The Trans-Atlantic MisAdventure

An Imperfect Storm

Orlando, FL. April 7, 2000.
8:30 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Voicemail message #1: Received 1:17 AM:
“Laurie, it’s John. We had an accident at sea. Call Louie’s cell phone: 44 7979795 7534.”

Voicemail message #2: Received 1:30 AM:
“Laurie. John. About the phone number. It’s 44 7979 35 74.”

(John sounds like he’s in shock.)

THE CAPTAIN OF THE US TEAM in the TransAtlantic Windsurf Race (TAWR2000), John Chao is not the kind of guy who gets fazed easily. A former Olympic windsurfer who now publishes and edits American Windsurfer magazine, John regularly pushes himself beyond what most of us would consider normal limits. Immensely talented, focused to the point of driven, John regularly blasts through deadlines, jet lag and controversy with gale force energy and an optimism that could outperform even Martin Seligman, author of the bestseller Learned Optimism. Seligman could take lessons from this six foot three, 47-year old Chinese American who, in the past year and a half, has led two American teams of windsurfers in this transAtlantic competition.

I met John a year and a half ago, during the first ever TransAtlantic Windsurf Race (TAWR98), which went from Newfoundland to Southampton, England in eight days. Since I had met and interviewed Stephane Peyron and Alain Pichavant after they windsurfed across the Atlantic in 1986, writing about TAWR98 in my book gave me a quirky area of expertise in a genre known to editors as “oddball adventurers.”

NIGHT RESCUE became manageable only as the sea subsided. Before, a five hour battle with a storm which incapacitated two RIB’s (Riggid Inflatable Boat). The rescue chopper arrived (bellow-top right) and hovered for over an hour before rescue craft reached the teams. With two of the three boats in tow, the trip into Las Palmas took another seven hours. Once in port, the teams were united in celebration and witnessed the damages to the boats.


“How would you like to be our Media Director and help promote TeamUSA in the next Trans-Atlantic Windsurf Race?” John asked me last summer.

Images from the video of that race flashed through my mind’s eye. I could report on the next race from the deck of the mother ship, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, a Russian icebreaker. “Thanks,” I said. “I’d love it.”

Only, as it turned out, there was no mother ship commissioned for TAWR2000. Each team would be housed in its own 35-foot Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) during the ocean crossing. Although the event organizers had issued blueprints of the RIBs with a full description of navigational and safety features, something terrible must have happened. Replaying John’s two messages, the shell-shocked tone of voice was getting me worried.

“Positive energy in the midst of chaos leads to positive results.” These were John’s last words to me the afternoon of March 14, shortly before he left the magazine’s offices in Gilford, New Hampshire for a six hour drive through the night to Newark Airport, where he would meet up with TeamUSA members Guy Miller, 44, of Austin, Texas, and Marco deMoraes, 38, of Greenwich, Connecticut. Monty Spindler, 41, one of the world’s leading sail designers, would travel from his home in Tarifa, Spain, to join the team in Portugal. The only woman to compete in this event, Renata Fuzetti, 21, was en route from Sao Paulo, Brazil.


TAWR2000 was scheduled to begin in Sagres, on the southern coast of Portugal, on Saturday, March 17th, progressing to the Canary Islands and Cabo Verde before the 1500-mile ocean crossing that would retrace the route taken by the original Portuguese explorers five hundred years earlier. The race was supposed to have ended today in Fortaleza, Brazil, with fireworks and festivities (think: crowds of manic, half-naked Brazilians partying on the beach!) that had been scheduled as part of the official activities marking Brazil’s 500th anniversary. I had been awarded a ticket to Fortaleza in order to photograph the windsurfers’ arrival from the press boat but the race had not started in time and, as far as I could tell, no one was able to predict just when it was expected to end. “You never know what the ocean will do,” John had said, prophetically. “There will be many unsettling things up ahead.”

Now the most unsettling of all was the clenching of the abdominal as I noted that John had given me two different phone numbers for Louie Hubbard, the 28-year old Englishman who was TAWR’s organizer and head honcho. Not only that: One string of numbers was longer than the other and neither one matched up as a British phone number. Just to prove I was right, I tried to call both numbers from a pay phone in the lobby of the Orlando hotel where I was about to deliver a “Sea Survival Simulation” exercise as the finale of a management seminar I had agreed to teach at the last-minute when it was clear there would be no windsurfers crossing the finish line in Fortaleza this week. Just as I thought. Neither phone number worked.

