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Original Issue

A rough ride to Honolulu

The 1959 Transpacific race impressed a noted Atlantic skipper with its severity. Here is his thrilling account

It is 4:55 p.m. July 4th, and Nam Sang lifts to the restless swells of the open Pacific. Abeam to leeward lies the tip of Santa Catalina Island, a plume of cloud drifting like smoke from the highest of the sere-brown hills. The spectator vessels which have followed this far salute us with a blast of horns and sirens, for it is also a moment of triumph as we round first in fleet. Astern, a long procession of receding white triangles stretches toward the California mainland, some already lost in the gathering haze of late afternoon.

As we slice past the offshore rocks the spectators drop away one by one to return to a snug harbor for the night. For us and our 40 competitors, there is only lonely ocean ahead, more than 2,000 miles of it to the finish off Honolulu. Nearest boat is Chubasco, a powerful yawl but sailing without a mizzen. Perhaps she found under the shore of Catalina the same williwaws which knocked Nam Sang down to bury the life rails as we passed, savage blasts of wind funneling through the valleys. Behind Chubasco are other vessels of our class—Jada, Skylark, Criterion—and well up among them the smaller Kialoa, which has gone magnificently since the start. Escapade and Good News are well back, while the monster of the fleet, Goodwill, towers among a group of sails difficult to identify.

It is hard for a newcomer to realize the great concentration of boats of all types based in the Los Angeles area—there are 5,000 by actual registration moored in Newport Harbor alone—and everything afloat seemed to have come to watch. Patrol craft darted and helicopters hovered, chivying strays back into the herd. At noon the cannon fired, and we were away as one class, big and little starting together.

As near as I could tell it was Chubasco and Criterion of the larger boats which got the start. As had been predicted, the wind was almost dead on the nose for the western end of Catalina. Most of the fleet short-tacked under the Point Fermin beach; Escapade, first to come out on starboard tack, seemed to be ahead when she tacked back, but suddenly from far inshore the 49-foot Kialoa of John Kilroy appeared to cross everyone, a masthead genoa drawing beautifully.

Gradually Nam Sang worked through the leaders, finally crossing on a long hitch to the Catalina shore as Sailing Master Ed Grant declared he knew a groove where the wind always blew—which it did, setting us on our ear in one williwaw. And now, as I finish this log entry before my first wheel trick, a veil of clouds is sliding in. Chubasco, only boat in sight, holds up to windward as Nam Sang reaches down on a southerly course. We of the crew sit along the weather rail like damp crows, in oilskins and heavy shirts. A lumpy sea rolls in from the west. Spray curls over the bow and spatters on deck. Occasionally the genoa scoops. San Clemente Island fades on the port quarter, our last sight of land.

Monday, 6 July, 8 a.m. Position: latitude 310°, 44 minutes north; longitude 119°, 29 minutes west. Run to 8 a.m. 155 miles.

We reached through the night first under genoa, then under balloon jib, then back to genoa, roaring along at better than eight knots. Coming on deck for watch at 3 a.m., before dawn, I wondered if I was in the wrong ocean—it was more like a transatlantic passage than my notion of a transpacific sail, with a chill damp creeping through thick clothes, reminiscent of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Yet my shipmates bid me be of good cheer. Sunshine and warm full breezes lie ahead. "Bucket baths on the foredeck on the fourth day," is the prediction. Pacific weather, apparently, plays by the script. Sitting almost athwart the great circle and rhumb-line courses, the shortest route to Honolulu, is the Pacific high, one of the world's dominant semipermanent pressure cells. To sailors it is as real and solid as a mountain of granite instead of atmosphere. It may move within fairly fixed limits either north or south, east or west, but down its slopes air flows clockwise in approximately a 15° spiral. The higher the pressure, the steeper the mountain and the harder the flow of wind. Unfortunately, however, in the center there is no wind at all, and woe betide the vessel which gets becalmed in the stagnant eye. As a rule of thumb, navigators try to stay at least 300 miles from the middle, a trick made difficult because the high not only moves capriciously but far faster than a sailing yacht can evade. Therefore the rhumb line is a dangerous gamble.

