You’re in the middle of the North Atlantic, standing balanced on the edge of the aft deck of a 400-foot Russian icebreaker 1,000 miles from land. Fifteen–to–twenty–foot seas drive the stern of the ship up and down like an express elevator. Waves of sea water cascade across the deck after particularly sickening rolls and the cry “water, water, water” goes out, warning others to hang on. Your team mates fight 25-mph wind gusts as they hold your windsurfer over their heads, ready to propel it into the churning, slate gray wake of the ship. Thoughts of Nicolas Monserrat’s The Cruel Sea flash through your mind; you dwell for a moment on vaguely recalled stories of sailors cast into the sea from torpedoed ships being attacked by sharks; you wonder whether your flares, radar reflector, emergency radio beacon and safety boats could all fail at once, leaving you cold, lonely and dying 1,000 miles from land. On a signal from the race officer your team mates launch the windsurfer over the side. Now it’s your turn.
You knew it would come to this. Never billed as a pleasure cruise, it was bound to be a challenge no matter what. But you’re used to taking reality in bite-sized, well-cooked chunks, preferably, with a béarnaise sauce on the side. Now, you’re facing a groaning great board of bloody venison—and somehow you have to choke it down.
IT OF COURSE, is the TransAtlantic Windsurfing Race (TAWR). Conceived by PWA executive Louie Hubbard. The event took over three years to plan and more than a million dollars to pull off. The original idea was to race as many as seven teams of windsurfers—two sailors per team—across the Atlantic Ocean from Canada to England. The number of teams, the size of the teams, the exact points of departure and arrival, all these things changed over time, but the basic idea remained the same.
An audacious idea it was, too. Others had windsurfed the Atlantic before. A Frenchman named Christian Marty made an accompanied crossing from the Canaries to South America in the early-eighties, and two other Frenchmen, Stephan Peyron and Alain Pichevant, sailed unaccompanied on a huge tandem board from Africa to Guadeloupe a few years later. These were accomplishments of endurance, perseverance and organization, but much smaller in scale than the present adventure. While those early crossings involved just a few participants, the latter engaged teams of racers, spectators and journalists. Moreover, while the early Atlantic crossings were downwind cruises in the warm trade wind zone, the TAWR was to take place in the cooler waters and more variable winds above 45 degrees north latitude.
And this only hints at the ambition of the original plan. Early TAWR press releases suggested that there would be night racing, that sailors would be on the water as much as 14 hours a day (seven hours per racer) and that racers would have a chance to challenge the 24-hour sailing distance record. Pre-event publicity foretold a fast, grueling battle against time and sea.
Not surprisingly, the reality was far different. You can make a mess of something as simple as running down to Safeway for a loaf of French bread and a bottle of Chardonnay – you can lose car keys, run over Johnny’s bike in the driveway, forget your money—so you know for sure that an operation as big as the TAWR won’t go exactly as planned. For example, one of the first things the safety officer announced at the initial race briefing was that there would be no night sailing. It would simply be too dangerous, as it would mean giving up our first line of defense against losing someone: visibility.
Then, as he described the procedure for getting the safety boats into and out of the water, and the time it would take, racers began to see that sailing even the 12 hours of daylight would be out of the question.
In fact, by the time the ship was well and truly underway, organizers’ ambitions had come to (1) logging at least some sailing time and (2) getting to Weymouth, England, by Monday afternoon, September 21, at 4 PM. And these were not entirely compatible goals. Launching safety boats and sailors meant slowing the Kapitan Khlebnikov to a speed under 5 mph. Picking up sailors in trouble and safety boats experiencing engine trouble meant further delay.
Small delays became big delays and before long time was running short. Event organizers couldn’t contemplate the cost of having to extend their charter of the ship. Nor did they want to risk missing their date with the press who were planning to be in Weymouth for the 4 PM arrival, and not a day later. In response, sailing time was curtailed, the number of safety boats on the water was reduced, and the ship’s cruising speed was bumped up a notch.
As it turned out, the crossing took almost exactly a week. Racers sailed six of the seven days, for four to six hours most days. An informal estimate of distance actually sailed, of the 2,200 nautical mile total distance traveled, comes to about 450 miles. As for racing, each sailing day there was at least one race, much like the Tour de France bicycle race, in which cyclers do a new race every day.