With less than five minutes before I was due on the platform, I called Julian Yeomans at SSM-Freesports in London, the public relations and media center for TAWR2000. I left a message asking him to phone my office with Louie Hubbard’s cell phone number.


9:50AM Eastern Daylight Time.
Voicemail message:
“Julian here. You must have heard about the storm. Dramatic air-sea rescue by the Coast Guard off the Canary Islands. Everyone had to be pulled off the boats. Some blokes were treated for hypothermia and severe seasickness but everyone’s alive. Boats are destroyed, of course. Here’s Louie’s number….”

An Imperfect Storm
Right about then, Guy Miller, one of the seven-member American windsurfing team, was standing on a dock at Las Palmas, in the Canary Islands, where the team’s Rigid Inflatable Boat had been towed by the Coast Guard after a six hour siege at sea with an imperfect storm. “As I collected what was left of my equipment to bring home, the scene on the boat, with $5,000 satellite phones floating in seawater and diesel, the cabin sprayed with vomit and rotting food supplies pretty much told the whole story,” Miller, who had not been onboard during the storm, says. “Water had come in over the bow, filling up space on top of the diesel tanks, putting the engines out of commission on the boat carrying the Brazilian team.” The Americans’ boat had attempted to tow the stranded one, but after several hours, it, too, was swamped and the Coast Guard launched a rescue operation.

3:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time.
“Is everyone okay?”
“Great media story, what...”
“Great media? Is everyone okay? Where’s John?”
“Fine, Laurie. Don’t you think this is a great story? Can you get us any media?”
“I’m standing in a hotel lobby, Louie…”
“It was quite dramatic.”
“I’m sure it was. But this not how you wanted to make air.”
“What about a press release?”
“Do you have any video? Pictures? It’s probably too late to get it to the networks for the evening news. By tomorrow, you’ll be competing with the weekend sports shows. A producer at ESPN told me they would only run footage of TAWR quote if there’s death or dismemberment. Unquote. Death or dismemberment. You don’t have any of that, I hope…”
“Laurie, it’s John.”
“Are you all right? You sound shellshocked.”
“It was rough but we’re all fine. Yes, we had a cameraman onboard when the storm hit. I shot several rolls of film and I can email some images. Can you help?”
“I’ve been inside working for three days. I was planning to sit outside, at the pool for an hour before I leave. I didn’t bring my computer. What do you want me to do?”
“There must be something…”
(His voice. It must have been worse than he’s saying. 
Think: Swimming pool. Sunshine. No way!)

There’s an internet booth downstairs. I can send out a press release to CBS and ABC News and Sports Illustrated. Take down these three email addresses and send your best pictures now. If we’re lucky, someone will pick up on the story. But it’s less than an hour to air.

(Think: Swimming pool. Internet. Damn. How do I get myself into these situations?)

It’s been a long time since I got to play “Pit Bull Producer.” Trenchcoat and all, standing in a hotel lobby, only instead of phoning in your story, you put three dollars into a computer terminal and up comes America Online. Log on and go to “Compose Mail” and voila! Instant press release:

“I just received a satellite call from the captain of the US windsurfing team in the Canaries.

Four members of the American windsurfing team are resting tonight after their boat was destroyed in a storm off the Canary Islands last night. They were rescued by the Coast Guard after their boat began taking on water in the storm. The Americans’ 35-foot boat had been trying to tow the Brazilian teams’ 35-foot boat after the Brazilians lost engine power and their boat began to sink.

The Trans-Atlantic Windsurf Race has been canceled and the team members will return to the US in a few days.” 
5:30 PM Eastern Daylight Time.

“This is the photo editor for Sports Illustrated. We need pictures of the US team in the storm. Can you help us?”

“Wow.” My friend Bob is impressed. Sports Illustrated has never called our house before.” 5:45 PM Eastern Daylight Time.

“Louie? John? What’s going on over there?” (Loud party noises in the background.) “Can you hear me? Sports Illustrated needs pictures.”


