The Zaraffa Transatlantic Journal
SAIL’s deputy editor Josh Adams crewed aboard the 66-foot Zaraffa in the DaimlerChrysler North Atlantic Challenge, 3,600 miles from Newport, Rhode Island to Cuxhaven, Germany. Designed by Richel/Pugh and owned by Skip Sheldon of Shelburne, Vermont, Zaraffa went into this race as a favorite (she was the overall winner of the 2002 Newport-Bermuda) and was first to finish by a large margin. Josh says he “had a blast.” This is Zaraffa at the start. Our man Josh can be seen fourth from right (but count carefully). Here are Josh’s journal entries:
Wednesday, June 18: The Point Alpha Report—
Three days, sixteen hours to cover 1,100 miles from Newport to Point Alpha, and it was kind of strange sailing southeast for three days when the finish is northeast of us, in Germany. Getting to Alpha was a wicked ride at times. It blew 20-30 Monday, with occasional blasts to 40 knots at the masthead. Inside the warm water eddies north of the Gulfstream and inside the Stream itself, seas built to 15 feet, tops breaking. With two reefs in the main and a variety of headsails (we looked at numbers 4 and 5, jibtop, staysail), we were absolutely trucking on a beam reach. Our top speed was 25 knots, and at times we averaged 15 knots with added boost from the stream. Mikey Joubert noted, “And this is suppose to be the light-air part of the race.” We have a passel of Volvo veterans on board, and naturally the blow was right up their alley. Neil (McDonald)’s standard goodbye when he goes off watch: “Well lads, good luck, and be sure to call if there is any fun to be had.”
To get to the Stream, Rudi [navigator Mark Rudiger] had us chase down the back end of a low pressure system that intensified as we closed. We hopped from eddy to eddy on the north side of the Stream, enjoying an elevator ride (up to 3 knots) on the north edge of each warm-water eddy. We dipped into the Stream for a while, but the warm-water sailing is now over—hmmm, warm thoughts of the North Sea?
The journal continues below . . .
We went to Point Alpha to stay clear of ice, but thanks to reports from a patrol plane, we’re warned to watch out for ice today as we head northeast in light winds, straight into a sea of leftovers. Next waypoint is the top of Scotland, 1,800 miles ahead.
I’m bunked in the forward cabin with watch captain Richard Clarke. Now that the winds are light we’re able to laugh at how miserable the conditions were belowdecks on Monday night. As the bow surged off waves, we had to brace for touchdown; a few times my hands would rise off my body as the boat launched off a wave. A peculiar characteristic of Zaraffa is the loud humming noise the keel makes when vibrating at 14 knots of boatspeed—sometimes the boat would hum constantly for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I’m winning the smelly boot contest, hands down.
In the thrash, the aft companionway leaked like a sieve, and the seawater hydrated some powdered milk and mashed potatoes. Lovely mess. Wednesday’s sunshine, however, provided a great opportunity to clean house and dry the gear. The sun break is nice, but we’d like to keep munching miles.
Since the start in Newport we have seen zero boats, and we’re told that we are 230 miles ahead of second place; a nice reward for pressing the boat hard in the big breeze. Sailing in no company is quite the contrast from Saturday’s start, which was a classic Newport scene with scores of spectator boats and more than 50 raceboats. The start was set between a flag on the Fort Adams shore and the Dumplings bell #11 on the Jamestown side. We nailed the start at the Jamestown end, thanks to good shot-calling from Geoff Ewenson, sailed for the dependable Newport-side lift, then headed out the Bay to the first mark at Beaver Tail. Pretty fun scene for two miles as friends, family, and photographers followed us out by motorboat. All that seems long ago from here, now. For company we have only passing ships, occasional whales, scores of flying fish, and the race.
Friday, June 20: From the deck of Zaraffa—
Look—a container ship!
Nope, an iceberg the size of two city blocks.
Nope, a massive fish-packing ship.
No, gotta be ice.
Hours of deep study of an Unidentified Floating Object 16 miles away from Zaraffa, (spotted by eye, binoculars, and radar) led us to the conclusion that it was in fact a mammoth iceberg in the shape of a perfect block. We were so convinced that our navigator, Mark Rudiger, filed a report to the fleet over satcom C. Then the Unidentified Floating Object moved off the radar screen in the dark of night. Was it really ice? We may never know.
It was strange to spend time contemplating ice only hours after cruising along in summer-like conditions—in 60-degree Gulfstream water, under a clear blue sky, moving easily in soft winds—but this was just one of many contrasts we experienced during another eventful 24 hours of sailing. Having been thrashed most of the way to Point Alpha, we seized this interlude of fair weather to clean belowdecks, dry our sails, bail the bilges, air out the sea boots and gear, and sail for a few hours barefoot and shirtless.
