My eyes open after only one deep droning buzz from my alarm clock. I’m already half awake, my mind focused on a strange noise outside the shabby two-story Myrtle Beach hotel. As I stare at the cracked popcorn ceiling, I realize what it is: the sound of a northwesterly whipping through the small complex of buildings. It isn’t exactly what I want to hear after seven straight days of racing a small beach cat 90-plus miles a day all the way from Miami Beach, Florida (not to mention the 80-mile night leg we’d just sailed).
But this is the Worrell 1000, one of the most grueling sailing events in the world, so it’s supposed to be tough, right?
I sit up and rest my feet on the cold vinyl floor tiles. My knees are stiff, as are my neck and back from holding the same tense position on the very back of our Nacra 20 catamaran, Team Castrol, day after day. It’s 2002, I’m only 27 years old, the second youngest sailor in the race, and I can’t help wondering how the other guys feel. That thought helps me put some warm clothes on and shoot out the door. Outside, I can hear the wind whistling through boat rigging. When sailors hear that they know it’s going to be an interesting day.
I make my way down to the lobby for breakfast: carbs needed. My teammate, Jay Sonnenklar, is eating already. He has 14 years on me, but his blue eyes are sharp and steady as I sit down across from him with my waffle-filled plate. Jay is a man of few words, and there isn’t much to talk about anyway. We’d known this front was coming for the past week. We also know what we have to do. The motto of the race is: We Gotta Go! Stages are never canceled.
Welcome to the world of endurance beach cat racing.
A Race Like No Other
Long-distance beach cat racing has a long history, stretching back to the 1970s. Over time, specific races have come and gone, but the concept has endured, both as an object of fascination for observers and an obsession for many participants. Even in this day of foiling America’s Cup boats and mega-tris circling the globe, there’s nothing like beach cat distance racing for a combination of adrenaline and sheer guts.
The Worrell 1000 first kicked off in 1976 when Chris Worrell bet his brother Michael he couldn’t sail from their Virginia Beach bar to Florida. The resulting marathon event began with Hobie 16s and eventually flipped around to become a 13-day stage race starting from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, featuring Inter 20 catamarans. It eventually closed up shop the year after Jay and I took part due to financial problems.
After that came the Tybee 500, from South Miami to Tybee Island, Georgia, which basically consisted of an amazing six-day spinnaker run up the coast along the easiest legs of the Worrell 1000. The Tybee 500 ran for eight consecutive years from 2003-2010, until life experiences took race organizer, Chuck Bargeron, in other directions. Mike Worrell passed away that same year leaving behind a legacy of the greatest catamaran distance race on the planet.
Today, the Great Texas 300 (gt300.com) is the only multistage distance race still running in the United States that is longer than a weekend event—that and a new event kicking off in May called the Florida Endurance Catamaran Race (florida300). While few people may associate Texas with ocean racing, the four stages of the Great Texas—which begins in South Padre Island and finishes in Galveston—involves excellent bluewater sailing on the Gulf of Mexico. There’s also a regular daily sea breeze allowing for champagne spinnaker sailing, and organizers open the final 40-mile leg to the general public. I’ve competed in the Great Texas twice, in 2005 and 2012, and it was a great experience. The 2012 edition involved a range of conditions, from blast reaching in big waves to twin-trapeze 80-mile spinnaker runs. In the end, the difference between my team and the second-place team was literally a single offshore storm cloud that helped push us to victory.
The Florida Endurance Catamaran Race, another four-day event that begins May 18 in Key Biscayne, Florida, and finishes in Cocoa Beach, also looks promising. Among the organizers are Tybee veteran Bargeron and a number of other multihull mavens, including South Florida racer Dennis Green. There are already plans to possibly grow the event into a multi-year series culminating in another 1,000-mile race similar to the Worrell.
No matter what the exact venue or distance, in beach cat events like these you are battling the elements as much as the competition. Veteran round-the-world racers who did the Worrell called it “The Everest of Sailing,” because it was so intense. The race’s other moniker, “Iron Men, Plastic Boats,” was not just catchy, but true. Completing a multi-stage distance race is a triumph of the soul, which leads to a real camaraderie between competitors. To this day, some of my closest friends are those I met in the Worrell. Although we are on different boats and competing against one another, we share triumph and disaster together. Our experiences make us cherish life that much more.