Ed Grant, veteran of five Transpac races, not only favors a southerly route—it paid off for Nam Sang in 1957 with a first in class—but believes in getting down without delay. Last night we steered 180°, despite a rhumb-line course of 239°. Thus, at the 8 a.m. roll call, Nam Sang was the most southerly yacht in the fleet. Our playmates of yesterday—Chubas-co, Good News, Criterion and Kialoa—are bunched some 30 miles nearer the rhumb line, while Escapade, holding even higher, is over 60 miles above our position.

Somehow I suddenly realize the vastness of the Pacific when a fleet can scatter so quickly after the start. And, more than in any other race I have sailed, I have the impression of the ocean being an immense chessboard, where individual pieces are moved in relation to the prognostications of the meteorologist and the positions of competitors as revealed by daily radio reports. In a sense, strategy can be more important than sheer speed through the water, equalizing the chances of all. It can be a thinking man's race—provided his crystal ball and rabbit's foot are also in good order.

Wednesday, 8 July, 4th day, 8 a.m. Latitude 27°, 49 minutes north; longitude 130°, 15 minutes west. Run to date 810 miles.

Somewhere along the line a seat-of-the-pants hunch told me this was going to be a tough race, and things are shaping up that way. In fact, with barely a third of the distance sailed, Nam Sang is a badly crippled ship, and things could get worse.

The spinnaker work started on Monday at 7:10 in the morning, a somber gray day of low rolling clouds and misting rain, when we set the new No. 4. Ed Grant decided he liked the old No. 3 better, so we changed. Within minutes it blew out, and up again went No. 4. It lasted until shortly before dawn yesterday, when the seizing of the head swivel parted. The heavy No. 2 was broken out while repairs were effected, and since then we have made a couple of other switches for patching. Now this morning comes a bad wrap, cleared only when Frank Atkinson was hoisted to the top of the 74-foot mast to slide down the headstay, unwrapping with one hand while holding on with the other, a real feat in a following sea.

Then at 3 o'clock this afternoon we of the watch below were turned out. There had been a sharp ping from under the binnacle, and it was discovered that all three arms of the bronze rudder quadrant were cracked nearly through. Before the boat went completely out of control an emergency tiller was fitted—a long curved pipe extending the length of the cockpit. Nam Sang suddenly ceased being a lady. Two men wrestling together at the helm could barely keep her on the straight and narrow. While a task force of engineers headed by Chuck Sherrill removed the quadrant and consulted, the rest of us sweated on the tiller in 15-minute shifts. Finally it was decided to construct triangular braces from the flukes of a high-tensile steel Danforth anchor, and so through the afternoon and into the night under floodlights electric drills whirred and hacksaw blades disintegrated as braces were fashioned and fitted. Another real feat, which few crews I have sailed with could have accomplished.

To keep the deck force amused, about 7:30 the head swivel again pulled out of the No. 4 spinnaker. Again the sail was retrieved without serious damage, and the No. 2 set. Shortly after, a shift of wind dictated a jibe. A nasty cross-sea then made it impossible to steer except by switching to a balloon jib.

At midnight, with prayers, the quadrant was fitted. Gingerly, wheel steering was restored, and soon a spinnaker was set. All seems well now, but for the rest of the passage we will have to pamper the helm, which will be difficult if wind and sea increase, as seems likely. But anything is better than steering with the "wagon tongue," as Bill Halpenny, our hard-driving port watch captain, dubbed the emergency tiller. He can bring us into line by the mere threat.

Yesterday the weather map showed the high-pressure cell squeezed into the shape of a gigantic hot dog by a low to the north. Today the high has been split into two parts, one cell over Hawaii, the other near the California coast. In 1957 a similar situation resulted in light fluky conditions. This time there continues to be wind aplenty, now with a southerly component in it.

The fleet has spread amazingly. Far ahead Goodwill and the 46-foot catamaran Aikane, an unofficial competitor as the race is open only to single-hulled yachts, are battling for the lead near longitude 133. Astern the schooner Corahleen, trapped the first night in a Catalina calm, brings up the rear with a reported position of 123°. With Escapade far to the north and the Australian Anitra V to the south, there are boats scattered over an ellipse of ocean 200 miles deep and 500 long.

Without radio contact there would be little feeling of a contest. Yet by knowing that Chubasco and Criterion are not too far over the horizon ahead, we are racing them rather than the impersonal hands of a clock.

