled. They capsized in a large gust and found that they couldn't right the boat without cutting the main halyard to pull the mainsail down. This meant that they had to sail 10 miles upwind with just a jib. After a frustrating slog ashore, they pulled up on the sand 14 miles south of Myrtle Beach and flipped the boat to reconnect their halyard lock. Just as they got sailing again Deppe noticed that the huge waves had badly torqued their boat, causing the rear beam to begin disconnecting from the starboard hull. They were forced ashore again to lash the hull to the beam and then limped home to the finish. Pyacht finished just after noon for an elapsed time of more than 18 hours. Weaver and Deppe were so exhausted, it was a struggle for them to unlace their shoes.
While the human drama of survival in difficult ocean conditions is a constant theme of the Worrell 1000—continually reinforced by vignettes like Pyacht's ordeal—there is also a sailboat race going on. The best-prepared, most-experienced teams are actually racing for 1,000 miles at a very competitive level. This year, Randy Smyth and Matt Struble aboard Blockade Runner Resorts set the bar high for all their fellow competitors.
To the victors go the spoils, and the interviews—Randy Smyth and Matt Struble entertain the media.
Smyth, a two-time Olympic medalist, has more than 50 National, Continental, and World Championships to his credit. He has won the Worrell 1000 five times with four different crews. And Struble, the current Inter 20 National Champion and an accomplished iceboat racer, is no slouch either. This duo was pushed all the way up the coast by three excellent teams: Gerard Loos of Zandvoort, Holland, and his crew Mischa Heemskerk of The Hague, Brett Dryland of Airlie Beach, Australia, and his teammate Rod Waterhouse of Sydney, Australia, and Floridians Brian Lambert and Jamie Livingston.
To no one's surprise, Smyth won the first two legs, but Loos and Heemskerk took the honors on Leg Three by 18 minutes and held their overall lead until Leg Five when they strayed from the pack on the way to Tybee Island. From there to the Virginia Beach finish, the Aussies aboard Rudee's Restaurant became Smyth's closest rivals. Looking back, it's clear that the race was really determined on the 80-mile night leg from Tybee Island, GA, to the Isle of Palms, SC, when Dryland and Waterhouse flipped and broke their centerboard, losing a total of 30 minutes to Smyth, which they never recovered.
Smyth and Struble sailed a flawless race. They used excellent speed, conservative tactics, and methodical preparation to slowly pull away from the pack. The result was few breakdowns and a pile of individual leg victories. For the final two legs, Smyth was content to shadow Dryland and Waterhouse, earning his fifth consecutive victory for a total of six Worrell 1000 wins.
Founder and organizer Mike Worrell at his "office."
What will it take to beat Smyth? William Sunnucks of Essex, England, thinks it will take a determined effort, "You need to spend six months two-boat tuning with someone fast so you can be consistently quick in all conditions, then you have to have the balls to stick to the beach the whole way like he does."
The Worrell 1000 experience boils down to different things for different people. For some it's a test of endurance and survival, for others it's a sailboat race to the finish. Smyth thinks that as the sailors improve, the race will change: "In the early races in the '70s, it was all about man versus the world. Now it's about how fast we can go and still survive."
Along with the evolution that Smyth implies comes a certain maturity. After 18 editions, the race has become a fixture on the sailing calendar, albeit more fringe than mainstream. But this year more people followed the race than ever before, both through regional newspapers along the route and via the Internet. And having two strong presenting sponsors in J.D. Edwards and Pincus has given the event new promotional muscle. The outlook for the future is strong, and Worrell has already begun to work on next year's race. His notebook is full of improvements that he hopes to make to give the race renewed momentum. So far, competitors are crawling out of the woodwork and sponsors are beginning to take notice which is fitting because this race deserves the attention. Of course, this race is not for everyone. But if you feel like you've rounded enough buoys and you're looking for a new challenge, The Worrell 1000 will always be waiting.