PASSAGE- MAKERS

TWO EX­PE­RI­ENCED OCEAN RACE RS FIND AWAY TO FEED THEIR APPETITE FOR OFF­SHORE SAIL­ING AND SHARE IT WITH OTH­ERS.

Sailing World - - Starting Line - BY DAVE POWLI­SON

IT’S 0100, AND WE’RE MORE THAN HALFWAY TO BER­MUDA. WE’VE

changed from the spinnaker to a jib and have dodged two in­tense storm cells on the front edge of a long line of weather that we’ve been watch­ing de­velop in front of us since sun­set. The full moon and bright stars of the past four nights since leav­ing An­tigua have dis­ap­peared be­hind the storm clouds. With no vis­i­ble hori­zon or clear def­i­ni­tion be­tween sky and sea, we’re fly­ing on in­stru­ments alone.

Ahead are three much more sig­nif­i­cant cells, a sys­tem too big to cir­cum­vent be­cause there’s lit­tle wind. On deck are Chris Jones and Olivier Le­duc. Be­low, in front of the radar screen, watch leader and boat owner Mor­gen Wat­son, with part­ner Meg Reilly look­ing over his shoul­der, calls out head­ings for a course that should guide us be­tween two of the three cells.

Light­ning strikes be­come more fre­quent, and much closer as the cells merge into one. The light wind means not only are we mov­ing at a snail’s pace, but the cell is as well, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to thread the nee­dle on our radar screen. There is no es­cape route. All we can do is sail a prob­ing, zigzag course through the dark­ness, hop­ing to break out some­where soon. We step over the thresh­old, into the storm. Light­ning strikes oblit­er­ate night vi­sion. Tor­rents of rain be­gin drum­ming on the cabin top, and Wat­son must shout to be heard. As he calls out head­ings, he yells en­cour­age­ment up to Jones and Le­duc: “Come on now! I need you to stay fo­cused! You got this!” The front of the boat dis­ap­pears from view in the rain. Amid the sim­mer­ing ten­sion, Joel Ross, a rig­ger from Van­cou­ver, calmly patches a small spinnaker tear on the sa­lon ta­ble un­der the green glow of his head­lamp. There is con­cern but no panic. Work must be done, and the recog­ni­tion that there is noth­ing to do about what’s hap­pen­ing around us en­cour­ages us to press on. By 1:30, the cell is be­hind us, and the chute goes up again. The next morn­ing, Wat­son re­marks in typ­i­cally Cana­dian un­der­state­ment, “What a night that was, eh?”

We’re aboard Her­mes, a Pogo 12.5 and, at 40 feet, one of the two small­est boats in the 21-boat fleet sail­ing the 935-mile An­tigua to Ber­muda Race. While vet­eran Caribbean rac­ers re­call a few at­tempts at this course in the 1970s, most re­gard this as the in­au­gu­ral event, one they hope will pro­vide an ex­cla­ma­tion point to a highly at­tended Caribbean racing season and give boats from north­ern climes an or­ga­nized event to get them well on their way home. And, of course, there’s the tim­ing, this year at least — the America’s Cup tri­als start less than a week after the boats ar­rive in Ber­muda.

Her­mes, how­ever, is driven by other mo­ti­va­tions. Owned by Wat­son and Reilly, it’s the plat­form for Ocean Rac­ers, a fledg­ling op­er­a­tion

OCEAN RAC­ERS PRO­VIDES AN OFF­SHORE RACING EX­PE­RI­ENCE FOR THOSE BIG WITH ASPIRATIONS BUT SHORT ON CON­NEC­TIONS.

that pro­vides off­shore-racing ex­pe­ri­ence for those who are large on aspirations but short on con­nec­tions. While there are pay-to-play sail­ing ad­ven­tures avail­able for am­a­teur sailors to gain ex­pe­ri­ence, Ocean Rac­ers’ goal is not to just to get peo­ple off­shore, but to also cre­ate a net­work of off­shore sailors that will help launch sail­ing ca­reers.

“We’re not re­ally in­ter­ested in do­ing this for peo­ple as a hobby,” says Wat­son. “There are pro­grams for that, but if you want to work pro­fes­sion­ally in the in­dus­try, we’re here to help you get those miles.”

Wat­son and Reilly re­fer to most of their clients as “As­pir­ing Off­shore Ath­letes” (AOAS), with the in­ten­tion that those aspirations will even­tu­ally be ful­filled.