No matter what the race, the extreme nature of this kind of sailing becomes apparent even before the start—which is right off the beach, no matter what kind of surf is running. Then there’s the leg itself, Mother Nature’s torrid navigational/weather challenges and the finish: again, right up onto the beach, and heaven help you if surfers think it’s a great day. A good shore team is crucial, not only to truck your gear from stop to stop and help prepare meals for when you’re offshore, but to help mending broken bodies and broken boats.
Wrightsville Beach or Bust
Which brings me back to that eighth day of competition in the 2002 Worrell...
From Myrtle Beach, the coast runs north until it makes an abrupt easterly turn at the only obstacle on the leg, Cape Fear. Actually, Frying Pan Shoals, which extend 26 miles east of the cape, is probably where the “fear” part comes from. After the cape, the route bends north until the finish flags on the breakwater of Blockade Runner Resort in Wrightsville Beach.
After our morning pre-brief I go to my room to get my gear—including the dreaded team drysuit I’d nicknamed “Big Red,” which has been neatly placed on my bed by our ground crew, Debbie Greene and Jay’s wife, Laurel. We have a total of six ground crew. In a race like this, it is important for the sailors to just sail, eat and sleep. Everything else is too stressful.
Down on the beach, Chris “Boat Guy” Runge already has our sails up, spinnaker packed, shackles taped and splices whipped in time for the morning boat check. As I look around through the blowing sand, I notice the other racers seem a little uneasy. They peer offshore, at the trees and at the top of their rigs. Nothing they can do, though, will make the wind subside.
The 10-minute horn sounds. Since the breeze is offshore, the 19-boat fleet is lined up with its bows pointed away from the water. If we spin with the wind the boat will shoot off the beach in an instant, so our plan is to turn the boat at 15 seconds and hold it there until the start horn. Because we won the previous leg into Myrtle Beach we have the pole position, and they will definitely see us if we go early. In this nautical “Tour de France” the team with the lowest elapsed time wins, and the race committee punishes early starts by adding 10 percent to the total time for the day. We are in a real dogfight with three other boats and a 10 percent penalty would kill our chances for victory.
When the 15-second mark comes, we spin the boat in the wet sand just above the surf line and hang on. The wind is gusting to 30 knots, and I notice that Chris, who is clutching our rear beam with his feet dug into the sand, is slowly being pulled toward the water. Luckily, the horn sounds just in time, Chris lets go and we jump onto the boat in only a few inches of water. Just as we are getting situated on the trapeze, though, a huge gust slaps us, the bows plunge into the murky depths and poor Castrol goes from 25 to 2 knots in an instant. As it does so, Jay and I fly through the air and splash into the water ahead like two “Big Red” maraschino cherries in a cold blue martini.
Flipping a beach cat in the ocean is scary, especially in a big breeze. The capsized boat can drift twice as fast as a person can swim. If we become separated our race could be over. Luckily, when he pops up 15 feet away from the boat, Jay is still attached to his trapeze wire. As we pull ourselves back onto the boat, red spacesuits and all, the fleet tears by. By the time we’ve righted her and are ready to race again, they are toothpicks on the horizon, all of them staying close inshore.
We, however, follow the rhumb line, straight toward Cape Fear using a tactic specific to distance racing—now a lost art in today’s windward-leeward focused racing scene—the single-trapeze jib reach. In this mode only the crew gets out on the trapeze and the boat is sailed under mainsail and jib, while the skipper sits on deck and aims the boat downwind as much as possible with one hull still in the air. It’s a kind of middle gear between a double-trap jib reach and a double-trap spinnaker reach, and it works well in a big breeze when the gybing angle is too low for a true spinnaker. Over 60 miles it can make a huge difference in distance sailed. But it will also be a risky proposition given our route. If something happens 20 miles offshore, we will likely be swimming in cold water for quite some time.
While Jay straps himself to the “chicken line” at the back of the boat, I start trimming the mainsheet and traveler. (Later, Jay recounted me saying, “Jay, we’re at terminal velocity. Any faster and this thing blows up!”) For the next three hours Jay gives me GPS headings to steer the 20 miles offshore through the growing wind-driven waves on our way to Cape Fear.
When the cape finally rises up before us on the horizon, we don’t see any competitors. This could either be really good or really bad. Wait, there are spinnakers up far to the north of us. We did it! Our plan worked, and we are in first, although not by much. With waves breaking on Frying Pan Flats as far out into the ocean as we can see, we sail just feet from the shoreline as we double Cape Fear. As soon as we are around, the wind comes back on, and it is back out on the trapeze for both of us. Only 26 miles to go!
