Transpac – A Woman Races Across the Pacific

Sitting in the yacht club bar, being questioned by the countless numbers of salty veterans upon our return from Transpac, one scene has acted itself out time and time again.EJ and Gimmy - Transpac '07

They look at me.  They look at the other members of my crew including my typical posse.  They turn to me (the only girl on the boat) and say “This was your first Transpac, right?”  I nod and smile, and retort “This was all of our first times.”

The duel look of and intrigue and slight admiration for the team of greenhorns is priceless.  I’m not sure which surprised them more… that none of us had ever done it or that Gimmy (the salt old dog that looks like he’s sailed the world single-handed, multiple times, on a Cal 20 for that matter) hadn’t done it before.   Either way, it’s priceless.

Before the boat left Long Beach, the predominate reaction was one of skepticism mixed with a bit of worry – A reaction that I nonchalantly pushed aside as a gross over reaction based on the historic awe, fear and reverence of the fabled Transpac Yacht Race. A reputation, it may or may not deserve – That has yet to be proven to me. This might have been a little more for self-protection than blatant disregard.  After all, once we cast off there was no going back.  I was stuck on this boat with 8 men.

The amenities, I have to admit, were probably some of the more luxurious I’ve been privy too.  We had full meals (no freeze dry!), electric heads, a generator, water maker and the best of all… hot showers!  Which were definitely appreciated half way through the trip while thinking of those suckers stuck out there on the TP 52’s eating freeze dried eggs and using baby wipes for a bath!

We set out optimistic to make the voyage in 10 days (with plenty of food at that!)  An optimism that faded shortly before the start as we drifted over line in less than 5 knots of wind.  We gained some of our spirit back later that night passed the West End of Catalina.  We lost all sight of land or boats and the wind picked up to 20 knots.  This… we thought… is the way the race will blow!

Again… disappointment.  Over the next few days our average wind speed was between 8-12 knots, respectable for buoy sailing in the Santa Monica Bay, but infuriating your second day on a trip to the farthest piece of land in the entire ocean.  As our wise skipper, Chris, pointed out after day 2, “The perception of our rations was greatly effect but our boat speed.”

We kept our jib up for 3 days before hoisting a spinnaker, performing countless jib changes to adapt to the ever-changing wind.  As all the days started to roll into each other, excitement came from the smallest maneuver.

The first night that we did put up our spinnaker, the A-1, squalls were still not yet on our mental radar.  We were told they would come further in our trip.  But as dark clouds formed at our starboard rear quarter the telltale signs display themselves.  First comes rain, and then comes the wind.  Gimmy, the wise mariner that he is, was the first to tag the ominous cloud as a squall.  Like deer in headlights, we sat through the rain.  And right as it was Gimmy’s turn to relinquish the helm… then came the wind.  Completely unprepared with our A-1 up, we were knocked down and in danger of losing the sail.  An all-hands-on-deck emergency was called and we crew worked to douse the sail and hoist a heavier one.  Our first squall catastrophe was averted.  We hoped it would leave us with a better understanding of how to handle these squalls.  We knew the basics… Wind in the squall can be twice as fast, gybe when you get headed, exit port poll, avoid the lull after the squall… now we just need to put these theories into practice.  Learning the nuances between big squalls and little squalls, day squalls and night squalls, in fact being Squall Hunters became our primary focus.

During the day we continued to be challenged with light winds.  During the night we continued to be challenged with squall after squall with constant flux in direction and speed.  We felt gratified however with our results each morning, for almost the entire race we came in 3rd at roll call.

The days were filled with taking your turn at the helm, trimming main, scavenging for food and doing laundry.  Steve had enough foresight at the beginning of the race to bring a bottle of detergent.  There were very few day light hours where somebody’s unmentionables were not stung out on the lifelines or draped around wenches.  Occasionally there would be a freighter or a bird, or flotsam of some sort that would grab everybody’s attention.  About 9 days in, we saw another boat.  It’s still unclear who it was but out of process of elimination we believe it was Ragtime.

Eventually we had to gybe.  That small maneuver challenged everyone’s equilibrium. Now we were bumping and flailing into things and bruising and bumping the other side of our bodies.

And so the days moved on….

And we realized we were going to miss the first party.

And then the second party.

And then the food started running low.

At day 10 we knew we had to ration.  The days were moving slowly, it was very hot and we started to loose enjoyment out of chasing squalls.  Unless it was to feel their light raindrops in the middle of the noon day sun.

Steve and Chris and myself sat down and rationed out our last remaining dribbles of food.  We were rationed 1 can of tuna, 2 Chin Cups and 10 pieces of chocolate for the remainder of the trip.  Luckily we had enough pasta for everyone to have pretty palatable dinner every night.

The whole trip had become mundane.  We had experienced our fair share of squalls and knock downs and bad weather and doldrums.  We were exhausted.  We could do a sail change and gybe the boat with four people on deck in the middle of the night with no problem.  Showers had become the biggest excitement of the day.