There are also those who don’t nec­es­sar­ily want to be­come pro­fes­sional off­shore sailors but have spe­cific goals in mind — such as Jones and Le­duc. Jones, a busi­ness lawyer from Toronto, sails a Beneteau 36.7 and has been a sup­porter of the pro­gram since the start. For this trip, his fo­cus is nav­i­ga­tion, one piece of the off­shore puz­zle he wants to put in place be­fore tak­ing the plunge on a larger boat with greater off­shore am­bi­tions. Le­duc, a hy­draulics en­gi­neer from Mon­treal, is an F-18 and C-class cata­ma­ran sailor. “I’ve done de­liv­er­ies be­fore but never any ocean racing. I’m here be­cause I want to check out this type of sail­ing to see if it’s some­thing I’d be in­ter­ested in,” he says when we first meet in An­tigua be­fore the start of the race. “It’s a part of the sport I’m re­ally not fa­mil­iar with.”

The idea of an off­shore race train­ing pro­gram was born when Wat­son and Reilly, both 23 at the time, met while sail­ing in the 2013-14 Clip­per Race, an around-the-world race for am­a­teurs. Pre­vi­ous to the Clip­per, Wat­son had ex­pe­ri­ence on tall ships, along with some keel­boat racing in Van­cou­ver. Reilly had never sailed be­fore. They par­layed their Clip­per Race ex­pe­ri­ences into a life­style busi­ness with the pur­chase of the IMOCA 60 O Canada, nee Spirit of Canada, the boat that Cana­dian Derek Hat­field sailed in the 2008 Vendée Globe un­til re­tir­ing in New Zealand. They found it sit­ting on the hard in Van­cou­ver, and Reilly and Wat­son pro­posed to form Cana­dian Ocean Racing, with a mis­sion to de­velop off­shore sail­ing in Canada in ex­change for use of the ves­sel. Char­ter­ing it for two years, pay­ing a dol­lar a year, they took their show on the road, cam­paign­ing the 60 in Van­cou­ver, Hal­i­fax, Mon­treal, Kingston, Toronto and Que­bec, and en­list­ing po­ten­tial AOAS along the way.

They then set their sites on the world stage, tak­ing O Canada trans-at­lantic to Europe. How­ever, once abroad, their ef­forts sput­tered. By the time the boat was back in Cana­dian wa­ters, they had con­cluded the Open 60 was “way too big and too high per­for­mance,” says Reilly. This, com­bined with an un­wieldly oper­at­ing bud­get and bare-bones ac­com­mo­da­tions (for in­stance, there is no head—only a bucket), made

clear it was the wrong plat­form for the pro­gram.

“That’s when we de­cided to in­vest in the Pogo 12.5, which is still a high-per­for­mance boat. We can race it, but it has some crea­ture com­forts,” says Reilly. Along the way, they dis­cov­ered other ad­van­tages to a scaled-down op­er­a­tion.

“I like to get ev­ery­one in­volved in ev­ery as­pect of the sail­ing,” says Wat­son. “It pro­vides team build­ing, bet­ter co­he­sion, and pro­vides [our clients] with a lit­tle dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. If we were run­ning a boat with a crew of 15, that just wouldn’t be pos­si­ble.” Her­mes car­ries a max­i­mum crew of six, which opens up par­tic­i­pa­tion pos­si­bil­i­ties for ev­ery­one aboard. “At the end of the day,” says Wat­son, “it’s about them hav­ing a good time and learn­ing some­thing — even if it’s not some­thing about sail­ing. Maybe they learn some­thing about them­selves. Sure, we love to finish on the podium, but hav­ing a good time and learn­ing some­thing is re­ally the bottom line.”

Watch them at work, and you’ll see what Wat­son is talk­ing about. En route to Ber­muda, all tasks are shared, and we can do as much or as lit­tle as we want, ex­cept for cook­ing din­ners, which is Reilly’s do­main. Le­duc puts in a lot of time on the helm and con­trib­utes to sail trim, as do I, while Jones and Wat­son fre­quently hud­dle around the com­puter or chart, fo­cus­ing on nav­i­ga­tion. Ross also does his share of steer­ing and helps out with rig­ging main­te­nance. One light-air af­ter­noon, Ross is prep­ping the main hal­yard for end-for-end­ing once the trip is over, and with a sim­ple in­quiry from Le­duc about eye splices, the cock­pit turns into a class­room on splic­ing. The learn­ing con­tin­ues with ev­ery mile.

Apart from tran­si­tion­ing to a more man­age­able and more pro­duc­tive plat­form, Wat­son and Reilly ex­panded their mar­ket­ing ef­forts be­yond Canada, a shift sig­naled by re­brand­ing the pro­gram as Ocean Rac­ers but with con­tin­ued fo­cus on AOAS. Ross is one of their suc­cess sto­ries. A former catcher for Que­bec’s pro­fes­sional base­ball league, he joined the pro­gram in the O Canada days and sailed the boat trans-at­lantic. He’s gone on to do the Caribbean 600 and Fast­net Race, and he and Wat­son have their eyes set on dou­ble­handed off­shore races in an Open 40 — if they can find the fund­ing.