But you don’t really care about all that. Your windsurfer is already in the water and every moment you delay jumping means more time swimming after it. You don’t pause philosophically to consider that thought. Without action, this is just fantasy. You jump.
After your head finally clears the cool Atlantic water, after you take your first long, slightly panicky breath, you strike out for your windsurfer. Finally you’re off and sailing, chasing after the Kapitan Khlebnikov, and you think that in the thousands of years of human history, and of the billions of people who have lived, only a handful have windsurfed in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It feels special.
The TAWR was a speculative event from the start. As such it required participants with an adventurous streak, a strong desire for adventure and not too strong a grip on reality. The most down-to-earth and practical of the PWA racers didn’t enter. Bjorn Dunkerbeck held back; rumor was that the Pritchard brothers wouldn’t do it for less than $10,000 apiece; Robby Naish didn’t consider racing but did consider coming on as a TV commentator. This is understandable, as these guys have to think about their other commitments and obligations — not to mention the fact that one of the most important events of the PWA calendar, Sylt, was scheduled to take place just days after the projected end of the TransAtlantic. As a result, the only top-ten PWA racers to take part were Micah Buzianis, Robert Teriitihau, and Anders Bringdal.
The most impressive team, with two top-ten PWA racers and a rookie currently in the top 30, the Liberty team represented a corporate sponsor called, not surprisingly, “Liberty”.
American Micah Buzianis sailed for Greece in this race because that’s where the sponsorship dollars were. His team mates included Phillipe Adamidis, former Greek windsurfing champion, and Jean-Marc Fantis, the current Greek champ.
Planned as an amateur French team, last-minute sponsorship problems brought on seasoned British racer Jason Gilbert and his race gear and made it the European team which included two non-racing Frenchmen, Denis Pechere and Antoine Martin.
The American team didn’t follow the same pattern as the others, partly because of confusion over exactly how many racers should make up a team, partly because the original American pro team had to drop out for lack of sponsorship. In the end, the American team consisted of two very capable amateur sailors and two semi-pro sailors. The pure amateurs were Kiran Beyer (28), a pre-med student living in Washington DC, and David Weiss (35), a printer’s rep from Greenwich, Connecticut. The semi-pro sailors were Jace Panebianco (22), a good racer who could well be at PWA level in a few months time, and Eddie Patricelli (25), a seasoned windsurfing instructor for Big Winds in the Gorge and Vela in Aruba.
Our mother ship, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, affectionately known as “KK, “ is an ice breaker set up for pleasure cruises to Arctic and Antarctic destinations. A comfortable ship with hardworking and skilled crew, her most noticeable quality, a consequence of a tall superstructure and round bottom that make her well-suited to the task of breaking ice, is a tendency to roll profoundly.
Before we went to sea, rumor had it that the KK could easily roll 40 degrees to each side. That sounded like a lot—more heel than your average sailboat—but we didn’t really have a clear idea of what that meant until the KK left St. John’s harbor. It was a sunny, calm day. The sea was flat except for a four or five foot swell out of the northeast—from the side. Immediately upon leaving the shelter of harbor, the KK started to roll heavily—at least it felt to us like a heavy roll—and passengers started getting sick. The scary part was that the sickening rolls were felt at that time was registering only 4 degrees on the inclinometers —one tenth as bad as we could expect.
How bad did it get? During our first night at sea the shipped rolled about ten degrees each way. Practically no one slept—except those doped up on Dramamine to ease their sea sickness. Why no sleep? Imagine you’re in your bedroom at home and all the sudden the hangers in your closet start sliding to one end of the closet, then the other. Imagine unlatched doors start banging, brushes slide off the vanity, glasses spill their contents. Everything that isn’t tightly wedged into a secure place starts to bump, slide and rattle like animated toys in a teen horror movie. It’s like Poltergeist meets Titanic.
Of course the fun doesn’t really start until you’re rolling 30 degrees or more. Jace Panebianco knows about that. During an afternoon nap he was thrown out of his bunk, tumbled all the way across his cabin until he fetched up on the entry door at the opposite end. The subsequent roll sent him tumbling back the other way, till he fetched up, with some considerable damage to his leg and arm, on the other side of the cabin. The next couple of rolls had him sliding on his back, first one way, then the other until he finally gathered his wits enough to grab hold of something and stop the pain.