This morning I worked with Navigator Bernie Palm on the daily Trans-pac radio routine. First, the Coast Guard escort Dexter broadcasts coded weather data from which a map can be constructed, showing the location and intensity of highs and lows, the character and progress of fronts and the lines of equal barometric pressure, called isobars, along which wind flows. Afterward a roll call is held by the Dexter in which the fleet reports position and weather conditions. Thus, every day every skipper has information to prepare his own forecast of wind strength and direction, and knows the position—granting occasional lapses by error or intent—of his rivals. Having now experienced the excitement and the feeling of mutual assistance possible through use of the radio telephone, I'm loth to go back to the Atlantic system forbidding transmission except in emergency.

Friday, 10 July, 6th day. Latitude 26°, 42 minutes north; longitude 137°, 9 minutes west. Distance run 1,205 miles.

Out of luck and out of spinnakers. This morning witnessed the demise of three chutes in succession after Chuck commented last night, "We're pacing ourselves well—halfway and three spinnakers to go."

The No. 4 expired before daylight when, because of babying the quadrant, Nam Sang went partially out of control, tobogganing down a steep sea. The spinnaker collapsed and refilled with a bang. The No. 2 got away from the foredeck crew when being lowered to clear a fouled line aloft and split being towed alongside. The No. 1, an old sail, simply disintegrated as soon as set.

To me repair of any seemed impossible. Nonetheless, the main cabin was transformed into a sailmaker's loft. Stony Eyestone lay on his stomach across the table, feeding acres of cloth into a sewing machine as Bruce Hutchins stitched. Others helped. Lunch was served on deck, and by 8 p.m. the No. 2 chute was again aloft, complete with reet pleats and a drape shape. "I wrote my initials following the tear," says Bruce, but it is a good strong job and setting well. Again Nam Sang is moving at somewhere near maximum efficiency. Nobody has stopped racing for a minute. Once again I am impressed by the ability of West Coast yachtsmen to make do and keep moving.

Monday, 13 July, 9th day. Latitude 23°, 41 minutes north; longitude 148°, 33 minutes west. Distance run 1,840 miles.

Glorious! Since Saturday tropic trade winds sailing, real flying-fish weather, with deep-blue seas rolling up astern, a deep-blue sky above and the bursting wave crests as white as the puffy cumulus clouds. The sun is hot on bare shoulders, and a warm moon lights the way by night. Never have I experienced more wonderful sustained conditions.

We are going downhill in the best sense. Nam Sang lifts as each sea slides under the counter, poises for a moment, then shoots ahead like a surfboard, speed indicator jumping and bow wave flung high. Rhythmically we roll, and each plunge takes us nearer Diamond Head. This is Pacific sailing as I had imagined it, and it is wonderful, a real sleigh ride.

Yet certainly it is not easy. Goodwill on Friday lost her main topmast when a heavy backstay hook of forged steel straightened out. Reporting herself a ketch, she can no longer carry her enormous gollywobbler and main-topsail, and her assault on the Morning Star record of 9 days 15 hours five minutes 10 seconds, set in 1955, is now doomed, a bad break for Owner Ralph Larrabee and Sailing Master Don Douglas Jr., who worked hard improving the king-size vessel. And, even worse, the 45-foot yawl Cloud Nine of Class C is totally dismasted, losing her entire rig at the deck. She is being towed by the Dexter.

Other casualties will undoubtedly be reported. Never have I seen a more consistently confused sea, with wild little strangers from afar always running across the wind-generated waves. Steering is undoubtedly difficult for everyone. And there is sustained pressure aloft. So far we have encountered no really vicious squalls. Those, according to report, still lie ahead. And the legend of the Molokai Channel grows rather than diminishes as we near.

We feel we are not out of the race by any means, although the quadrant is a constant mental hazard. Periodic inspection and several hundred miles of use indicated all is well, but we cannot be sure. Whenever the wind freshens and the sea builds beyond a certain point, wooden slides are put in the main cabin and after-deckhouse companion ways to prevent flooding below in the event of a knockdown following steering-gear failure. Nor do we dare meet the surges with full rudder.