We knew it wouldn’t last, and by mid-afternoon Wednesday the high-pressure ridge had moved on, leaving northwest winds that built to 25 knots. We left the Stream, the water turned cold, and skies went grey, visibility low. It was time to put the gear back on, and another 24 hours went by in record time for Zaraffa;we banged off 340 miles in one 24-hour period. Until today we’ve been reaching with a variety of asymmetric spinnakers. The seas have been friendly for surfing, allowing us to push top speeds into the mid-20s. We’re hoping the Zaraffa hull/sail selection is better suited for surfing conditions than the boats chasing us. So far the top speed is 25.6 knots. At this writing the trip log tells us we’ve banged off 1,657 miles, averaging 11.8 knots.
Now Rudiger announces an approaching low packing 30-to-40-knot winds. We’re lined up to get this latest buster from the southwest, which will allow us to reach (at speed) to the top of Scotland. The boys are already calculating our eta in Cuxhaven,—a move certain to bring light air. Freeze-dried food has made an appearance, though Zaraffa skipper Skip Sheldon is saving the boat’s signature salmon feast for a special night.
Sunday, June 22: Feeling the chill
Welcome to the North Atlantic of my dreams. Our latitude is 55 degrees north. Sea temperature is 49 degrees, and the air can’t be much warmer. The Low to the northwest has settled in, pushing us along in 25-knot winds from the southwest. The seas are big enough to surf Zaraffa; big enough to make me feel queasy sitting belowdecks at the keyboard as I write this.
Step into my foul-weather gear and imagine being just barely warm enough for the conditions, save 10 cold toes. I have on a silk base layer, a layer of capilene, and heavy mid-layers underneath new Musto offshore smock top and pants. I have on a balaclava, Gore Tex gloves that leak, and thick woolies underneath my Dubarry boots. Next watch I’ll add a Gore Tex sock layer and hope they do the job. Winches and tether clips are cold to the touch. Judging by the eager waiting line at the winch grinder, the boys can’t be much warmer than I am.
There are upsides. Skip’s oatmeal is so warm and good it could be eggs benedict. Today’s snack, beef jerky, goes down like hot slices of pizza. The heads are now to leeward, a big improvement compared to the battle against gravity in the Gulfstream.
Most satisfying is the sailing. Being at the helm of Zaraffa today is reason for being. Surfing with our power-reaching setup (jib top, staysail, full main) is effortless in the right wave pattern. The helmsman might as well be Longboard Larry riding a Santa Cruz swell.
We blew up the Code Zero last night. After hours of reaching in 20 knots and being stressed at a tight apparent wind angle, it finally achieved mortality. The high load shattered the sail near the head, luff to leech. An all-hands call had it off the deck and down below to Dave Flynn and Richard Mason’s makeshift sail loft within minutes; 12 hours later the repair is still under way. The jib top went up in its place and continues to do brave service as we pass the 2,200-mile mark (from Newport), a few hundred miles away from Rockall Bank.
Monday, June 23: Death By Freeze-Drieds
It takes all kinds to sail this boat. The United Nations of Zaraffa includes an Aussie, a Kiwi, a South African, a Canadian, a Brit, and seven Americans including an Okie, a Vermonter, and a citizen of the Republic of Northern California whose papers may or may not be in order. We have a sailmaker, a rigger, a doctor, a farmer, and a former submarine designer. The giraffe’s crew includes a former Olympian, an Olympic hopeful, several world champions, and 11 circumnavigations combined. We’ve got a big-wave surfer, a Harley rider, a former green belt, and a Canadian who can’t play hockey to save his life. We have a lone supporter of the Republican party, nary a sailor who can carry a tune, and, all told, a boatload of experts on life. What brings us together on this tenth day of racing across the North Atlantic, other than the shared desire to spend part of the summer of 2003 in decidedly unsummerlike conditions far from land and “real” life, is a hot pot of freeze-dried food.
We’ve come to the end of Del and Skip’s prepared meals and are left with 1,000 miles of the alternative. [Editor’s note: Those of you who have been to sea know this really matters.]
As a long distance maxi-cat sailor once put it: “Add water, heat, eat, meal over.” However, bringing these meals to their full glory is not a simple science. Some onboard specialists in the cuisine have their own, favorite ways to prepare freeze-drieds, to bring out the subtle aromas and textures. For example, there is the warm-water-soak school versus hot-water-soak school. There is also the British (very British?) school of soaking in cold water for two hours, though our man Neil has found very little support for it aboard .
Juggy’s rule of freeze-dried survival is to hydrate your body before and after consumption in case the food isn’t fully hydrated. He says it will absorb your body’s water content: “It’ll kill you from the inside out, mate.”
