Take four US amateur windsurfers. Put them on a boat headed for England. Provide them with tons of gear they’ve never seen before, and a coach capable of racing circles around them. Add 25 foot seas, and place them in a race against some of the world’s best windsurfers. What do you have?
A personal account by Eddy Patricelli
IT’S THERE AGAIN—the smooth water leading down the face of the swell. It’s coaxing me to turn downwind, follow its path, and burst onto a plane. Today, however, I must wait. The start has been delayed. Several minutes ago, the reason for the delay became frighteningly obvious. A sailor had to be rescued. As his body was dragged over the side of a chase boat, he puked. Once in the boat, he leaned back over the side and puked again.
Was he seasick? Exhausted?
I don’t care. I can’t, and won’t until I finish this race. I must finish this race.
But to finish, the race must first start. So I’m here waiting, and disturbed by these huge paths of silky water unrolling across the faces of these swells. I can’t see where they ultimately lead. They just keep traversing their way across for hundreds of yards until…who knows. The mothership, the Khlebnikov, begins motoring downwind. The race will begin soon and my goal is simple: catch up to the Khlebnikov before the others. Looking upwind, only occasionally can I spot the start/chase boat. As it disappears into the trough of a swell, the top portions of two sails emerge. They are bigger than I expect. Before they disappear behind a wall of water, I laugh nervously. They’re less than 20 feet from me. In my safety vest, tucked alongside several flares, a reflective kite, and an emergency beacon is a radio. I hear static, and a few muffled voices before glancing back upwind.
The start flag is up.
I sheet in, bear down on a smooth section of water, and blast onto a plane. The acceleration is immense. I’m tempted to throw my head back, look to the sky and shout with everything I’ve got. This is what I came for. The thirty–two hour bus ride to St. John’s, the days spent fundraising, the hours spent on the phone reassuring my mother—as of this moment these things are forgotten, and will remain forgotten.
I am alive, flying down the biggest swell of my life in the middle of the Atlantic. Best of all my goal, the Khlebnikov, is in plain sight. This joyous moment, however, is short-lived.
TRACIDENTAL MOMENTS: Members of the US team got their feet wet early and struggled to stay dry for the rest of the trip. US team doctor Jeff Whitaker gives Robert Teriitehau an adjustment while some US members risked their limbs by climbing up the 200ft communication tower. (left) Kevin Shackell and Gaz Mackay, members of the RIB Crew made their presence known and encouraged the tired sailors at the stern of the KK. Their borrowed swim garments were a hit with the ladies of the Russian Crew. Such antics from the lively RIB team rocked the boat as much as the rolling seas. (below left) Louie Hubbard, the mastermind behind the TAWR stands watch at the bridge. Resting at this level, some eight stories above the waves, a seasick sailor can tastes the full fury of his Atlantic misery.
“THIS IS EMBARRASSING.”
Jace and I couldn’t help but agree with Kiran. And had Dave, our fourth team member, not been upstairs in his cabin receiving treatment for hypothermia, he would have agreed too. Our first day of racing had been a disaster, several disasters.
Things started innocently enough. Jace, the only racer on our team, began the day by successfully finishing the first race. But when it came time for the second race, he was exhausted. Even worse, he was underpowered, and unable to make it beyond the Khlebnikovís wind shadow. While the remaining racers patiently waited, our team decided I should replace him.
Before climbing over the side of the boat, down Jacob’s Ladder, and into a chase boat to be whisked off to Jace, my orders had been made clear: Tack upwind, steering well clear of the Khlebnikov’s wind shadow and to the start line.
So off I went, taking Jace’s safety vest, radio, board, and rig before heading upwind on my first reach.
They’re waiting. Hurry.
Several seconds later, the radio headset falls over my eyes. While trying to remove it, I get launched.
They’re still waiting…
I stuff the headset in the safety vest’s front pocket, waterstart, and continue ripping upwind.
