Chasing Atlantic

In 1905 Charlie Barr and the crew of the 185-foot schooner Atlantic crossed the Atlantic, from New York to the Lizard, England, in 12 days, 4 hours, and 1 minute. Going by today's offshore racing standards, a 12-day transatlantic passage is a cruise, especially when compared to maxicat Playstation's crossing in 2001; Steve Fossett's team sprinted across in 4 days and 17 hours, riding the edge of a burly front the entire way. But, thanks to a number of technicalities, Barr's milestone crossing has lasted 100 years as a record.

It's a race record to be exact. The record must be set on the New York-to-Lizard course and in a race administered by the New York Yacht Club. And you can't use powered winches. Since the famous race of 1905, the club has held only one other on that course, in 1997. Knowing this takes some of the shine off of the ole skip's performance. But consider this: Barr's passage time stood unbeaten for 75 years. In 1980, French solo legend Eric Tabarly crossed on the trimaran Paul Ricard in 10 days and 5 hours.

The key delineation between a race record and passage record is timing. On a passage-record attempt, an all-pro maxicat team can time its departure according to the right weather window; a race start is fixed, and not always during the Atlantic's windy season.

The frontrunners of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge fleet won't need a fast-moving weather system to average 10.33 knots and knock off Barr's race record; they left Saturday from New York. In all likelihood, the 100th anniversary of Atlantic's transat crossing will celebrate a new record time.

There are 20 boats racing. The average length is 116 feet. The smallest boat is the 75-foot Palawan, a Ted Hood design. Stad Amsterdam, a 252-foot schooner, is the biggest. The pacesetters, sailing in the Grand Prix class, are Mari Cha IV, Robert Miller's 140-foot canting-keel schooner, and the new all-out racer Maximus. The long odds (historical aside: the Great Race of 1866 was a hot gambling ticket) are on the MC IV team, no stranger to the North Atlantic's weather and all-important current patterns. In 2003 they completed the same passage in 6 days and 17 hours.

Somehow you get the feeling that the Mari Cha crew had a different experience than the Atlantic sailors. "It was all pretty tame when we did it last time, as it was our first big trip," said MC IV skipper Mike Sanderson. "We did our first 525-mile day, and half of us didn't even get our wet-weather jackets on. We were just cruising along at 25 knots."

The event is not just about recordbreaking. There are some classics entries, and most of the entrants are more concerned with having a safe passage than with busting records. The Classic fleet includes the 80-foot Fife ketch Mariella, the 1938 ketch Nordwind, and the 94-foot Fife ketch Sumurun, which is owned by Rolex Transatlantic Challenge chairman Robert Towbin.

After a one-day postponement caused by Saturday's gale, a parade of sail was held the morning of the start. Competitors fell in line behind a pilot boat and paraded from Pier 88 to the Battery, sailing by onlookers at the Battery. Then the fleet headed to Ambrose Light for the race start.

The other race across the Atlantic
A week after the Rolex start, a group of solo sailors will race the other way across the Atlantic, from Plymouth, England, to Newport, Rhode Island. The OSTAR, in which the “O” stands for original, returns to its roots. This year's running is the amateur spin-off of last year's high-profile Transat Race; because the pro scene has grown so big, the race was split in two. Plymouth's Royal Western Yacht Club, longtime OSTAR host, kept control of the amateur event, and on May 29 French, German, British, and American solo sailors will take off from Plymouth, England, many of them self-funded.

The Americans are led by Etienne Giroire, who won the 40-foot multihull class in the 1992 OSTAR, and monohull sailor Philip Rubright. Though it will lack the glamour and grandness of the Rolex TC festivities, pre-race events include a party for the Half Crown Club (OSTAR vets). And Val Howells, who sailed the inaugural event in 1960 in his folkboat EIRA, will be the official race starter.

Josh Adams

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