For ea­ger sailors short on ocean-rac­ing skills, Wayne Zit­tel has the ul­ti­mate im­mer­sion ex­pe­ri­ence.


a tall, lanky South­ern Cal­i­for­nian whose youth­ful de­meanor be­lies his sev­eral decades as a pro­fes­sional sailor, de­scribes the emo­tions most of his stu­dents ex­pe­ri­ence through the early hours of the 1,000-mile San Diego to Puerto Val­larta Race.

“The first thing I tell them,” says Zit­tel, owner of J/ World Per­for­mance Sail­ing School in San Diego, “is that 36 hours into the race, you’re go­ing to climb into your berth, you’re go­ing to be wet, you’re go­ing to be cold and you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to be sea­sick.” They’ll be think­ing, This is the stu­pid­est thing I’ve ever done. Then comes Stage 2: won­der­ing why they signed up in the first place. A strong de­sire to get off the boat comes next.

Then they start ques­tion­ing why they’ve paid so much money for so much mis­ery.

“But 48 hours later,” Zit­tel says, “they’ll have the spin­naker up and fly­ing, the boat is level, and it’s sud­denly the coolest thing they’ve ever done.”

Once they fin­ish and suck down their first mar­garita, they can’t wait to do it again. Con­sider that Stage 3.

There are nine of us on board J/world’s cus­tom 46-footer called Cazan, a grand-prix cruiser/racer weapon from the ear­lier days of IRC. We’re three days into the race, it’s Mon­day morn­ing and we are catch­ing our col­lec­tive breath af­ter the pre­vi­ous night’s wild ride. Zit­tel’s prophecy is true. The mis­ery is gone, re­placed by the ec­stasy of swift and mes­mer­iz­ing downwind sail­ing.

The breeze has built overnight, into the low 20s, and we’re surf­ing 5-foot swells un­der sym­met­ric spin­naker and full main. The boatspeed num­bers on our dis­plays oc­ca­sion­ally twitch higher into the mid­teens. Ear­lier, when the wind peaked a few knots higher, Zit­tel and our two other J/world coaches, Paul Mart­son and Pa­trick Far­rell, took over the helm, stand­ing watches. The full moon rose in the east, il­lu­mi­nat­ing the Pa­cific ahead, as they kept the bow pointed into the il­lu­mi­nated run­way, a white rocket ca­reen­ing through the night. Liftoff seemed a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­ity.

Be­low deck, I could feel ev­ery rud­der move­ment, no mat­ter how slight. The roar of white wa­ter tum­bling against Cazan’s top­sides made con­ver­sa­tion dif­fi­cult. Sleep was nearly im­pos­si­ble. Wind­speed was a sus­tained 20 knots un­til, around about 0400, a 29-knot gust filled the sails. With Mart­son at the helm, the dig­i­tal read­out jumped to 18.5 knots — a Cazan record. The on-watch crew erupted in cheers.

Now, in the wan­ing morn­ing light, the wind drops to what now seems a be­nign 25 knots. Fif­teen over the bot­tom is the new norm. “How lucky we are,” com­ments crewmem­ber Jim Lussier. “Not many peo­ple get to ex­pe­ri­ence some­thing like this.”

Lussier and I, along with Zit­tel, Mart­son, Far­rell and four oth­ers, are sprint­ing past the Baja Penin­sula, aim­ing for the mouth of the Sea of Cortez and even­tu­ally Ban­deras Bay be­fore pulling into Puerto Val­larta, Mex­ico. For a boat like ours, it’s usu­ally a five-day jour­ney. Apart from the three coaches, there are six J/world clients.

“We usu­ally get three types of peo­ple,” Zit­tel ex­plained to me while we trained in San Diego. “Those for whom it’s an ad­ven­ture — they’ve al­ways dreamed of do­ing an off­shore race to Hawaii or Mex­ico, and it’s on their bucket list.”

There’s also those who want to be­come more in­volved in off­shore rac­ing, but know they need more ex­pe­ri­ence. Quite a few of Zit­tel’s clients have their own boats else­where in the United States. Al­though his oper­a­tion is called J/ World, there’s only a loose con­nec­tion to its name­sake, J Boats. Orig­i­nally started to pro­mote J/24 sail­ing, J/world spun off into a sep­a­rate busi­ness that, on the West Coast, in­cludes bases in San Francisco, San Diego and Puerto Val­larta. Al­though its rep­u­ta­tion is pri­mar­ily as a rac­ing school, it runs learn-to-sail classes as well as ba­sic cruis­ing and bare­boat­ing.

It’s an en­try point for peo­ple into the sport, Zit­tel says, but with the re­cently ac­quired DK46 and the Santa Cruz 50 Hula Girl (once cam­paigned by Hall of Famer Paul Ca­yard) in J/world’s sta­ble, rac­ing con­tin­ues to be the pri­mary draw. Zit­tel’s oper­a­tion is booked sev­eral years out for the Pa­cific Cup, from San Francisco to Hawaii, as well as the Transpac Race, from Los An­ge­les to Hawaii. Races to Mex­ico re­main sta­ples of his port­fo­lio.

“Run­ning an ex­pen­sive race boat is not the best busi­ness de­ci­sion I’ve ever made, but I think we of­fer an un­par­al­leled ex­pe­ri­ence,” Zit­tel says. “We have a lot of re­peat clients. They know what it costs to run their own boats. They know that by rac­ing with us, it will be pen­nies on the dol­lar. They know they’ll get a pro­gram where every­thing’s go­ing to work on the boat and the coaches will be per­son­able and pro­fes­sional.”

As one would ex­pect, J/world boats are manned by a wide range of sailors. With us on this South of the Bor­der sprint is Lussier, from San Francisco. He’s been a char­ter cruiser, but he was in­tro­duced to rac­ing when he took a class in J/80s at J/world Puerto Val­larta a few months ear­lier.

Mart­son men­tioned the PV race to Lussier, Zit­tel says. “He said, ‘Holy smokes! That’s cool. Send me the info.’ Three days later, he had signed up for it.”

Kati Ru­bis is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist from Vir­ginia who has raced a lot on J/105s and J/109s. She had yet to do an off­shore race of any stature. “I was look­ing for events like this on the East Coast,” she says, “but there weren’t too many op­tions. Then, I saw this one.”

Mark Gra­ham hails from Lake Ja­como, near Kansas City, Mis­souri, and races Sweet 16 dinghies. He signed on with the J/world team for a race to Hawaii in 2005. Mex­ico would be his next ad­ven­ture.


Mitch Parkin­son, from Saskatchewan, Canada, a small-boat sailor and oc­ca­sional cruiser, says he took his wife’s ad­vice to heart. “She told me that if I wanted to do this, I bet­ter do it sooner than later.” Con­sider it done. From Austin, Texas, comes Ian Mcabeer, another dinghy sailor look­ing to stretch his sail­ing hori­zons. And when ev­ery­one as­sem­bled aboard Cazan in San Diego a few days be­fore the race start, they were per­fect strangers. So how does Zit­tel get nine rel­a­tive strangers to live to­gether aboard a 46-by-13½-foot plat­form and com­pete as a team around the clock for five or six days?

It’s not easy. The first day’s assem­bly be­gins with a team meet­ing to al­low ev­ery­one to get to know each other. The group then moves to Cazan, where Zit­tel and com­pany ex­plain a brain-cram­ming ar­ray of de­tails be­low deck, in­clud­ing how to use the rather unique head, ac­ti­vat­ing the man-over­board sys­tem, ex­plor­ing the con­tents of the first-aid kit and get­ting fa­mil­iar with the gal­ley.

As we hand over our pass­ports to be placed in the boat’s ditch bag, the ex­pe­ri­ence starts be­com­ing real. This is way more than a plea­sure cruise down the coast. Stuff can hap­pen. At­ten­tion must be paid.

Next, a dis­cus­sion about life aboard and what each of us will ex­pect. I catch oc­ca­sional fleet­ing looks, and I can al­most hear the in­ter­nal ques­tions burn­ing as ev­ery­one’s siz­ing up their mates: How is this re­ally go­ing to work? Is that per­son go­ing to pull their weight? Will I mea­sure up?

