For Chris Welsh a victory, for Doug Baker a record, and both accomplished what they set out to do in the Transpacific Yacht Club's 13th Tahiti Race.
“First overall on our bucket is pretty neat,” said Welsh, reflecting on the hard-earned handicap honors his 44-year-old classic wooden ocean racer Ragtime achieved to earn engraved immortality on the Fritz Overton Perpetual Trophy at the Tahiti Yacht Club.
And Baker, whose four-year-old Magnitude 80 speedster ripped about 3 1/2 days off Kathmandu's 1994 elapsed time record in 11 days 10 hours 13 minutes 18 seconds (average speed 13.0 knots), said, “When you have a boat like this, any record is always your goal.”
But Baker also said, “It's an adventure, not just a race.”
According to organizers and all who participated after a 14-year hiatus, the event was not at all diminished by having a fleet of only four boats—-and, in fact, enhanced immensely by the hospitality of their Tahitian hosts at the finish.
“They couldn't have done better for us,” race chairman Dave Cort said.
So much so that the TPYC directors voted this week to do it again in 2012.
The memories will forever warm the souls of the 37 who sailed the 3,571 nautical miles to French Polynesia, defeating the Doldrums, crossing the equator, dealing with breeze sometimes big, often baffling, suffering drenching rain and dark nights but also marveling at dazzling constellations of stars from the Big Dipper to the Southern Cross, fore and aft.
Mag 80 got the record—-no surprise there—-but the other three boats took well-deserved bows. Boat for boat, Ragtime and Bob Lane's 17-year-old Andrews 63, Medicine Man—-both significantly modified from their original forms—-also beat the record. Jim Morgan's much smaller, 26-year-old Santa Cruz 50, Fortaleza, corrected out second overall to Ragtime and logged the race's sixth best elapsed time ever (16:15:36:50), faster than all but Kathmandu and Sorcery in their two-boat race in '94.
“We had a great fleet,” Baker said. “There were only four boats but they all finished, and in a race like that you could easily have a problem, so there's a lot to be said for all of them, especially Ragtime.”
Indeed, Ragtime had a boatload of problems, including a worrisome wobbly keel to a torn main sail—-blown-out sails were common among the fleet—-to a ruptured gooseneck to a disabled engine, which cost them power for their electronics until they strapped a small, noisy auxiliary motor to a grinder post. It all created a challenge for an eight-person crew consisting entirely of Pollywog rookies, who included Genny Tulloch, 23, of Morning Light distinction and perhaps the race's youngest participant ever, Daniel Caponetto, 16.
“I was very happy with the crew's performance,” Welsh said, “because where the breakdowns get you is in the morale of the crew. Everybody held up very well and worked well together to get things taken care of. We lost a quarter-knot of speed the whole time [the main sail] was down. Genny is a very strong driver and dedicated to the effort, and tireless, and at [Daniel's] age it's unusual to have the patience and the drive and stamina to make it all the way through. I think being immersed in an older crowd brought his game up.”
Caponetto, recruited only a week before departure, had sailed on Ragtime twice before—-about 3,500 miles before, on deliveries back from Hawaii last summer and from San Francisco to Long Beach.
“That was part of my confidence in him,” Welsh said.
Welsh had recently installed a modern fin-and-bulb keel on the boat, and on the second day out Mark Ivey was startled to feel a small stream of water squirting up on him as he emerged from his bunk. Two keel bolts had worked loose and pushed up through the deck.
“You could feel [the keel] move with your hand,” Welsh said. “It wasn't a leak, per se, but it would squirt when there was a lot of pressure when we were heeling.”
He managed to secure it somewhat from inside and informed race headquarters of the problem but requested it be kept confidential so as not to worry the folks at home. Fortaleza, the nearest boat about a day away, also was alerted, just in case.
A few days later Ragtime sailed thought the middle of tropical storm Boris and found winds up to 37 knots.
Then, Welsh said, “We went through the eye where the winds were 15 knots in about 2 1/2 hours.”
Their main tore apart near the top 106 miles from the finish; they patched it back together with sheets of Stickyback.
And still they were racing. The four boats were diverse in design and performance, but it was a contest to see if Mag 80 could cover the handicap time it owed its rivals.
Welsh said, “I just wonder what would have happened if they'd chosen our route. When we made that first jibe [south into the Doldrums] we were the breakout boat. That's what paid off for us. They were far west of us, but when we were going south we were matching them on latitude mile by mile. For a while they were in lighter breeze so we actually had a few six-hour runs where we put miles on them.”
Last summer Ragtime sailed the 2,225 nautical miles in the Transpac to Hawaii in just under 12 days. Tahiti, half-again as far, took less than three days longer.
But, Welsh said, “Compared to doing Tahiti, Hawaii is a walk in the park … yeah, 12 light-air days where the boat is flat and nothing broke and it's all easy, versus [14 3/4] days, eight days of which we didn’t see sun or stars and it was blowing 25 to 30 knots the whole time, [and] the boat's heeled over because you're reaching really hard, so getting around the boat you’re a monkey the whole time . . . [and] everything in the world broke.”
Ragtime also had an anxious moment when one of its crew seemed to be stricken with appendicitis, which may have just been dehydration.
Welsh said, “It was a tension-filled race for me, trying to be skipper, navigator and head boat maintenance person [Ed.—not to mention e-mail writer to those at home]. My sleep patterns are still messed up. There's more re-entry after this race because it's a little longer and harder and you're more alone. This race you know you're on your own.”
Four boats was the same number as sailed the first Tahiti Race 83 years earlier when the winner, L.A. Morris' 107-foot Mariner, took much longer than any of these four: 20 1/2 days. And now, more than ever, it's prohibitively expensive, time-consuming and demanding of crew members.
No wonder only 76 boats have ever done the race.
“They'd have 50 boats if it was easy,” Baker said.
Next month Welsh will move Ragtime along to Tonga or Fiji and on to New Zealand in October where the sailing season in the boat's homeland starts. The Kiwis plan a colossal welcome. Delivery crews for Mag 80 and Medicine Man are making their way back to Long Beach via Hawaii, while Fortaleza will return on a Dockwise freighter.
The other sailors will scatter to the winds as new and envied members of a very exclusive sailing club: no longer Pollywogs but Shellbacks who have traversed zero latitude under sail.
Baker gave proper credit to his navigator, Ernie Richau—-“He did a great job, as always … very under-rated”—-and to Bob Lane, his Long Beach Yacht Club colleague who initially suggested it was time to do the race again.
“Bob Lane got it rolling and developed enough interest,” Baker said. “Otherwise, who knows?”
Lane, home for a week, said, “I'm still tired. I just thought it was a good idea, and it was a good year for breeze. We had 1,200 miles with just a blast reacher and 12 to 18 knots of breeze, and that's all waterline [length], nothing to do with surfing. There was less wind in Southern California last weekend. It's a great race for big boats. If they had these 90- or 100-footers, they'd easily break [Mag 80's] record.”
The race was organized by the TPYC and hosted by the Tahiti Yacht Club at the finish. It started in dense fog off Point Fermin at the edge of Los Angeles on June 22 and everyone finished not in South Pacific sunshine but at night.
“If you like ocean racing, if it comes up again, this is something you should consider,” Baker said. “I mean, you only go around once. I'd never seen the Southern Cross.”