It was one of these nights that Steve, Gimmy and I were on deck around 4 in the morning.  Steve was on the helm and had about 15 minutes left before he went down.  Then, without notice we went from 12 to 30 knots with a 15 degree wind shift.  We were knocked on our ear and water started flooding the boat.  We had our A-1 up and I eased the spin sheet to release pressure.  Gimmy took the helm and Steve and I prepared to take the sail down.  We had removed the daisy earlier to assist in a fast sail change if needed.  By the time we were ready to douse (and we moved quick!) the sail had wrapped around the forestay and tied itself in the tightest knot I had ever seen and started putting loads of pressure on the forestay.  An unfortunate event that would have been prevented if the daisy had only remained in place.  It was all-hands-on-deck as we spent 4 hours trying to untangle this knot, which also wrapped around the bottom of the forestay and the topping lift.  As the sun came up the mangled, torn and cut sail hung lifelessly from the forestay in rags.  We lost our A-1, but luckily in repairable shape.

The wind continued to blow for the next day and our spirits rose as first glimpses of land birds, big cruisers and finally Maui were spotted.  We began to see high twenties sustained.  The squalls, which travel to Hawaii, we bigger and meaner and more frequent that night than they had been.  It was all-hands-on-deck again as we were accosted by squalls from what felt like all sides.  We took down the A-2 with a little fight, but it did come down.  In an effort to save time we hoisted the A-4 bald headed.  I watched in fear as we fought every each of the sail to masthead.  I felt slightly relieved as it hit the top.  We were headed straight for Maui in 30 knots full speed ahead.  Immediately we had to gybe.   As the massive sail came around the forestay and pulled the boat violently to one side I was able to breathe again as it filled and steadied the boat for one moment.  A split second later we were on our ear in the worst knock down that any of us had experience.  I watched as the mast of a 70′ boat came dangerously close to the water.  Water come flooding over the boat drenching the crew and down below.  The sail was out of control and within seconds of hoisting that brand new A-4 it was shredded in the wind.  As soon as the boat righted its self and we knew the crew was safe we worked tireless to remove the sail.  Pieces floated down as the actual damage manifested its self.  The sail was in a non-repairable state, along with its halyard which was shredded as well.

With no sails left to hoist, we brought out the genniker.  Fear again arose in me as we were preparing to hoist yet another sail bald headed.  We had it set, it went half way up with no problem, it went three-quarters of the way… it was almost there!  And then it started to wrap.  After seeing this happen too many times on this trip, the whole crew joined us on the foredeck to pull the sail down.  As we pulled with all our might and twisted the forestay to release the sail, it started to come down – slowly at first but then faster, covering the entire crew with its massive weight and sheer size.  Having been up for what seemed like days, we sat there laughing and trying to regain the energy to put the sail away and carry on with the last leg of this adventure.  We wisely decided on a jib.  After all… we haven’t even hit the Moliki Channel yet and we are down 3 spinnakers!

As night turned to dawn and the wind decreased we did manage to fly the genniker safely.  We had only a few miles left and the call was made to re-hoist the A-2 and finish the race under full spinnaker – A call that I was not keen on to begin with.  As we were packing the shoot I (gratefully!) noticed a long tear down the luff from its hasty take down only a few hours earlier.  Not 15 minutes later, I heard a shout from above.  The only spare halyard we had had burst while flying the genniker.  Like pro’s, we took down the sail.  We flew the jib on our last remaining halyard across the finish line.

Later that day, sitting in the sun at yacht club I realized why those salty old dogs gave us looks of such apprehension when we proudly announced that we were all newbies.  However, I would not have traded that experience for the world.  The crew was amazing.  The boat held up magnificently.  And how else would you want to be initiated into your first Transpac?  We suffered a lot of breakage, some injuries, we were all tired and hungry and smelly.  But the experience was priceless.

Just the beauty of the Pacific Ocean was enough to warrant a return.  The cloud formations unseen in any other part of the word and only seen by a small fraction of the population as a whole. Sunsets and sunrises that would take your breath away and which would render the crew silent for minutes afterwards, lost in their own thoughts.  The second day out – some of us were even lucky enough to see the elusive green flash.  There were shooting stars beyond number.  Rainbows scattered the morning sky.  The stars were so bright you could not make out constellations.  The stars. I spent hours at night (when they were visible) just staring at those stars. Celestial beauty that even outdid the beauty of the ocean around us. But the two could not be separated. The oceans and the heavens were as one. Combining their strength and awe-inspiring imagery to anyone who was fortunate enough to view it, unadulterated.

I am sure that all of us had our moments of melt down and utter frustration and wanting to never do anything like this again (Hey!  I’m sure some of you feel that way after Santa Barbara King Harbor!).  We all came out better sailors and stronger people who had an extraordinary experience.  Now I am frequently asked the question, “Would you do it again?”  I inevitable respond “In a heartbeat!”

Article written for The Mariner – A Publication For Where Land Ends

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