An­other All-nighter

A sprint to start the Ha­vana race be­comes a sprint to the is­land it­self.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

O At a late-fall fundraiser for Long Is­land’s Oak­cliff Sail­ing, on the 49th floor of the down­town Nas­daq build­ing in Man­hat­tan, Ethan John­son, a sailor at Oak­cliff, bends the ear of Oak­cliff sup­porter Lec Maj, as­sess­ing his in­ter­est in spon­sor­ing a team to sail the 2018 Mi­ami to Ha­vana Race. Maj is in­trigued, and af­ter re­view­ing the num­bers with John­son a few months later, he agrees to spon­sor a team to do the race and join them on board as a trim­mer.

There’s one prob­lem, though. All of Oak­cliff’s nine off­shore race boats are 1,317 miles north of Mi­ami, perched on stands, slum­ber­ing with a dust­ing of fresh snow on their shrink-wrap cov­ers. All of them but one: Weegie, a Columbia Car­bon 32. It’s on a trailer, ready to hit the road. John­son ral­lies a squad, in­clud­ing two of his Oak­cliff mates, Sean O’hal­lo­ran, who will nav­i­gate, and me, serv­ing as on­board reporter and trim­mer. He also re­cruits Webb In­sti­tute stu­dent Tommy Hickey to trim. It’s a young team with plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence, but none when it comes to rac­ing to the land of cigars and clas­sic cars.

John­son and O’hal­lo­ran haul Weegie non­stop from Oys­ter Bay, New York, to Del­ray Beach, Florida, in 23 hours. With the help of Hickey and Maj, they han­dle most of the prep work while I spend a few ex­tra days in the of­fice be­fore hop­ping on a plane to meet them on Weegie at Mi­ami’s Key Bis­cayne YC two days be­fore the start.

When race day ar­rives, we drag our­selves out of bed at 0430 and hit the road for a 1000 start. We ar­rive at the start­ing area, and as a sign of good luck, be­hold the sight of a whale breach­ing right on the line. The mag­nif­i­cent crea­ture dis­ap­pears as we reach across the start in an easy 15-knot breeze.

The five of us on our 32-footer are plenty fast over the ground, but it isn’t long be­fore the race’s larger boats roll on past. “We’re in kind of an awk­ward com­bi­na­tion for Weegie,” says John­son as we watch them stretch away. “We’re on the cross­over from the blast reacher to the code zero. We’re pow­ered up, but the wave sets are re­ally un­pre­dictable right now.”

The wind soon backs, al­low­ing us to drop the code zero and launch the A1.5 spin­naker. The ma­jor­ity of the fleet re­mains in­land to avoid the worst of the Gulf Stream cur­rent, but we sneak far­ther off­shore, where, for about an hour, we skirt along with a 1-knot cur­rent boost from an un­der­wa­ter back eddy swirling around the drop-off of the con­ti­nen­tal shelf. Mean­while, the in­land boats plow into a knot of cur­rent and sail into a patch of light breeze. With the wind and the wa­ter work­ing in our fa­vor, we con­tinue to make gains to­ward the fin­ish, stay­ing hot on the heels of our main com­pe­ti­tion on board the race’s two Class 40s: Pri­va­teer and Dragon. Dragon had won the two pre­vi­ous edi­tions, so it’s our tar­get to beat.

O’hal­lo­ran’s plan is to hug the Florida Keys un­til we’re ready to cross the Stream be­fore send­ing it straight to Ha­vana.

“Dragon won last year by go­ing for it su­per late,” O’hal­lo­ran ex­plains. “This year, we’ll have to cross ear­lier be­cause the wind is sup­posed to clock east.”

This is the third time Weegie has been this far off­shore since be­ing do­nated to Oak­cliff in 2017. Pre­vi­ously, there was the An­napo­lis to New­port Race and the Chicago Mack­inac race, when John­son and O’hal­lo­ran suffered through steep waves and 30 knots on the nose, for hours. Con­di­tions for this race, how­ever, are much more to their lik­ing: 16 knots off the stern quar­ter, which is enough for the 30-footer to plane down the steep 4- foot waves. Th­ese are also the con­di­tions for which the Columbia 32 was made. It was de­signed to be the small­est boat that could pos­si­bly win the Transpac Race from Los An­ge­les to Honolulu.

With Weegie per­form­ing at its best, the crew pumps the sails to keep it plan­ing with every wave, ca­reen­ing head­long into the dark night. We jibe back and forth be­tween the north­east-bound Gulf Stream to port and the Florida Keys to star­board un­til O’hal­lo­ran de­cides it’s time to make a move to­ward Cuba. We can barely see any­thing in the dark, moon­less night ex­cept for two white lights off our port bow.

“White over white, short tow in sight,” I state aloud. A 700- foot barge ex­tends across the black hori­zon, and even worse, it’s mov­ing in our di­rec­tion, pushed along by the tug­boat Coura­geous. Hickey checks its length on the AIS and then checks its clos­est point of ap­proach. At our cur­rent speed, we can cross Coura­geous a mile ahead, which is the keep-away dis­tance for most com­mer­cial ves­sels.