The Unmaking of an Adventure at Sea

The fact that anyone would consider windsurfing across the Atlantic, much less attempt it, is as wild as someone BASE jumping off El Capitan in Yosemite or climbing Everest without oxygen or guide ropes. Yet the handful of hardcore, extreme windsurfers who have risked their lives for this particular challenge have gotten very little coverage for their efforts. The underreporting of windsurfing as an adventure sport has kept such exploits within the small culture of windsurfistas.

  My own fascination with those few who dare to test their mental and physical stamina against the full force and fury of the sea continually flows back to one question: What psychological forces would drive an individual to tackle an ocean crossing on the most minimal form of transportation ever developed? As someone who chases the edge of the wind and knows the primal excitement of proving to yourself that you can go for the impossible and attain it, I have also learned how easily you can cross that invisible line between courage and recklessness. It’s one thing to become what one editor at Sports Illustrated calls “an oddball adventurer.” It’s quite another to be a dead one, even if that will get you a few seconds of airtime on ESPN. As John observed from Portugal on March 17, “The realities of a harsh and unforgiving ocean lie before us. I don’t think anyone here suspects the true challenge of this endeavor.”

Although that remark would turn out to have the chilling accuracy of a Delphic oracle, neither John nor I expected events to develop, or rather, to unravel as they did.

Having demonstrated in 1998 that the world’s strongest sailors could compete against each other as well as with the ocean and themselves, in a transAtlantic windsurfing competition, Louie Hubbard had credibility, experience, and firsthand expertise with ocean sailing that included a brush with death when lightning and a Force 12 gale struck his yacht, the Ocean Vagabond, in May 1993. With the yacht pitching heavily in 35-foot waves, Hubbard was nearly thrown into churning seas while climbing the mast to deal with a rebellious headsail. “I thought we had been through the worst when our yacht hit a submerged container and we were sinking!” Hubbard recalls. “I radioed for help and fortunately, we were rescued in a storm that claimed eight lives and the Ocean Vagabond, which was never found.” Returning to England, Hubbard concedes, “I never thought the sinking of the boat had affected me, but it actually twisted me inside. The idea of a TransAtlantic Windsurf Race was born out of my confusion during this time.”

Although the format for TAWR2000 was significantly longer, costlier, and more complicated logistically than TAWR98 had been, the key difference was that this time, each team would be based in its own boat (RIB). “Feedback from the racers during the first TransAtlantic Windsurf Race made it clear that participants wanted to spend more time windsurfing and less time motoring,” says Hubbard. “There were problems getting the gear and rescue boats on and off the mother ship during the 1998 TAWR, so giving each team its own, smaller boat would eliminate that struggle and make easier access to windsurfing.” Aware that these changes made the race potentially more dangerous, John and I agreed that TAWR2000 could serve as a springboard for building mainstream interest in the sport. Profiles of each team member and an expanded press release had been sent to sports and news producers at all three networks, as well as CNN, EsPN, and a number of local stations. We also peppered editors at various sports, adventure, and travel magazines, as well as newspapers in the US and overseas with advance publicity about TAWR2000’s route and schedule.

Schedule: As in, opening ceremonies for the big send-off on Saturday March 18th. As in, photo opp at the finish line in Fortaleza, April 6. As in daily phone calls from the American team as the race progressed.

Progressed: Well, not exactly. From the moment our team arrived in Portugal on March 15, a series of odd and bizarre situations blew the timeline out of the water. For starters, with less than a week before the race was due to start, the Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs) that each team would use to transport personnel and equipment had not yet arrived in Portugal. Why the organizers had not chosen to inform participants of this prior to their arrival was a mystery. Equally mysterious: Why had they allowed participants to travel, with their gear, at great expense, knowing that the boats would not be there in time to start the race? As participants barraged Louie Hubbard and his staff with questions, they learned only that poor weather in Greece, where the RIBs were under construction, was behind the delay.


Taking this in stride, the Americans decided to use the extra days to train, away from the prying eyes of the nine-member Brazilian team. Unlike the Americans, who were underfunded and undersponsored, the mega-Brazilian team’s sponsors included the national soccer team, the largest sail manufacturer and a traveling millionaire who had accompanied his boys to Europe for the express purpose of buying them dinner, toys, and any extra gear they might want at the last minute. Hearing the Brazilians ordering an F2 320 race board because they saw the Americans had one, the US team rented a van and drove seven hours to Tarifa, Spain, home of team member Monty Spindler. In the privacy of Tarifa, they tried out various board-sail combinations before returning to Sagres in time for the new starting date of March 26th.