Criterion crossed us Saturday. Chubasco now has opened a lead of almost 100 miles, and Constellation is not far behind. Goodwill is taking a flyer far to the south, but still seems likely to finish first. Skylark, rated on handicap at the bottom of Class B with 24 hours' allowance on Chubasco, looks in a very strong position for both class and fleet. Nalu II, which won Class C in 1955 and 1957 and knocked on the door as over-all winner with a third and second in fleet the same years, again will be at or near the top if the breeze holds. Kialoa still seems within striking distance on corrected time. Of the smaller boats it is difficult to say. Yet it appears to me, on the basis of strong fair winds over most of the course, that the race should go to a hard-driven low-rated boat in Class C or D.

Wednesday, 15 July, 11th day. Latitude 21°, 52 minutes north; longitude 156°, 33 minutes west. Distance run 2,281 miles.

It is noon, and Molokai Island lies to port, a storybook landfall with Oahu and the finish only hours away.

Since my last entry we have had two hectic days. Low gray overcast patterned by ragged squall clouds blotted out the sun and tropic feel on Monday, while wind and sea built. By dark the starboard watch was having a wild and hairy ride, with wave crests lifting above the transom, and the shoots prolonged and difficult to manage. At 10 p.m. we of the port watch were turned out to help retrieve our precious spinnaker. The Swedish hook of the lazy sheet had flipped clear of its mate—the third of the passage to let go—and the sheet to the end of the main boom had been cast off, so the sail was fluttering like an enormous flag ahead of the pole, held by the tack. Finally getting it down, a genoa was set flying in its place.

There being little time remaining before our own watch began, we stayed on deck until watches again changed at 3 a.m. Thankfully I crawled into my dear snug sack, the port upper in the after stateroom, to be awakened exactly an hour later by a large segment of the Pacific Ocean coming into the bunk with me. An unusually heavy lurch had buried the starboard deck to the lower lifeline, and the return roll had neatly decanted a solid wall of water through the skylight. Funny as hell to my watchmates—characters with unmatched senses of humor!

Fresh winds and even fresher squalls held until almost noon Tuesday, when a more regular pattern to the seas permitted the setting of a spinnaker. Since then conditions have steadily improved, despite occasional anxious moments wondering just how much punch the overtaking squalls might be carrying.

The captain's dinner last night was a gay event. Champagne was broken out on deck, and we toasted Bob Robbs, skipper of Nam Sang, the most cheerful owner to ever watch a wrecking crew disintegrate gear. Never on any passage have I laughed so much or so much sailed for fun. Every disaster had its lighter side and brought forth the appropriate comment, including Chuck Sherrill's radio report of our major troubles: "This is the Mechanized Marvel signing off." And part of the happy ship stems from the galley, where Elaine Grant and Les Bartlett have produced superb meals, hot and on time. Last night, 10 days out, we dined on Dungeness crab cocktail, prime ribs of beef with all the trimmings and plum pudding with hard sauce. Another feat, for 17 in a very hungry crew.

Once again I am impressed with the dedication of ocean racers. Far from the gallery, applause or any tangible reward, every man—and woman—worked to exhaustion and beyond, purely for personal satisfaction. As Ben Collins said a couple of days ago, "You couldn't pay people to do this." Regardless of individual compulsion, offshore sailors meet on a common ground, and I have felt myself fortunate in sailing with a few and getting to know others of the Pacific. A king-size ocean, all the way round.

We boil along on the homestretch with clear skies and sparkling water, while Oahu lifts above the horizon. Nam Sang is entering the storied Molokai Channel—and I find, according to official definition, there is no such thing, the passage between Molokai and Oahu being labeled Kaiwai Channel on the chart. But it will remain the Molokai in my memory, as it does to all Transpac sailors, a final hurdle which greets us with cresting seas and fresher wind. Nam Sang rolls deeply each way, windward and leeward, and the final spinnaker jibe will be anxious. Yet after 2,000 miles it is only more sailing, a final exhilarating sleigh ride.

Now Diamond Head is clear, and there is the buoy which marks the finish. Small boats are coming toward us. We look curiously toward the land. For us the race is over. Despite our disasters, we have finished well—third in Class B on elapsed and corrected time, we later learn—and we can feel that the dizzy whirl of welcomes which now begins is well deserved.


AUTHOR MITCHELL as a crewman aboard Nam Sang, found the Pacific fierce foe.