Had I put the headset back on, things would have gone differently. Because while I sailed upwind, the starting line moved back to where I had originally been dropped off. In other words, I was sailing away from the start. For the next hour and a half, I didn’t see anyone. No chase boats. No sailors. All I could see was the Khlebnikov, happily motoring upwind. Sailing alone in the Atlantic with this as my only reference point. My next decision was the easiest of my life.
Follow the Khlebnikov.
I did, and when I finally spotted the other racers, a second race had ended. I had failed miserably.
Up next was Kiran.
“Were you overpowered?”
When Kiran asked me this, I didn’t give it much thought. Thinking back on my session only brought unwanted memories of missing two starts, of sailing alone in the middle of the Atlantic. Was I overpowered?
“No,” I told her. Whatever soreness my arms since felt was a result of being nervous. Besides, I deserved to feel some pain. I had failed miserably, and the sail size had nothing to do with that.
Kiran took my advice, and minutes later, was struggling with a board and sail two sizes too big. A half hour later, the chase boat rescued her. I’d failed again.
But all hope was not lost. Our team still had Dave to finish the race. We’d even hurriedly rigged him a smaller sail, and given him a smaller board. What could go wrong now?
What happened next is best described in an E-mail from Dave: I got seasick before jumping in. The boom was too high, harness lines too short, and foot straps too small.
The boom in-haul line came undone. I was trying to figure out how it wrapped on the mast while puking all over it (I had just eaten a very colorful lunch). By the time I figured it out, I was out of the safety zone and had to be picked up.
I was very happy to be back on the Khlebnikov. I was afraid I was going to puke while they helped me pull my wet suit over my head. Lesson learned: Always adjust your gear before jumping in the middle of the ocean with 20 foot waves.
While Dave received treatment for hypothermia, another race was announced. Only three teams would compete, and Jace eagerly accepted the challenge—clearly on mission to right the day’s wrongs. It was nearing sunset when Jace finished alongside the Khlebnikov. Several minutes before, he had passed a sailor from the Greek team, placing him in second. He celebrated- shouting and throwing his arms so wildly that he fell. It was comical, and forced the first smile of the day from Kiran and me. Our celebration, however, was premature. Later that night, race results showed Jace finishing third. We discovered that where the first place sailor passes alongside of the Khlebnikov is where the finish line remains fixed, even while the ship motors beyond that point. This meant that even though Jace had passed the Greek sailor, he hadn’t passed him until after crossing the finish line.
Even in success, we’d managed to find disappointment.
The day had been a disaster. Four of our six races had been forfeited. That night, when we wearily made our ways back to our cabins, thinking of nothing more than sleep and starting a new day tomorrow, an ominous sight stopped us. Outside each of our cabins, neatly draped over a railing, were barf bags.
Later, as the boat rolled onto its side, dislodging loose articles, throwing people from their beds, and allowing the sea to reach up and knock on my sixth floor window, one thought kept repeating:
Tomorrow I must finish.
FIRST LOOP: In the middle of the Atlantic, the author makes history by throwing the first loop, thousands of miles from land. Afterwards all the loopers came out of the bulkhead and the crossing became the Trans-Atlantic Air Show. You could say most sailors flew across the Atlantic.
THE BOARD HAS NOT stopped accelerating. I widen my grip, focus more intently on my path, and sit deeper into the harness. Things feel different at this speed. They even sound different–as if a second board is skipping nearby. A quick glance back reveals nothing. I keep searching. Over my front shoulder I see Nicholas, the pro sailor from the Liberty team, one swell over and pulling ahead. I stand more upright, roll my front shoulder over the boom, and put all of my weight over the mastfoot.
Downwind of me, a swell breaks, leaving in its wake an icy flat trail. I turn onto it and it’s as if the board has broken free. There’s no tension on my front thigh, no struggle to hold the sail down, or keep my weight over the mastfoot. Everything remains eerily still, quiet, and easy. I’m going faster than I’ve ever gone.
