Thirty years after the first Singlehanded Transpacific Race, there’s a grassroots, run-what-you-brung, let’s-celebrate-life spirit still thriving in West Coast shorthanded sailing. You won’t find any French celebrity sailors with million-euro budgets. Nobody’s out to beat the world; they’re out to beat their friends. But if you’re thinking pushover, you haven’t met those friends. Let’s pick just a few highlights from one case study, singling out Skip Allan from 22 entrants in last summer’s singlehanded race from San Francisco Bay to Hanalei Bay, Kauai, Hawaii:
Allan’s Wildflower was built on a budget and it’s been sailed, hard, on a budget; don’t bother trying to sell this guy any gadgets he doesn’t need. This handy little boat has solo-cruised the Pacific (twice) and Alaska. There is no better case study of what it really takes. Skip hands his visitor “the instrument panel” (photos page 50). That, or we’re looking at a mockery done up with marking pens in a moment of wry. Every high-tech advance is at your fingertips, if you have an active imagination. Drawing a comparison between himself and his buddy and sometime shipmate, the grand-prix navigator Stan Honey, Allan says, “Stan and I are friends, but we’re polar opposites when it comes to technology.” For his part, Honey—he won the 1994 Solo Transpac with the fastest time in all 100-plus California–Hawaii crossings in Cal 40s since 1965—remembers Skip as “one of the big kids when I was growing up at LAYC [Los Angeles Yacht Club]. He was already a legend, winning everything, and I would say now that along with being a great shipmate, in the traditional sense, he is one of the 3 or 4 best seamen on the planet.”
Threatened with being pegged here as Robert M. “Skip” Allan III, per the official Transpac history book, Skip responds with a silence and a gulp and says, “I’m not really a fan of references to ‘Robert M. Allan III.’ It’s so not me.” But the man has good genes. His father, Bob, crewed the 1949 record passage to Hawaii of the schooner Morning Star and developed new weather protocols from knowledge gained during WWII. Skip, following youthful success in the Star class, lived the life of a professional sailor and migrated from Southern to Northern California. He has “not been paid to race in five years,” which requalifies him as an amateur, but not your average amateur.
Allan placed second in the inaugural Solo Transpac 30 years ago. That leaves unfinished business. Wildflower’s IOR/Half-Ton “pumpkin seed” shape should not, no way, have been faster through the water than the Santa Cruz 27 that won for Norton Smith, who, Allan is quick to say, “sailed a heck of a race.” But an unspoken thought hangs in the air: What if they had switched boats?
Wildflower is very 1970s; forget high tech. Skip says, “Actually, there is some carbon fiber on board,” and whips out a knee brace that he doesn’t expect to be wearing much. He adds, “Crossing solo is easier than going doublehanded [oops, add to our highlights listing Wildflower’s overall win in the 2002 Pacific Cup, competing doublehanded with Tad Palmer aboard].
“Sailing doublehanded, you feel obligated to hand-steer,” Allan says. “After a week of three hours on, three off, you’re fried. Going solo, self-steering is on duty most of the time and it’s a little slower, but we accept that.”