Last night’s homemade beef stew was a Last Supper of sorts. Now, when our tanks are empty (common occurrence), we’ll rely on honey-lime chicken, “barely beef” stroganoff, chili mac, and scrambled eggs. Some call it food.
Wednesday, June 25: The North Sea Riddle: Any Cheap Gains?
During last night’s graveyard shift we cleared the top of Scotland—rounding Fair Isle, between the Orkney and Shetland Islands— and took a right turn. Now we’re faced with our biggest tactical challenge—crossing the North Sea.
The Azores High is mammoth, stretching about 4,000 miles across the Atlantic and northward, forming a huge hurdle on the home stretch. Cuxhaven is now 480 miles away at the mouth of the Elbe—dead to windward.
Looking at the big picture, Mark Rudiger has to decide when we should cross the ridge; he’d like Zaraffa positioned about 50 miles east of rhumbline early Friday morning, ready for a favorable shift to the east. In the small picture, he wants us to pick any “cheap gains” we can until the big shift.
We’re hoping that we’ve put enough money in the bank. The North Sea is a challenge, and the boats behind have a nice runway to Fair Isle.
On a different note: Reaching the Orkneys was a pleasant change to days of jib-reaching monotony. For the first time since the start from Newport 11 days before, we were in sight of land and life (a few fishermen). Gannet birds soared with us, and skittish puffins dashed beneath the water’s surface at first sight of the giraffe. The gulls here are shaped like beer cans;short and stout. The sun rose to the north at 0230 as we passed Rona Island, and the sky never went fully dark last night thanks to our well-lit latitude of 59 30 N. Once the sun was up, the wind dropped. Bowman Greg Gendell might have to hang up his harness and move aft, considering his latest shift on the helm. He did a bang-up job keeping the boat at pace in touch-and-go wind conditions.
The excitement of rounding Fair Isle was quickly overshadowed by real thoughts about the next few days and what could be a long road home. Gotta hit the rack.
This report, including quotes from Zaraffa owner Skip Sheldon and navigator Mark Rudiger was put out Wednesday, June 25 by DaimlerChrysler North Atlantic Challenge organizers:
Skip Sheldon’s racing machine Zaraffa is not only extending its lead on the fleet of 59 boats but is looking to establish a new racing record that could hold for a very long time. With probably two days to go, Zaraffa’s navigator Mark Rudiger summarized the boat’s race to this point.
“We were able to come off the backside of a low pressure system, and we were unconventional in taking a more northerly route from the start,” he said. “We were anticipating northeasterlies, so we could almost fetch the Gulf Stream— easier for us than for boats that went lower. We took our medicine early, so to speak. It was critical for the big picture. We had a four-hour window to catch the train on this cold front and we were on the leading edge for a week, surfing it. Had we arrived four hours later at Point Alpha, we would have missed the train. We were fortunate to get on.”
The boat’s owner, Skip Sheldon, said, “The feeling is one of enthusiasm and caution. We’ve had an extraordinary trip. The feeling of the group is that we have at least 2 more days—with wind on the nose.”
He then summarized the three great features of this race, “The Gulf Stream leg to the turning mark, the meteorology to get to Fair Isle and, most difficult of all, the shallow North Sea with its notorious currents.”
How does the weather picture weigh on the boat now? Rudiger said: “We’re sniffing the barn and wanting to get there, but first we have to cross high pressure. Tomorrow will be a tough day. Once we cross, we’ll be in good shape.”
Friday, June 27: The Home Stretch
Sixteen hours after rounding Fair Isle—at the northern tip of Scotland, and turning right into the North Sea—we parked Zaraffa in an unfriendly calm. This was not the rough and tumble North Sea you read about, and it wasn’t a pretty picture. Not what we needed to finish out a race in which our navigator Mark Rudiger had made some very, very good bets.
Each watch took a turn at tacking the boat through wildly shifting zephyrs, trying to muster speed from our lightweight, aptly-named windseeker. Knowing that the rest of the fleet was high-tailing it to Fair Isle in a big breeze behind us only compounded our light-air frustration. Then, at 0100 last night came a generous gift, a 10-knot easterly gradient wind blowing from the direction of the Danish coast. We’ve been rumbling ever since (that’s 16 hours as I write this, knock on wood) while pointing at the barn.
Burning flames on the tops of North Sea oil rigs lit up the sky last night. The sun emerged from a heavy fog bank around 0300—a beautiful sight—and we’ve been enjoying a rare day in in full solar. As Zaraffa’s skipper Skip Sheldon said, “This could be Penobscot Bay.”