The next sight I have of Nicholas is over my back shoulder. I start to smile, but notice something different about his stance. It’s as if he’s sheeting out and trying to slow…
I quickly face forward, impatient for my eyes to re-focus. Twenty five yards ahead, merging violently from several directions, are huge pieces of broken swell. It’s unlike any water I’ve ever seen. It’s frothing, like two enormous boat wakes meeting over an already windswept sea. No pattern, no uniformity, and most importantly, no safe path. I unhook and sheet out.
The first piece of chop catches the downwind rail, slowing me abruptly, and forcing my body to surge forward. I struggle to correct before hitting the next section. I am too late and close my eyes. When I open them, I’m staring at the sky. Strange looking stars cover it. I try to focus on one, but it disappears while the tracers on the others lengthen. I’m perplexed until something catches…I can’t breath.
I gasp, hurriedly turning my head in all directions. I see the Khlebnikov, motoring miles away from me. I want to panic. Scream.
I hear voices on my radio. People on the ship are trying to lead the chase boat to me. I hear a boat, and raise my arm. Air creeps its way into my lungs. I raise my other arm, and the air floods in.
Soon after, I hear someone shouting. A boat driver leans over the side, puts his goggles on his forehead, and stares at me.
I nod, intrigued by the four stars perfectly positioned on each corner of his face.
“The Greek sailor pulled out. If you finish, you’re guaranteed second place.”
I nod again, and struggle to appear fit while positioning my sail to waterstart.
Once up, I spot a perfectly smooth carpet of water, sliding its way down a swell. I can’t see where it goes, but behind it, far off in the distance, is the Khlebnikov.
I choose my path. Soon, I’ll be going faster than I’ve ever gone. Soon after that, the smooth section of water I’ve been following will end abruptly. I will fall.
I don’t care. I’m going to finish.
And when I do, I’m going to loop.
FOLLOW THE KK: Based on safety considerations the racing format evolved quickly. Racers would enter the water and “cruise” behind the KK for 1 to 3 hours. They would stop and let the ship steam ahead at 15 knots and then sprint for a finish at the boat.
CCAN I SIT HERE?”
Robert Teriitehau has just asked to join me for dinner. It’s the perfect end to an unexpectedly perfect day. I say “unexpected” because the day began with a disappointing start.
“Go back to bed,” we were told in the 6:00am meeting. “The ship is behind schedule, the seas are rough, and putting chase boats in the water is too risky, and too time consuming.”
An hour later, however, a curious announcement aired over the intercom. “Would the pro sailors from the Liberty team and the Greek team please come to conference room.”
Once again, it sounded as if the pros would sail. Amateurs would watch. Two days earlier, I was patiently waiting in my drysuit when Andy, the race coordinator, informed me that the conditions were such that only the pros would sail. And it made sense. The pros were known quantities, offering little chance of requiring assistance in such treacherous seas. I, however, was an unknown risk.
But while I enjoyed watching Anders Bringdal, Robert Teriitehau, Micah Buzianis, and Ken Winner sail that day, I was disturbed. I had come on this trip to sail. Not spectate. And even a front row seat to such an exclusive event offered little to silence one single thought: I could sail in these conditions.
The next day, I got my chance, and had the session of my life- throwing the first loop of the event.
So this morning, faced with the thought of spectating again, I was furious. Ken, also perturbed, led me to the conference room, and argued that I should be allowed to sail. Others joined the fight, including Andy, the race coordinator.
I sat in the back row, watching these people fight on my behalf. It was touching, and ultimately meant more to me than being chosen as one of the two amateurs allowed to sail. But there was a price to this privileged session with the pros: no chase boats would accompany us on the water.
With that in mind, the session was ultra conservative, and rarely did Robert, Micah, Jason (the star amateur from the European team), or myself venture far from the Khlebnikov’s wake. After 21/2 hours of endurance sailing, a chase boat was dropped over the side to begin a short race.
