Thrills and Spills in the Hemingway Cup - SailNet Community

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Old 05-02-2000
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Dobbs Davis is on a distinguished road
Thrills and Spills in the Hemingway Cup


Zephyrus leaves the horizon behind.
Any long distance race on or around the east coast of the US will usually featurea wide variety of sailing conditions to challenge offshore sailors. Fast-moving weather systems, ocean and tidal currents, shoals, commercial traffic, and other hazards all make for a fascinating chess game of options for skippers, navigators, and crews. Because it's the longest race on the east coast, at 1,000 miles, the Storm Trysail Club's inaugural Key West to Baltimore Race for the Hemingway Cup featured all these challenges, along with a few more.

When introduced a year ago as the Havana-to-Baltimore Race, this event attracted tremendous attention from ocean racers—both from participants interested in having an opportunity to sample the forbidden fruit of Havana and non-participating zealots mired in the anti-Castro politics of South Florida. The impetus for the race came from several sources, with the primary goal being to help the city of Baltimore earn exposure for its annual Waterfront Festival. The finish of Leg Six of the Whitbread 'Round the World Race in 1998 drew thousands to the festival, and with the Volvo Ocean Race two years away, city officials were keen to have another sailing event become part of the festival. (The choice of starting venue also dovetailed with last year's exchange between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuban national baseball teams, so you'd think the tricky diplomatic issues would have been easier to resolve given this sort of precedent.)

By early January, over 25 yachts had expressed interest in doing the race, though a new factor arose to complicate the choice of starting venue—Elian Gonzalez. The huge uproar of publicity surrounding the fate of this small boy prevented the organizers from receiving the necessary licensing from the State Department and the Cuban government, so the Storm Trysail Club was forced to use an alternate starting point. To preserve the length and character of the race, they chose Key West, FL. Because of this change, participation waned from a fleet of 25 to only seven boats that were committed and ready for the Easter Sunday start.


The 1,000-mile club: Blue Yankee's crew (left to right), owner Bob Towse, navigator Jack Harvey (kneeling), watch captain Steve Benjamin, John Gunderson (kneeling), Pat Daly, tactician Dee Smith, boat captain Pete Pedleton, Farley Towse, JezFanstone, Ken Thompson, Ed Smythe, Lattimer Spinney, John Hayes, and ChrisMalloy.
The fleet was divided into two classes: Bob Towse's Reichel/Pugh 66 Blue Yankee, George Collins' modified Santa Cruz 70 turbo-sled Chessie Racing, Larry Bullman's Palmer-Johnson 77 Javelin, and Bob McNeil's Reichel/Pugh 74 turbo-sled Zephyrus making up one; and Jim Thompson's Swan 47 Ariel, Erling Kristiansen's Swan 56 Mensae, and Todd Amsdell's Frers 80 Volador comprising the other. What the fleet lacked in size it made up for in talent, as the top three contenders for first-to-finish honors—Blue Yankee, Chessie, and Zephyrus—bristled with winners of numerous Admirals Cups, America's Cups, Olympics, Whitbreads, and various world championships. And each entry also had its own performance forte. Blue Yankee would excel in an upwind race, Zephyrus would be good at reaching, while Chessie could be fast downwind.

The race started in light to non-existent air, with a weak current pushing the fleet eastward up the rhumbline. Chessie's brain trust misjudged this current and was called over the line at the start, allowing Blue Yankee to jump out to an early lead, followed by Zephyrus. Within a few frustrating hours of sailing and drifting in three to six knots of wind and huge windshifts, a light northeasterly finally filled and built to 10 knots,allowing Zephyrus to take her position in front as the fastest-rated boat in the race. A gradual veer to the southeast prompted the fleet to tack onto starboard on Sunday night, with jibs giving way to jib tops and eventually to spinnakers once the breeze built into the 15 to 20-knot range and swung around to the south.


A bird's-eye view of life on board Chessie.
The strategy at this point in the race was to find the strongest shafts of current in the Gulf Stream, while keeping in mind the veer that was forecast to continue around to the southwest. According to Zephyrus' weather router and co-navigator Bill Biewenga, typically the western side of the stream holds the strongest current flow, which presents a good argument against straying too far east. Despite that information, this is what Zephyrus appeared to do during the night, because at dawn the smaller and slightly slower Blue Yankee crossed ahead on starboard jibe. However, once all three race leaders settled onto port jibe, Zephyrus had used her larger size and speed to regain the lead by the following day's mandatory radio roll call at noon. Blue Yankee and Chessie followed several miles astern.

"The sleds' routing programs suggested their arrival there would coincide with northeast winds potentially reaching gale-force strength."
As the southerly freshened to 25 knots, both turbo-sleds came into their own, reeling off boat speeds in the teens, and with the favorable push from the stream, their progress over the bottom was approaching 20 knots. Zephyrus held her lead by virtue of her longer waterline, while Chessie managed to stay close by jibing on the shifts and taking advantage of having less wetted surface. As night fell, there was still little sign of the southwest shift, though the breeze was building to 30 knots and the boat speeds were routinely exceeding 20 knots. Ominous forecasts from shore indicated a dangerous squall line approaching eastern Georgia and north Florida, packing high winds, lightning, and hail. This was interpreted as the leading edge of an approaching cold front, which would be accompanied by a shift to the west and eventually northwest, changing the race from an exhilarating downwind slide to a potentially miserable weather slog around Cape Hatteras.