Barring another park-up, we estimate arriving at the finish in Cuxhaven some time Saturday morning, local time. The final approach on the Elbe River is expected to throw more curves at us. Probably there will be some light-air beating, with commercial traffic to dodge and shallows to avoid.
After we’re over the finish line we’ll power Zaraffa 50 miles up the river to Hamburg, where the race really ends—at the dock—and we’ll call all hands for a celebration. Then it’s time for much-needed rest for boat and crew.
That’s it for writing, unless something wild happens. More from Hamburg.
Tuesday, July 1: Report from Hamburg
Sometimes you get lucky. Zaraffa is in Hamburg, and the rest of the fleet is not.
Zaraffa’s run of good bets and good fortune started early in the race and continued through early morning last Saturday as we approached the finish line of the transatlantic race at the mouth of the Elbe River in Cuxhaven. Just as the easterly appeared to be losing its weight—we were braced for a long night of light air—the breeze built again from the same direction and kept us steaming along at 8 to 9 knots. We arrived at the Elbe along with a 2-knot flood current pushing us upriver, a stroke of fortune that helped us pilot through congested ship traffic and hurry to the finish line at a good pace.
After a warm reception from the locals—an escort from a fleet of powerboats, fireboats blasting water at the finish line, and the delivery of bags of food and cold beer—we were given a status report for the rest of the fleet. As of that time (and now still; Monday in Germany), no other boat had reached the North Sea and it looked like tough going for boats approaching Fair Isle at the top of Scotland. There were reports of 40-knot headwinds packed into a massive low pressure system tracking its way toward the UK. We’re watching this system closely as it could advance the fleet down the North Sea, turning this into a close race for corrected time.
The Zaraffa crew is thanking its lucky stars that we were able to stay one weather system ahead of the fleet. This race has turned rough for the boats still out there; the list of retired boats grows daily, most recently including Meltemi and Zephyrus V. Team 888, the ex-Kingfisher, is sailing a great race. They’ll be hard for us to beat on corrected time (IRC) should they maintain their average speed of 11-plus knots; the Monday morning sked had them just trailing us on IRC scoring, and it wouldn’t take much for them to get ahead. Their performance seems remarkable—following an awful delivery to Newport, —Team 888 suffered major damage to a daggerboard after hitting a whale and ran low on food as the trip stretched to almost three weeks. Now, in the race, they’ve smartly played the Stream and the heavy weather en route to Scotland. The remaining question for them (and for us as we watch closely) is what will the North Sea offer.
Zaraffa skipper/owner Skip Sheldon deserves the booming reception Hamburg gave him, his family, and crew on Sunday. After a night of rest in Cuxhaven, Skip steered Zaraffa up the Elbe, where locals greeted us by boat and from shore. The Zaraffa escort included two fire boats, powerboats filled with local sailors and members of Hamburg’s historic sailing club, the NRV, and daysailers happy to celebrate our passage. This is Sheldon’s third transatlantic; he finished second with Aurora in the 1993 transatlantic race from Newport to Southampton. In recent years he’s led Zaraffa to victories in the Bermuda Race (winning the prestigious Lighthouse Trophy) and in class in the Fastnet. This transatlantic race has been one his primary goals ever since it was announced.
Skip, who assisted ace navigator Mark Rudiger, is most pleased with our efficient route to Germany. The Great Circle route Rudiger picked had us sailing roughly 100 miles more than the shortest possible distance. We were able to sail this track by keeping the weather behind us. The only headwinds we faced were on the North Sea. We’re also watching Snow Lion’s progress. The 50-footer skippered by New York Yacht Club commodore Lawrence Huntington is our teammate. In the last week they’ve sailed very well and are on track to be top five to Cuxhaven with good times in both IMS and IRC.
Zaraffa has already shifted from racing to cruising mode; the 66-foot carbon/Kevlar cruiser-racer is a spacious, comfy cruiser once the racing sails and gear for 12 crewmembers have been removed. The Sheldons, including wife Del and daughters Zoe and Greta, departed Hamburg Monday for the Stockholm archipelago in Sweden. Skip will return to Hamburg July 11 to collect the boat’s first-to-finish trophy . . .and a few more, we hope.
The transatlantic race is organized by the Norddeutscher Regatta Verein, of Hamburg, with the support of the New York Yacht Club. Hamburg is hosting a maritime festival to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hamburgischer Verein Seefahrt, a non-profit organization that makes its yachts available for youth ocean sailing and racing purposes. Its yachts, all named Hamburg, have undertaken 38 Atlantic crossings and an around-the-world race. Over 150,000 visitors per day are expected in the historic seaport during the weeklong celebration.
Lots more on the race:
DaimlerChrysler North Atlantic Challenge.