Surprisingly, Micah Buzianis, is on the same size sail as me. The wind has died. I can take him. He’s 40 pounds heavier. I can beat him. He’s worried about whether he’ll even be able to plane. He’s mine.
The race starts. Where did he go?
From remnants of Micah’s boat wake, I watched him in the most impressive and humbling display of efficiency I’ve ever seen. But the best was still to come. Another race would follow and it was Dave’s turn.
It would be his third attempt. And while his first session had been disastrous, his second was equally unsuccessful after discovering what it’s like to be drastically underpowered in enormous seas.
Would today be different? Would his boom stay on? Would he puke? Would he plane?
We held our breath.
Dave sailed. Not only did he sail, but he received more cheers for sitting idly in his harness and footstraps behind a boat wake in the middle of the Atlantic, than anyone in the history of time.
It was a perfect day. Dave had finished. And having Robert Teriitehau seat himself across from me for dinner seemed the perfect end. At another table, however, is Kiran. As the only female competitor, she’s been the center of attention. Numerous interviews preceded her starting this race, including a full feature story from the television show Hard Copy. Kiran, however, has yet to finish a leg. This is surprising. I’ve sailed with Kiran. She rips, is aggressive, and capable. Prior to this race, however, a full time job prevented her from sailing much. As a result, her last attempt ended when her forearms gave out. The session before that, she was grossly overpowered on unfamiliar equipment. There are two days left. She must finish.
CHASING RAINBOWS was a painful endeavor for racers but their ability to influence change in the many meetings, paved the way to success (far right and above left). For 78 year old passenger Bill Dehn, the brief sailing session in the middle of the Atlantic was better than a pot of gold. The same goes to Nancy Craft who found facing cameras harder than jumping off ships.
I’M GUESSING it’s been an hour. It must be. My arms are sore, my calves are cramping, and my shoulders cry for relief. But no matter. In fact, I should stop whining. After all, this is the two hour endurance portion of the race. And if an hour has passed, only one hour remains. So suck it up. Deal with it.
Still, something feels wrong. I feel wrong. And the more things hurt, the more demented thoughts I have. They involve Ken Winner. I know I chose to take this gear. Not him. But all I can think of is what he said earlier on the boat. “Eddy, the wind will die. Take my 9.4 and my Roberts. Micah is on a 9.0. You could be the only one planing out there.” The wind has not died. In fact, it’s building. And thanks to Ken, I’m on a bigger sail than pro’s who outweigh me by 40 pounds. Forget it. Live in the now. It’s only for an hour so shut up and sail. A puff hits, and the board starts tailwalking. After several seconds of trying to bring it down, it becomes clear I am not riding this board. It is riding me. When it does finally throw me, I rise from the water expecting rodeo clowns to emerge, and distract the board from rearing up, and charging again. Of course none come, and I nearly drown trying to waterstart Ken’s 9.4.
You won’t sink me Ken..
So what. You fell. Forget it and sail on. This time things feel better. I can almost relax, let the harness do the work, let my arms go and…
Something gives. My shoulders rip forward and my arms struggle to hang on. The harness line has slipped. It’s too long. I shorten the line, ease my weight back into it, and the line holds. If my arms and shoulders could orgasm, they would.
Seconds later, the line slips again. My arms and shoulders are crying. Ken Winner will pay for this.
The others are turning downwind. I bear off, and manage to catch up. Yelling to one of them, I almost fall while trying to point to my wrist. He yells back, and I sheet out in disbelief.
It’s been fifteen minutes.
Ken Winner is trying to kill me.