But wait!  The RIBs had not yet arrived.

Rather than prolong everyone’s waiting time, the TAWR organizers now decided that the sailors would race in the opposite direction to the one originally planned, thereby meeting up with the RIBs in Cadiz, Spain, instead of waiting for them to make their way to Portugal. “Louie was hoping, up to the last minute, that the RIBs would be ready. The participants had high emotion, high expectations and we didn’t want to let people down the way the boatbuilders had let us down,” explains Jessica Seaward, 24, a TAWR coordinator. The American, Brazilian and European teams raced, on windsurfers, for about 80 miles and then motored, arriving in Cadiz by nightfall. The Americans won this first tactical and exciting race. For Monty Spindler, this was a moral victory for his Loft sails which were up against the Brazilians and their custom made sails from the biggest manufacturer in the world, Neil Pryde.

The satisfaction of winning, however, failed to override the disappointment of seeing the Rigid Inflatable Boats for the first time. Although the blueprints had given an expectation of a 35-foot cabin cruiser, a real life RIB appeared as flimsy as those boats used by Vietnamese refugees along the Mekong River in 1970s wartime footage. With no mother ship to back them up, participants recognized with a shock that they would be setting out to sea on inflatable boats which now could be seen to have serious design flaws. “The hull design was good but the execution BAD, as was the engine installation. The tubs in the bow of the RIBs were to have been covered with something in the original design, but somehow the covers were overlooked. Even with covers, the drainage of the forward tubs was not up to offshore standards. There was a major design flaw with the cabin doorframes which would not prevent seawater from entering the boat,” says Monty Spindler.

“The RIBs were a joke,” Renata Fuzetti adds. “The bolts holding the bulkheads together had no nuts on the bolts,” Monty adds. “Almost ALL of the bolts could be turned with your fingers and MANY bolts were turning out on their own as the boats flexed. With the loose bolts, the seams were not watertight. These items were brought to the attention of the boat drivers and Louie’s staff as soon as the RIBs arrived in Cadiz.” Guy Miller observes, “My father taught me three words: Respect the sea. The organizers seemed to have forgotten that the sea is a very dangerous place.”

Why didn’t anyone protest? “We did,” says Marco de Moraes. “People were going to quit when they saw the boats. We had a big meeting with Louie and we were pretty angry. But, in the end, we had come so far and we had put so much into getting ready for the race that we decided to go for it.” In taking the heat, Louie Hubbard acknowledges, “I always knew it would be a fairly blunt introduction period. No matter how we tried to prepare people up front for the ruggedness of the RIBs, some people would take it well and others wouldn’t. I expected a mix of reactions and this is what creates human drama. It wasn’t a comfortable platform, but I still say that the RIB was a perfect boat for a perfect project. In the end, all you could do was experience it and live it for what it was going to be.”

Which was…?

Making the best of the energy and time that had already been invested, the Americans and Brazilians chose to windsurf the next leg, while the Europeans were forced to fly to the Canary Islands to conserve manpower for the ocean crossing and the fact that the third boat was furthered delayed. But before the second race got underway, the Brazilians’ RIB struck a reef in Cadiz harbor, breaking a propeller shaft which meant further delays as everyone waited while the boat was repaired. The Americans’ boat developed a problem with a bilge pump, a problem that would continue to plague the boats until the end. There were also heated conversations about whether to reposition the diesel fuel pipes. Not wanting to spend any more time in port to fix things that weren’t broken, the organizers and racers set off on a dramatic open ocean windsurf race across the Mediterranean to Casablanca. Nonetheless, tempers were fraying as people who had taken leaves of absence from their jobs and families were not even close to windsurfing across the Atlantic after nearly two weeks in Europe.