“The big­gest ob­sta­cle is that we’re young,” says Reilly. “Peo­ple might think we’re in­ex­pe­ri­enced be­cause of our age, but Mor­gen and I have al­most 200,000 nau­ti­cal miles be­tween us, so we ac­tu­ally have more ex­pe­ri­ence than most. Be­cause we’re de­vel­op­ing this on our own, that cre­ated chal­lenges, es­pe­cially when it came to find fund­ing.” But there are miles, and then there are miles. “Naiveté was our best as­set,” Reilly adds. “Look­ing back, we didn’t know how dif­fi­cult it would be.”

But be­cause Reilly and Wat­son weren’t able to ac­knowl­edge — or per­haps re­fused to ac­knowl­edge — any lim­i­ta­tions, the sky be­came the limit. They knew there were a lot of peo­ple, like them­selves, who were seek­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

At first glance, Wat­son and Reilly rep­re­sent the epit­o­mic odd cou­ple of sail­ing. She is the fire­brand, a New Jersey na­tive with a broad smile, brim­ming with as­sertive con­fi­dence and ea­ger to take on the world. And yes, she re­ally did sail the Clip­per Race with no sail­ing back­ground. The boat she was on won it, mak­ing her the youngest fe­male sailor to win an around-the-world race. The one you’ve never heard about. She bills her­self as a “mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive and en­tre­pre­neur,” and uses those skills to keep the Ocean Rac­ers or­ga­ni­za­tion on track.

Wat­son, on the other hand, looks like an ocean racer — a solid build with sun-bleached hair and trimmed beard. Soft-spo­ken, he’s a hard­work­ing boat tech­ni­cian able to main­tain ra­zor­like fo­cus on prob­lems, but also ca­pa­ble of breaking into in­fec­tious laugh­ter at the drop of a hat. At 27, both main­tain a mil­len­nial aura of un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm, and with cell­phones al­most per­ma­nently in hand, they’re al­ways con­nected to each other and the world.

De­spite its name, Ocean Rac­ers is not lim­ited to just racing ex­pe­ri­ence, as the pro­gram of­fers slots aboard for passage-mak­ing as well. “We have a woman who’s do­ing the passage from Ber­muda to New York with us,” says Wat­son. She was orig­i­nally look­ing to race, but she’s never done a lot of off­shore, so I sug­gested she step back, do this passage with me, and then we’ll come back and look at racing.”

He has three oth­ers with him for the de­liv­ery as well. “Cruis­ing is quite dif­fer­ent. I do a lot more coach­ing and train­ing, which is what I did with the Clip­per [Race],” he says.

Wat­son and Reilly read­ily ac­knowl­edge the busi­ness it­self has been no easy passage.

“If I knew in ad­vance that I was going to be liv­ing on a boat and eat­ing peanut but­ter and jelly sand­wiches and barely mak­ing it fi­nan­cially, I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have done this,” says Reilly. “But even so, it’s a great ex­pe­ri­ence. It helped us in the sense of be­liev­ing we could do it, and it helped us through chal­lenges be­cause we didn’t know that we couldn’t.”

As soon as we set foot on the docks in Ber­muda, Reilly and Wat­son have a chance en­counter with a vet­eran ocean racer who en­cour­ages them to make a run at the Volvo Ocean Race. Phones ap­pear, num­bers are crunched, cal­en­dars cross-checked, and ex­cite­ment sky­rock­ets. The Open 40 plan dis­si­pates like morn­ing fog. On the hori­zon, there’s a new moun­tain to climb, and if the duo’s track record is any sort of in­di­ca­tor, they’ll even­tu­ally find a way to get there. Q

EN ROUTE TO BER­MUDA, ALL TASKS ARE SHARED, AND WE CAN DO AS MUCH OR AS LIT­TLE AS WE WANT.

JA­SON PICKERING

Chris Jones (left), the au­thor, and Olivier Le­duc put the Ocean Rac­ers Pogo 12.5 Her­mes through its paces on a prac­tice day be­fore the start of the An­tigua to Ber­muda Race. PHOTO :

D AV E POWLI­SON

Ocean Rac­ers co­founders Meg Reilly (left) and Mor­gen Wat­son (op­po­site, on left, at chart ta­ble) par­layed their col­lec­tive pas­sion for ocean racing into a busi­ness that gives would-be rac­ers ac­cess to ocean miles. PHO­TOS :

Chris Jones and Olivier Le­duc join Meg Reilly and Joel Ross in one of the many quiet mo­ments of the An­tigua to Ber­muda Race. Built for dou­ble­handed racing, the Pogo 12.5 is an easy boat to man­age with many hands. PHOTO : D AV E POWLI­SON ( L ), JA­SON PICKE

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