We con­tinue surf­ing waves, push­ing for every ounce of boat­speed un­til a spot­light il­lu­mi­nates our sails. The beam is fol­lowed by a deep, boom­ing foghorn. It’s Coura­geous. Hickey hails them on the ra­dio: “Tow­ing ves­sel this is the sail­ing ves­sel

What is your keep-away dis­tance?” “Our keep away dis­tance is 2 miles,” is the re­ply. “Please al­ter your course.”

Al­legedly, they were car­ry­ing dan­ger­ous cargo, which re­quires a greater keep-away dis­tance. We curse like sailors while O’hal­lo­ran weighs our op­tions. Time is tick­ing. We have to cross the Stream soon or we’ll pay a steep price later. He checks the AIS to see if the Class 40s have crossed, but they are out of range. He grits his teeth and makes the call: “We have to slow down. We have to let Coura­geous pass.”

It’s an ag­o­niz­ing de­lay, with each minute lost threat­en­ing to drag us down the cor­rected time slider, but as Coura­geous’ stern rum­bles past, we set­tle into a fast groove. When Cuba is in our crosshairs, O’hal­lo­ran swaps out with John­son to get some sleep, but just as he starts to doze off — bang! — the spin­naker hal­yard fails, and the kite cas­cades silently into the wa­ter.

“All hands on deck!” John­son shouts from the helm. Maj and I scram­ble into ac­tion, teth­er­ing and un­teth­er­ing to the jack­line as we make our way to the low side. We try to gather the mas­sive sail, but it’s fill­ing with sea­wa­ter. O’hal­lo­ran comes back on deck to lend a hand, haul­ing the sail out of the wa­ter be­fore at­tach­ing a sec­ond mast­head hal­yard. Maj then hoists it, mak­ing for a quick re­cov­ery but a costly mishap in a race that re­quires every minute to be ded­i­cated to­ward go­ing as fast as pos­si­ble.

The night wears on; we ca­reen down waves into the dark and tepid Gulf Stream. We are run­ning low on sleep. At 20 knots, it’s im­pos­si­ble to get de­cent rest in this 32-foot car­bon-fiber shell.

The breeze re­mains a stiff 25 knots with higher gusts, and the waves grow larger and steeper. The en­tire boat vi­brates as we notch a top speed of 22.5 knots. John­son’s knuck­les are truly white as he clenches the tiller with all the con­cen­tra­tion he can muster. His eyes are heavy, and while the phys­i­cal and men­tal fa­tigue are set­ting in, he’s pre­pared. He grabs a Red Bull for a sugar- laden jolt and plays a care­ful bal­ance on the helm. Steer too low buries the bow in the wave trough; steer too high and it’s wipe­out and cleanup in Aisle 9. But John­son, Hickey, and O’hal­lo­ran are in harmony and keep the rig up­right.

The sun rises with an orange glow that stirs a sec­ond wind within each of us. A few hours pass be­fore we see Cuba’s hilly out­line on the hori­zon. A few more hours and Ha­vana’s jagged cityscape comes into view. With the home stretch be­fore us, morale is high un­til we check the AIS to see that Dragon is al­ready re­turn­ing home from Cuba. They’ve turnedand-burned af­ter fin­ish­ing the race. They have to beat us by ap­prox­i­mately three hours, so John­son checks our ETA: ap­prox­i­mately three hours.

We push our tired bod­ies to keep the boat as fast as pos­si­ble on its lines be­fore cross­ing the fin­ish line with an elapsed time of 25 hours and 32 min­utes. A ques­tion lingers among us as we clean up the boat for ar­rival: Our time is good, but will it be enough to slay the Dragon?

We steer to­ward Ma­rina Hem­ing­way, when, co­in­ci­den­tally, a whale breaches a few hun­dred feet away. We tie up at our slip, and John­son and I de­scend be­lowdecks for the cus­toms in­spec­tion. When we emerge, O’hal­lo­ran’s pointer fin­ger is pro­jected sky­ward, his face bear­ing a big grin. “Numero uno,” he de­clares.

Seven­teen min­utes is the mar­gin of vic­tory, and with that we light up a cigar, roll out the Cuban courtesy flag and lock arms for a pic­ture. All in a day’s work. Q

Coura­geous, Weegie.

Af­ter a long night on board Weegie in the 2018 Mi­ami to Ha­vana Race, the ris­ing sun spurs a sec­ond wind in tired crewmem­bers Ethan John­son, Lec Maj and Sean O’hal­lo­ran.

OAK­CLIFF SAIL­ING

Weegie’s lee­ward rail parts the Gulf of Mex­ico as the breeze builds, car­ry­ing the crew of the Columbia Car­bon 32 at pace to­ward Ha­vana. PHOTO : FRAN­CIS KARL GE­ORGE /

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