The Race Format
Since this event was billed as a race, not merely a crossing, organizers had to come up with some sort of race format. The original idea, that of letting sailors take off, sailing as fast as they could in the company of a safety boat (RIB for short) then regrouping at the ship from time to time didn’t go very far. Too dangerous. After all, windsurfers can hit top speeds of 30 mph or more, while the RIBs were often lucky to hit 20. Moreover, even if a RIB and windsurfer were able to do 30 for a couple of hours at a stretch, the ship preferred to cruise at only 15 mph. This meant that after just two hours of racing, the windsurfers and RIBs could be 30 miles ahead and would have to sit for two hours just waiting for the Kapitan Khlebnikov (KK) to catch up.
The first alternative race plan used for the first day, was much more sensible. It involved racers waiting on the water for ten or fifteen minutes or more in the company of a RIB, while the ship steam ahead, stringing the other three ribs out along its wake. Once the ship was several miles ahead, the rib near the sailors would signal the start of a race and the sailors would be off. When the first one arrived at KK, he was to stop racing and allow the other racers and the RIBs to catch up. KK would keep steaming ahead and the cycle would continue, each time being scored as if in a separate race. This proved to be a safe and fair way to race, but when ribs started breaking down and some sailors found they had trouble dealing with the rough seas, it became too risky and time-consuming.
Thus, the race format was changed to a “cruise and sprint” format. Under this system, sailors were dropped in the water and required to immediately start sailing, keeping close to KK for one, two, sometimes three hours at a time. At the end of this “cruise” phase, racers were required to stop and rest in the company of a RIB while KK steamed ahead a couple of miles. Once KK had opened a sufficient distance, which varied depending on wind and sea conditions, the RIB near the sailors would signal the start of a sprint race to the KK. Sailor launch
Unlike most tasks related to getting sailors on and off of KK, launching the sailors was fun. According to a system worked out in part by the American team, a sailor would stand at the back of the KK, outside the guard rail, and wait for the OK to jump in the water. This OK had to come from the safety officer on the bridge and was relayed to the sailor by the race director, who was on the stern of the ship along with the sailor.
In the meantime, the sailor’s team mates had prepared the board and rig for launch by connecting the two and raising them overhead near the rail of the ship—sail head inboard, board and sail foot over the rail. On the “go” from the race director, the team mates would throw the board and rig over the side—generally projecting them anywhere from 20 to 40 feet away—and the sailor would immediately jump in after them. We loved doing this because it was relatively easy to do, it was safe for the gear, and because the sail and board always floated over the sea, or plunged precipitously into it, in an unpredictable but entertaining fashion.
Prior to the start of the race, Anders Bringdal, who had been in close contact with race organizers during months of planning, said he thought the water temperature during the race would be just above freezing and that air temperature wouldn’t be a lot warmer. As it turned out, the water temp was in the 50’s for the first two days, and once we got into the Gulf Stream instantly rose to the upper sixties and low seventies. Air temperature was coolest during the first few days, with morning lows in the fifties, but rose to the sixties after a couple of days. Indeed, on the warmer, sunnier days, sailors, spectators and crew could be seen on deck in shorts and T-shirts.
On the first day the wind averaged in the 12 to 18 knot range, the second day it tended toward 25 to 30 with gusts over 35. The third and fourth and fifth days it stuck right around a perfect 15 to 20, sometimes 25. It dropped to 12 on the sixth day and held a little higher than that on the last day.
Accurate wind speed measurement is difficult when your best and more reliable anemometer is located 100 feet up on top of a moving ship, and when the differences between gusts and lulls, swell crest and trough are on the order of 25 knots. One occasion when the ship was stationary, the wind speed measured at the top of the ship’s radar mast was 35 to 40 knots, while at the deck it was about 20. On the water, as measured by the RIB crews, it was ranging from about 12 knots in the troughs to about 18 or 20 on the wave crests.
None of the racers anticipated how hard sailing in big Atlantic swells would be. Everyone expected long, gentle ground swells combined with some sort of wind-driven chop. The reality involved two or three long, gentle ground swells, each of a different size and from a different direction, together with a layer of wind swell. The resulting cacophony of waves was to a windsurfer what the sound of an orchestra tuning is to a music aficionado. Making sense of it was difficult. Sailing at speed through the worst of it required balance and flexibility.
The swell caused even more trouble for the RIB crews and crane operator, as launching and recovering RIBs in 15-foot seas turned into a death–defying task. The ribs would frequently swing back and forth just clear of the helicopter deck like two-and-a-half-ton semi-inflatable battering rams. Trying to restrain them when they were in this mood was like trying to lasso the space shuttle during takeoff. Safety Gear
Rigid inflatable boats are, as the name suggests, partly rigid, partly inflatable. The rigid floor and vee bottom—the part that gives the boat its good sea-keeping qualities and speed—the part that takes the pounding of the waves and the thrust of the propeller—is built of fiberglass. The gunnels—the part that gives the boat its reserve flotation and stability—are inflatable tubes.
A high–quality RIB in excellent condition can keep up with a fast racer maxed out on a reach in flat water. As the water gets rougher, the RIB has more and more trouble keeping up. Unfortunately, the RIBs we were provided for this trip were former surplus boats and not in good condition. Indeed, the RIB crews had to install a new engine in one. The two fastest RIBs were capable of doing 25 knots in flat water and no wind. In rough water they barely managed 15 to 20.
Still, the way the racing was set up, trouble with RIBs never led to a hint of a safety problem and sailors felt confident their RIB–riding guardian angles would always be on hand.
Sailor Safety Packs
Ok, let’s state the obvious. While the sailors and organizers wanted to feel like the race involved the risk of death, and wanted the world to understand that it involved the risk of death, no one involved wanted to actually risk death. Hence, elaborate safety procedures were planned by the safety officer and carefully followed, in essence, by the sailors and crew. I say “in essence” because the original plans were not followed “in fact.” Indeed, as conditions changed from day to day, as understanding of the risks improved, and as the condition of the RIBs deteriorated, the safety procedures were constantly modified.
The original plan was that there would always be the same number of RIBs on the water as sailors. As RIBs turned up wounded in action, that number slipped from four RIBs for four sailors to three to two then to just one on the helicopter deck ready for launch in case of emergency. This wasn’t a dangerous deterioration of standards because weather conditions turned out to be far less intimidating than we had feared. Seventy–degree water and air in the sixties made sailors feel almost like they were vacationing in Bermuda and thoughts of hypothermia were, while not banished, remote. The risk of KK actually losing a sailor were slim to none.
Why? Teams were supplied, courtesy of the Liberty team, with safety vests equipped with a sky streamer (an inflatable kite capable of reflecting both light and radar signals), flares, a VHF# radio for communication with KK, a radio beacon and drinking water. Teams turned in their safety packs nightly for maintenance and check, and then picked them up in the morning for another day of use. No racer was permitted on the water without a safety pack.
To ensure this policy was strictly followed and to ensure the completeness of each safety pack, the race officer would examine every racer’s pack before permitting him to jump off the ship.
Recovering sailors from the water always meant getting them and their equipment into the RIBs first. From the RIBs they would hand their gear up to helpers on the KK and then climb a Jacobs Ladder (a rope and wood ladder used by harbor pilots to board ships) onto KK’s deck.
This sounds a simple enough procedure, but there’s more to it than you might expect. First, KK would have to slow and head into the wind— though after a few days and with time being short we managed to perform recoveries while steaming on course at 10 knots—leaving a lee on the recovery side of the ship. Andy (Groon, Race Director) would harness himself to the ship and climb over the life rail so as to recover rigs and boards without them smashing into the hull. RIB crews would be tossed a weighted line equipped with carabiners to which they would clip the rig or board, depending on which was being recovered. The recovery crew on the ship would haul the line in while the RIB crew would keep tension on their end of the weighted line. Failure to adhere strictly to this procedure ran the risk of damage to the equipment and RIB crew. In fact, the first time we varied from the usual routine we managed to utterly destroy a very fine Naish Noa 5.5 and the mast it set on—both much lamented losses.
That RIB crews had to operate close to the side, sometimes under the heaving side, of a 400-foot ship made the experience memorable.