T-here were also significant differences in decision-making styles (see “Real People at Sea,” AW, issue 7.1)  People who were Drivers—methodical planners who like things organized in advances—were highly frustrated by the lack of structure, whereas Riders—tactical thinkers who excel in reacting to last-minute change—were in their element. As Guy Miller, Monty Spindler, and Renata Fuzetti moved to the Canary Islands to wait for the rest of the team to arrive, Daniele Olivieri and Fernando Martinez del Cerro Delgado, team riders for Loft Sails, joined the US team for this second leg. They were recruited  to boost the Americans against the powerful nine member Brazilian team.  “We were the underdogs. We went up against a seemingly invincible Brazilian team and then we won!” says Monty Spindler. “It was inspiring, and a worthwhile race on its own merits. The Brazilians had been training off the coast of Brazil for four month prior to the race. They were better organized with massive funding. We had just enough sponsorship to meet the $50,000 entry fee and team members met each other for the first time during the race.”

“Most of the races were won on tactics and the fact that we had a secret weapon,” claimed John Chao. That secret weapon turned out to be a massive sail bag strapped to the nose of the RIB allowing the Americans to have five boomless sails rigged and ready to go. “It was Monty’s brilliant idea and the extra time we had in Tarifa allowed him to build the tarp.” “But what impressed me,” said John, “was not winning the races. It was how gracious the Brazilians were toward our wins. They applauded, celebrated and expressed genuine congratulations to each of our wins. That sportmanship in the midst of their nationalistic pressure, was remarkably impressive. It shamed me, it made me root for them. This is something that will always linger in my memory.”

Halfway into the second leg, in the darkness off the Moroccan coast, the teams experienced their first storm. “There were 60 to 70 mile an hour winds. Semi trucks were being toppled and roofs were being blown off. It was really scary,” says John Chao, reporting on how the wind-battered boats took shelter in a poorly charted industrial port the night of April 3. Four days later, on April 7, they were en route to the Canary Islands when the second storm hit. “It started building around four in the afternoon, when we were 60 miles from Grand Canary,” John says. “There were a lot of scared, sick people out there after a few hours.”

“Life on the boat was miserable,” Marco de Moraes concedes. “We were all banging around and we had to hold on wherever we could. As the storm intensified, people were puking everywhere and one guy was screaming. John was a really strong guy and so was Louie, who was driving. The second driver went through hell that night and passed out. There were huge waves crashing over us and the wind-chill was about 30 degrees. We were wet and freezing. After the Brazilians’ boat lost engine power, we could see their boat filling up with water. We kept circling their boat, trying to tow them until 10:30 PM, when we called the Coast Guard. They arrived with a helicopter at 11:38 and they pulled most of us out of their RIB onto the Coast Guard boat. Some were hypothermic, shivering, unable to speak. Their eyes were in shock.” The European boat which was carrying equipment for all three teams took on water, as well and suffered the most damage. “There were only the boat drivers onboard along with a film crew guy. They radioed for help because the water went up to their knees. We got another pump over to them, but it was too late,” Marco recalls.

The Coast Guard finally towed the troubled RIBs into Grand Canary at 4:30 AM the morning of April 7. “I kept thinking, ‘What a fine mess I’ve got us into.’ But really, nobody’s life was in danger although it might have seemed that way,” Louie Hubbard says, philosophically, now that it’s over. With damages estimated around $350,000, he is waiting for an insurance settlement so that he can prepare to relaunch the TransAtlantic Windsurf Race early next year, this time with a mother ship. “In a bizarre way, I think this was meant to happen and it will give the next round a media kick. In the end, it was a bit of a pain and a bit of a reality check.”

The ultimate reality check, of course, is how the ocean and wind behave at any given moment. “The reality is that you cannot schedule the wind. How many times have you sat on a beach waiting to windsurf?” laughs John Chao. “The concept of scheduling a windsurfing event is almost a contradiction in terms. Windsurfing demands that we give up the illusion of predictability. If you’re someone who insists on sticking to a timetable, you’ll be extremely frustrated. The reality check comes when you learn how to adapt to a particular situation.” Asked what he would change on the next TransAtlantic Windsurf Race, he smiles, “I don’t think it’s about changing the event. I learned more and had a more meaningful experience from the RIBs not being there on time than if everything had kicked in as planned. This gave me something that I learned about myself. None of us was going to give up because each of us had invested so much. Yet that’s how people die out there.” He laughs.

“In the end, that imperfect storm was a gift.

Laurie Nadel, is a former writer for CBS news, has a PhD in Psychology. She is working on a series of books about windsurfing.

by Laurie Nadel

Laurie Nadel, is a former writer for CBS news, has a PhD in Psychology. She is working on a series of books about windsurfing.

photos by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines