Speed to Burn

We were preparing to pass Ambrose Light, the traditional starting point for record attempts from New York City. The wind was gusting over 25 knots, and we had reefed the mainsail and were flying a mid-sized jib. Bearing away to cross the starting line, our boatspeed shot up to 20 knots—and pretty much stayed there for the next four days. I’ve done plenty of sailing over the years—multihull sailing no less, in events like the Tybee 500 catamaran race and the Extreme 40 Grand Prix Circuit—but this kind of performance was something new to me.

I recently got a first-hand look at the world of shorthanded, long-distance racing as part of the three-man team on the IMOCA 60 Estrella Damm going from New York to Barcelona, Spain. With me were Spanish sailors Alex Pella and Pepe Ribes, both in training for the Barcelona World Race, a doublehanded event set to start from Barcelona December 31. Racing against us were Spanish sailors Pachi Rivero and Antonio Piris and my fellow New York Yacht Club member Peter Becker, aboard the nearly identical Open 60 W Hotels. Both boats were vying to set a new speed record between the two cities, a record that has since been officially recognized by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.

One of the things that amazed me during my time aboard Estrella Damm was the depth and breadth of sailing knowledge required to handle a boat like this. Solo sailors have no one but themselves to rely on. They need to be able to fix everything, no matter how big or complicated.

Shorthanded sailors also need to perform all the sailing tasks that are otherwise compartmentalized on a fully crewed boat. Navigation, sail trim, steering—solo sailors must master all of these skills and more.

Perhaps the most difficult skill of all is knowing when to push the boat, and when to back off. Sail changes are time consuming and require lots of energy. They can also cost you a lot of distance. A headsail change on a windy reach, for example, may require that the boat be turned downwind. At 25 knots true windspeed, Estrella Damm will sail downwind at 15 knots without even trying. By the time the crew has furled one sail, unfurled the other and gotten back on course and in the groove, the boat has likely sailed miles in the wrong direction.

I also learned a lot about pacing. Pepe is an America’s Cup veteran and a veteran of two Volvo races, aboard Movistar and Telefonica Blue. He is a no-holds-barred competitor with tremendous all-around sailing skills and incredible stamina. Alex, on the other hand, is more the pure solo sailor, with extensive experience in the Mini Transat and other solo events. Equally skilled in boat handling, he has a fine sense of how to conserve both the boat and his strength over the long haul.

In the end, we made it from New York City to Barcelona in 12 days 6 hours and 3 minutes, about 11 hours ahead of W Hotels, which fell behind when a collision with an unknown object out in the Atlantic damaged the boat’s port rudder. Although only a short jaunt compared to the three months it will take Alex and Pepe to sail around the world this winter, it was an experience that has shown me a whole new side of sailing.

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