To make the picture even more interesting, this front was actually an extension of a developing low-pressure center off Cape Hatteras. The sleds' routing programs suggested their arrival there would coincide with northeast winds potentially reaching gale-force strength.

When the front arrived in the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, April 25, it announced itself with strobe-like lightning, pelting rain, and a fresh blast of colder air that reached nearly 50 knots. Through an enormous effort, Zephyrus' crew managed to get the boat's huge, full-battened mainsail reefed, but was caught offguard with the fractional spinnaker and staysail still flying. A high-speed, round-up broach broke the spinnaker pole and shredded the staysail, yet left the spinnaker unharmed, so the crew set to work clearing the damage and getting the jib top up. Blue Yankee's onboard radar helped identify the squall's approach, so Towse and his crew doused the spinnaker in time to avoid significant ruin to the rig or sails, though the spinnaker pole track and forward hatch were both damaged.

At dawn, Chessie lurked only a few miles astern of Zephyrus, so the teamson both boats continued to push hard despite the night's fury and the sustained 25 to 30-knot winds, which had now veered around to west-southwest. Mainsails were unreefed, jib tops were replaced with spinnakers once again, and the race to Cape Hatteras, now less than 200 miles away, was back on.

Then the drama really started. At roughly midday, a line of clouds accompanied an increase in breeze to 35 knots, with gusts approaching 40. On board Zephyrus, our crew left the kite up. Co-skipper John Bertrand explained why in a subsequent interview: "We were really under control, with no problems. Keith Kilpatrick and I were on both wheels, and even though we broke our second spinnaker pole from the load, the boat was handling just fine. We were making great time, hitting speeds in the high 20s, so we delayed dousing [the spinnaker] for about half an hour because we thought the squall would pass and the breeze would decrease again."

But it didn't. The breeze remained near 40 knots and the seas started to build from eight to 10 feet, so the crew doused the kite and put up the blast reacher for safety, still closing on Hatteras with 15 to 18 knots of boat speed.


Chessie kicks up her heels in better days during the last running of the Whitbread 'Round the World Race.
Looking astern, we could see that the crew aboard Chessie had also dropped their spinnaker, though they were too far away for us to see what headsail was set. Atabout 12:45 p.m., Chessie disappeared from view. We didn't know it at the time, but the turbo-sled's mast had broken suddenly just a few feet above the gooseneck. According to boat captain Rick Deppe, the crew quickly set to work severing the spar and its rigging with the help of an AC power tool, which ran off a voltage inverter in the boat's 12-volt DC system.

Only a few minutes later, disaster also struck aboard Zephyrus, in a somewhat more dramatic form. Without warning, the carbon-fiber mast section sheared off at deck level, hopped to leeward a few feet, and then plunged straight down through the deck. Fortunately, the section hit a countertop in the head, which slowed it sufficiently to prevent the mast from puncturing the hull. Once it stopped its damaging descent, the spar toppled to leeward over the side, but the piece within the boat continued demolishing everything in its path in a cloud of carbon-fiber dust as the boat rocked and rolled in the big seas. The crew quickly deployed knives, cutters, and center punches to sever the lines and hoses, along with all the standing rigging, in an effort to rid the boat of this 100-foot battering ram that was threatening the hull.

Ninety miles offshore, both our crew and the racers aboard Chessie radioed this predicament to race organizers and then proceeded to the closest port, which was Morehead City, NC. On board both boats the crews were exhausted, but fortunately unhurt.

What happened off Cape Hatteras left the first-to-finish honors wide open for Towse's Blue Yankee, which reported encountering rough seas on Wednesday as the system continued to throw its brisk northerly breezes against the north-bound current and swell. Several hours later, however, the crew was rewarded with a relatively placid 13-hour fetch up Chesapeake Bay, finishing in Baltimore's Inner Harbor at midday on Thursday, and completing the course in 95 hours to win the Hemingway Cup.

For the remaining four finishers, the race ended as it started, with light air making progress up the Bay difficult. Volador spent a painful seven hours inching across the final 20 miles from the Bay Bridge to the finish, and Ariel finished one minute after the prize-giving ceremony on Saturday night. According to Storm Trysail Club's Dick Neville, "This was actually great, because we were all able to cheer them on and give them a great welcome home."

The future of this race remains somewhat uncertain, not because of the rigors of the course or the attendant politics, but because its next edition would coincide with the Volvo Ocean Race. All of that notwithstanding, officials at the Storm Trysail Club feel encouraged by the interest and publicity this inaugural event generated, and they're confident they'll be able to run the race on a biennial basis.

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