TRIUMPHANT ARRIVAL: Kiran Beyer (upper left) sailing towards the finish. Reaching the shores of England was a dream come true for the team and the author who has never been to Europe. Farewell meal (menu lower left) on the KK with the Mayors of Weymouth. Earlier, Robert Teriitehau takes a 140’ plunge while Dave and Mary Jane Weiss (flew to England to await the finish, above left) celebrate their 10 year anniversary. The couple renewed their vows on the KK bridge in front of a rowdy but reverent RIB crew. Team Captain Winner (far right) trying to find out who stole his shoes. A tippy Louie Hubbard at the ships bar shortly before being stripped naked and duck taped to a post. Leaving the KK at 1a.m. the next morning for the bus to the airport was sad and difficult.
HOW MANY DO YOU COUNT?”
Kevin, the chase boat driver, is nervous. Windsurfers are spreading out in front of us, and he’s one of two boat drivers overseeing them. It’s the last day, and the entire fleet of sailors are cruising towards Weymouth, England. I count the sailors, see Kiran smoking along, and smile before finishing my count.
“I see 11.”
He nods, speeds up, and begins his pursuit. It’s a difficult ride. I’m having horrible thoughts. I was put in this boat as a quick replacement for any sailor who encounters a problem. I hate this boat. I want to sail. It’s my first view of Europe. It took countless hours to get here. Television crews and parties are waiting on the beach and I’m confined to this stupid boat—secretly hoping for someone else to have problems.
“The wind is dying,” remarks Kevin. “Someone’s slogging.” I scan through the sailors, praying it’s someone from another team. Sadly, it’s Dave. He struggles for 15 minutes before giving up, and handing me his gear.
I pump onto a plane, turn downwind towards Weymouth, and smile. I will sail into England. I’ll get to celebrate, get my seven seconds of fame, a bottle of champagne, some food, and…
Oddly, I’m gaining on someone. It’s Kiran. She’s slogging. Her sail and board are too small for the dying wind. A thought crosses my mind. Ignore it. Turn downwind. Forget that thought.
She turns downwind too. Ignore her. I’m going to have to pass right alongside her. So be it. She hasn’t finished a leg yet. Life’s rough sometimes. She’ll be rescued again. Have a nice ride. You gave her bad sail size advice. Nobody’s perfect. You’ll feel like a schmuck when you pass her. I’ll get over it. She’s really attractive. Shut up. It’s a perfect opportunity to score some points. Stop it! She would do it for you. Stop It! She really needs your help. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.
Kiran shouts with delight as she sails away with my equipment. I sit on her board, dumfounded to what I had just done. Minutes later, I’m back on the chase boat, and the crew is teasing me. I see Kiran, off in the distance. She will finish. She’ll get to celebrate, get interviewed, and be the big celebrity. This should comfort me. Instead, I bury my head in my hands. Women!
A few minutes later the crew has given up teasing me, and the boat has slowed down. I raise my head from my hands and spot Dennis, a French sailor from the European team off our left side. A mile from Weymouth, he’s exhausted.
“Do you want?” he asks me, pointing towards his gear. I couldn’t stop shouting. I was on my way to Weymouth. It remains, and will always remain my most epic session. It was one big reward. I had been tested, and I had passed. I gave my gear to Kiran. I couldn’t be happier and shouted with everything I had. I shouted louder than I did the first time I got in the footstraps, louder than my first jibe, or jump. I was arriving in a country I’d never seen, thousands of miles from where we started. I was arriving there on a windsurfer! Our team must have looked silly when we arrived. We were the last ones in, and we celebrated wildly. Jace tackled us in the ankle deep surf. And when Dave joined us, we showered each other with champagne. We were the losers, and we couldn’t be more proud.
Eddy Patricelli is a windsurfing instructor at Big Winds in Hood River and Fishermen’s Hut Windsurfing in Aruba. He is a team rider for North/F2 with a BA from Southern Oregon and is the winner of the Southern Oregon Prose Writing contest.
For a day by day report of the TransAtlantic Windsurfing Race and to meet all the US team members see: www.americanwindsurfer.com