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Ocean Challenge Live

Bill Biewenga (left) and Rich Wilson put the 53-foot trimaran Great American II through its paces.

You may not have heard about Ocean Challenge Live, but as the next several weeks unfold, it’s likely that this adventure will stray across your radar screen. Rich Wilson and Bill Biewenga are two names that will no doubt ring with faint familiarity for most sailors. In 1993, the duo set a speed-sailing record aboard Wilson’s 53-foot trimaran Great American II, dashing from San Francisco to New York around Cape Horn in 69 days 20 hours days. Now, they’re taking aim at another ocean-racing record—New York to Melbourne, Australia.

The thrust of their 14,000-mile voyage, explains professional sailor and weather router Biewenga, who is also an occasional SailNet contributor, is to offer enhanced educational opportunities for a multitude of students students who will be following Great American II’s progress over the next two and a half months and using a curriculum expressly designed around different aspects of the voyage. After the duo’s exploits in ’93, Wilson founded SitesAlive.com, a non-profit organization that creates and supports ocean-based learning opportunities for students in the US. (You can log on to the organization’s website to follow Biewenga and Wilson’s progress—www.sitesalive.com.)

Wilson and Biewenga hope to make landfall in Melbourne in less than 70 days. To beat the existing record, set 150 years ago by the clipper ship Mandarin, the two will actually need to arrive in less than 69 days and 14 hours. According to Wilson’s calculations, their trimaran will need to maintain an average of eight and a half knots to accomplish that, or roughly 202 miles per day.

Along with the camper-sized cabin, the cockpit will be the duo's home for almost 70 days.

The crew of Great American II plan to get underway midday Wednesday September 19. With the boat berthed at the Chelsea Piers where emergency workers had set up a care center for victims of the World Trade Center towers tragedy, Biewenga and Wilson had temporarily shifted their focus from their impending voyage to helping victims in the wake of the tragedy. "We volunteered to help," explained Biewenga two days after the terrorist attacks, "but unfortunately too few of the victims could be found. It’s really been devastating to people here." He said they hoped to depart when the time was right relative to the situation in New York.

To get a better understanding of some of the preparations that Biewenga and Wilson had made for this demanding voyage, SailNet checked in with them just prior to the duo’s departure:

SailNet: Have you made any structural changes to the boat given that you’ll be heading against the prevailing winds and currents once you get down in the region of Cape Horn?

Bill Biewenga: No, not really. Rich had some work done a few years ago to shorten the akas and bring the boat back closer to its originally designed beam measurement. That improves its upwind ability. Other than that, we’ve added some electronics, but it’s pretty much in the same configuration it was for our 1993 trip.

SN: How old is this boat?

BB: It was designed by Nigel Irens and built in 1990 for Pascal Herold. It originally sailed as Dupon Duran. It's still a very competitive boat, in fact we use a self-imposed speed limit of 17 knots to keep the risk of catastrophic equipment failure to a minimum.

Biewenga says they'll use their one spinnaker sparingly as it has been with the boat for the better part of a decade.
Warmth is obviously going to be a factor in the southern latitudes, so what will you be using for clothing once you get into that region?

BB: Fortunately, we’ve had a lot of our clothing supplied by Team One Newport. We’ll be wearing Henri Lloyd’s Ocean Racer gear on top of several layers of Patagonia inner wear, and we’ll have Le Chameaux boots on.

SN: What about when you’re on deck. What sort of safety harnesses will you wear and how will you use them?

BB: The Henri Lloyd jackets have harnesses that are integral, but I always prefer to wear a harness outside my gear, so I’ll also snap into the Lirakis harness that I always use. It’s fairly standard gear, but this time I’ve got it rigged with two separate tethers. We pretty much use harnesses all the time.

SN: What about strobe lights or other personal lights?

BB: We use lights with beams that are LED-generated because they’re brighter and they draw less battery power. I use a conventional halogen headlamp for working on deck at night, but Rich has an LED headamp, which is pretty nice.

SN: Can you tell us about the EPIRBs you have on board?

BB: We’ll have 406 GPIRB from Payne and Wessex, which also emits a lat and lon coordinate, and as a back up we have the original French unit that we used in ’93.

SN: What about the communications systems you have on board? What gear will you use for that?

"Rich has customized the set-up and we may be the only people in the use with Iridium phones that can send and receive data."

BB: We’re outfitted with two different Iridium systems, one with a Sailor phone and one with Motorola unit. Both of these are capable of sending voice and data. Rich has customized the set up, and we may be the people in the US with Iridium phones that can send and receive data. We also have two Standard C units that are manufactured by Thrane and Thrane. One is new and the other is an original that was also used on Great American II for our 1993 trip. Aside from that we also carry an ICOM M600 SSB radio and we have one hard-mounted and one handheld VHF.

SN: Do you plan to hand-steer the vessel very much, or will you make use of auto pilots?

BB: We’ll be pretty reliant upon our autopilots, but it depends upon the conditions. We have two separately mounted Robertson autopilots, one brand new AP30 and one older AP300 model. The latter is actually the one we used in 1993. It worked for 15,000 miles last time, so we’re confident it will work well again. They’re both very good pilots. I swear by them.

SN: What about your sail inventory? What will you have on board for a 15,000-mile trip where a lot of it might be upwind?

BB: First, we’ve got a new mainsail with three reef points built into it. We also have a new furling genoa that’s set on a Profurl unit, and we have a staysail that’s also set on a Profurl system. We have the ability to use the staysail as a storm jib. We have a reacher that sets off a halyard with an integral furling system, and we’ll also carry the original spinnaker from our trip in 1993, but we don’t plan to use that too often. Of course we carry a healthy amount of sail repair materials.

Great American II's principal source for generating electrical power mounts readily on the after pulpit.
How are you approaching the electrical power question?

BB: We’ll have three main sources of electrical power on board. It may surprise some sailors, but our primary source is a wind generator, of which we have two; they’re both AirMarine units. Either one of those will provide all the power that we will need. These are very efficient, and they’re really one of the bright spots in all of the electronic gear that we have on board. We also have an engine—not a generator—a 40 horse marine diesel with enough fuel, and we can use it to generate power. We also have two solar panels that are mounted on the coach roof.

SN: So it appears that you’re pretty set to go, right?

BB: Yes, pretty much. We’re going to have to adjust our departure date because of what happened here on Tuesday. We want to do the right thing and be respectful of all the people who were involved and touched by the tragedy at the World Trade Center. We’d rather not have folks look at us and say there go two insensitive sailing nuts. But all of this adversity that’s taken place here has sharpened my focus and my resolve and I know that Rich feels the same way. What we’re doing is a sailing event, sure, but the focus is education. We want to help school kids understand geography, oceanography, and the broader global picture. We’ve just had a terrorist attack here, something that thrives on ignorance and hatred, and it has just deepend our resolve to go out and do this. We’re saddened by what has happened here and we have strong respect for the rescue workers and sympathy for the victims, but everyone has to move forward ultimately. We want to help people look positively at what can be done in the world and hopefully our project will convey that message.

Suggested Reading:

Southern Ocean Routing for the Race by Bill Biewenga

Avoiding and Surviving Rig Failures by John Kretschmer

Performance Basics for Routing by Michael Carr


Buying Guide: Chartplotters

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