In one team-build­ing ex­er­cise dis­guised as boat prepa­ra­tion, we or­ga­nize the sail in­ven­tory. Even in­stalling bat­tens is dif­fer­ent from back home. Zit­tel has pre­s­e­lected the sails we’ll carry; we flake a quiver of jibs and band spin­nakers with yarn. Then comes the safety over­view, fit­ting of in­flat­able life jack­ets and in­struc­tion on the use of teth­ers. For those in the crew hail­ing from in­land pud­dles, ocean rac­ing is new ter­ri­tory.

The fol­low­ing morn­ing, we’re back on board Cazan, study­ing its deck lay­out and spar sys­tems. It’s an un­usu­ally cool San Diego morn­ing. The lo­cals are wear­ing down jack­ets, while those of us from colder climes are happy to be in shorts for a change. Stand­ing on the dock, watch­ing and lis­ten­ing to Zit­tel and Far­rell go over every­thing from how to avoid a winch over­ride to the steps in a spin­naker peel is a bit daunt­ing for those en­ter­ing un­fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory.

As the af­ter­noon tem­per­a­tures warm, we mo­tor away from our slip and set out for a prac­tice sail on a sun-drenched af­ter­noon where the lessons go from the­o­ret­i­cal to prac­ti­cal. We don’t have time to go over every­thing we’ve learned on the dock, but we strengthen our sea legs and sharpen our senses for what the next five or six days will bring.

There’s an over­rid­ing phi­los­o­phy be­hind the cam­paign. “We’re go­ing to do every­thing we can to do well in this event,” Zit­tel tells the green squad, “but we’re not go­ing to let any­thing that goes wrong — whether it’s a break­age or sail­ing into a wind hole and be­ing parked for 24 hours — stand in the way of our two pri­mary ob­jec­tives. We’re here to have a fun time and for ev­ery­one to walk away feel­ing they’ve learned a lot.”

As we pass through the start­ing line on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, with the Coron­ado Is­lands just ahead, I’m re­minded of what Zit­tel said ear­lier about this type of race: “A trip like this, if it’s suc­cess­ful,


will take you through the full range of emo­tions — ex­cite­ment, bore­dom, maybe even a lit­tle fear. And that’s what it’s all about.” The guy knows what he’s talking about. We stand three-hour watches. As one per­son goes off watch, another comes on, which pro­vides con­ti­nu­ity to how we sail Cazan. A coach is al­ways on deck, usu­ally Far­rell or Mart­son, plus three clients. We ro­tate through the po­si­tions — an hour trim­ming, an hour grind­ing and an hour steer­ing, and through­out, we’re fed a steady diet of coach­ing. They do every­thing they can to make it our boat, our game — they’re on the side­lines as much as pos­si­ble.

Only when we get into tougher con­di­tions do they jump in and take con­trol. “When it gets windy, I let the coaches take the helm,” Zit­tel says. “Af­ter one breezy Hawaii race, one of the crew told me that he was re­ally a bit fright­ened he would break some­thing, mess it up for the whole team. So, I play the bad guy, and in­stead of the coaches telling some­one it’s too much for them and tak­ing them off the helm, I do that.”

We in­di­vid­u­ally log more than 20 hours at each po­si­tion. The big­gest im­prove­ments come at the helm. Al­though we’re sail­ing al­most en­tirely downwind, the great­est chal­lenges come at the ends of the spec­trum — light air, which re­quires a deft, sub­tle touch, and gusty con­di­tions, where steer­ing down and through the big ocean waves is clearly a prac­ticed art.

I watch Far­rell, a young, Mid­west­ern trans­plant who has tran­si­tioned into the laid-back Cal­i­for­nian life­style with ease, work with Lussier in the light stuff, coach­ing him about when to drop low to build speed and how high to go be­fore turn­ing re­sum­ing course. Lussier strug­gles early on, but Far­rell is pa­tient and per­sis­tent. Be­fore we pull in to Val­larta, Lussier will take great strides, as will ev­ery­one else.

We pass be­tween the Coron­ado Is­lands un­event­fully. The only ex­cite­ment is an air­craft car­rier bound for San Diego. On Satur­day, 120 miles down the race­course and still on the heels of the faster boats in our class, a wind­less bor­der wall ap­pears be­fore us. For the bet­ter part of a day, we, along with a nearby 35-footer, sit be­calmed. At one point, Zit­tel ap­pears in the com­pan­ion­way like a prairie dog and an­nounces, “The good news is the cur­rent is push­ing us down the course at over a knot. Bad news is that we’re look­ing at fin­ish­ing around 800 hours from now.”

Once the wind fills, we spend the rest of the race try­ing to chase down the lead­ers, a tall task on a slower-rated boat. The TP52 Patches, which started a day af­ter us, crosses us, and a Gun­boat 62 jibes nearby, but apart from freighters and seabirds, the world ex­ists only aboard Cazan. We have a rou­tine. Parkin­son and I are the only two who don’t serve watch to­gether. He comes on when I go off, and vice versa. We de­velop an un­spo­ken sys­tem in which we each oc­ca­sion­ally ar­rive on watch early. Af­ter long hours on deck in the mid­dle of the night, it’s a wel­come re­lief.

Gra­ham works qui­etly on keep­ing us fast, of­ten com­ing on watch early and help­ing out with trim­ming. When the wind is up, he’s the first one on the rail and en­cour­ages oth­ers to join him. Mcabeer not only stands his watch, but also ma­te­ri­al­izes in dif­fer­ent places on the boat with Go­pro cam­era in hand, cap­tur­ing high­lights. Ru­bis, who has a bot­tom­less re­serve of en­thu­si­asm and usu­ally crews on the boats she sails, is a nat­u­ral helmsper­son. As her stint at the wheel nears, an­tic­i­pa­tion ap­pears in her eyes. Lussier is our go- to chef for lunch sand­wiches. He’s mem­o­rized ev­ery­one’s pref­er­ences. Mart­son and Far­rell con­tinue coach­ing, 24/7.

By Thurs­day, we’re close- reach­ing across the mouth of the Sea of Cortez, es­corted by dol­phins, with the Ban­deras Bay fin­ish line grow­ing in clar­ity on the chart plot­ter. We’re charg­ing along in 15 knots of breeze, surf­ing warm, cobalt rollers, un­der a full main and asym­met­ric spin­naker. A few of the crew con­cede to miss­ing their out­bound flights. Those with later flights are worry- free un­til, 52 miles out, the wind shuts off again. Zit­tel and Mcabeer swim while the rest of us seek shade any­where on deck. It’s too hot be­low.

We await a sea breeze that never ma­te­ri­al­izes, and with the fin­ish line al­most dead downwind, we’re many hours away. It’s late af­ter­noon, and Zit­tel con­sults with ev­ery­one. The con­sen­sus is to pull the plug. “Sure, we want to do well,” Mart­son says, of­fer­ing a con­so­la­tory note as the diesel en­gine chugs in the back­ground, “but it’s re­ally about the ex­pe­ri­ences peo­ple have.”

Each of us shares a high point. For me, it’s surf­ing downwind in 25 knots of breeze at sun­rise Mon­day morn­ing and watch­ing the speedo touch 16.5, my per­sonal best aboard Cazan. Or maybe my abil­ity to in­stantly fall asleep as soon as I hit the pipe berth. Or get­ting to know a unique team of sailors. Or per­haps sim­ply mak­ing land­fall in Mex­ico. The list keeps ex­pand­ing.

As we pull into Puerto Val­larta at 0100 on Fri­day, we see a small ensem­ble on the dock next to our slip. There’s an elec­tric gui­tar, box drum and a singer. They play “Tequila,” and then “La Bamba,” be­fore an un­ex­pected de­tour into Pink Floyd ter­ri­tory. But hey, we’re also greeted with tequila shots and lo­cal beer, so clar­ity comes even­tu­ally. The dis­ap­point­ment of our re­tire­ment is al­ready fad­ing. It’s not a big deal; we all knew this was more of a train­ing ex­pe­di­tion than a quest for a podium spot. As we walk down the dock, Ru­bis says, “Even though we didn’t fin­ish, this was all worth­while.”

Stage 3 sta­tus achieved. Q

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