Jay works the mainsheet as hard as he can for the next six miles while I steer and play the traveler in the big winds, struggling to keep the boat under control. But wait, what’s that in the water? Crash! Once again we are catapulted off the boat with incredible force as we snag a crab trap warp. We right the boat as fast as we can but are passed by one other boat, Lexus/Nexus. From then on we have a classic match-race 10 miles to the finish, with Jay and me struggling to hold onto a five-boatlength lead as we arrive at Wrightsville Beach.
Approaching the surf line near the finish, we have to make one last tack to the finish. Close to the beach the wind has died to nothing behind Blockade Runner Beach Resort. I tack on the layline to the southern finish flag, and Lexus/Nexus takes our transoms. After sailing this whole day in a howling wind, we find ourselves bobbing 20 yards from the beach in nothing.
Because paddling is allowed inside the surf line, both crews look at each other and start paddling madly with their hands. Sadly, Lexus/Nexus catches a wave and ghosts to the line just seven seconds ahead of us, but I still clap when they finish, because they deserved to win that epic stage.
Little did we know, it was a record, the fastest anyone had ever sailed that leg. Jay and I may have finished second on that particular day, but we still felt like winners.
Here’s hoping this kind of racing catches on again so that more sailors have the opportunity to experience this kind of magic.
Gear for Beach Cat Distance Racing
The open ocean can be a dangerous place for a catamaran designed for inshore buoy racing. Proper personal gear is essential. On a typical 80-mile leg you spend six-plus hours on the trapeze with spray flying in your face while navigating, dodging obstacles, and keeping the boat going at top speed. Having the right kit will not only make you more competitive, it could save your life.
Wet/Dry Suit: Staying comfortable is essential. In warmer waters I prefer Zhik’s Microfleece Long John paired with its waterproof fleece-lined Orspan top. In cold water, I like Zhik’s Superwarm gear, because it’s so easy to move around in. If you want pure comfort over maneuverability, try the Musto Dinghy Drysuit.
Shoes/Gloves: Hands and feet suffer extreme punishment in distance racing. One slip on the trapeze can be the end your race, so pick a lightweight form-fitting shoe with a grippy sole like the Sperry Top-Sider SON-R Pong. Trimming sheets for hours on end wears the outer edges of gloves, so go with something that has plenty of padding, like the long-fingered Gill Pro.
Harness: Dependability and comfort are key. The Zhik T2 harness is lightweight and fits well to keep you comfortable while in the same position for hours.
Lifejacket: Get a lifejacket with plenty of pockets for safety gear and other kit. Strap your personal locator beacon on one shoulder and a strobe on the other.
Although I’ve used an inflatable lifejacket, I don’t recommend them. Once you pull the cord, the lifejacket stays inflated for the rest of the day.
Hydration Pack: Camelbaks are dependable, and mine has some small pockets to hold food and safety gear.
Food: The last 10 miles of a race is when teams run out of gas. Energy bars come in handy, but not just any kind will do. The best ones are high in carbs with a mix of fats and proteins to keep your muscles working. You want an easily opened compact bar with around 250 calories that won’t get crushed in your lifejacket or become soggy if it gets wet. I like the original CLIF BAR, because it packs a nutritious high-calorie punch.
Personal Locator Beacon: PLBs are smaller and more affordable than ever, but if you’re on a budget you can rent one from PLBrentals.com. Other essential safety gear includes a whistle and flashlight/strobe.
Handheld GPS: This is essential: we carry two, with one as a backup. Make sure yours has a large display and easy-to-read maps. The Garmin GPSMAP 76Cx has a large color display, is very durable and has a downloadable map feature. Keep it in a waterproof pouch tied to your lifejacket.
Cell/Sat Phone: It’s hard to use smart phones with wet hands. Buy a prepaid cell phone with a number pad and put it in a waterproof pouch. Enter speed-dial numbers for your loved ones, the ground crew, the race committee and the Coast Guard, in case your PLB accidentally goes off. Sat phones are expensive, and we never carried one, but the Great Texas 300 used to require them. You can rent them online as well.
Signal Mirror: This low-tech gadget could save your life! If you get separated from the boat, aim it at your teammate to get rescued. Ground crews also use them to signal the team on the water where the finish line is or where to land to get repairs.
Knife: Carry a knife at all times. This is especially important in beach cat racing, where things can happen fast and so much can go wrong. You should be able to grab it without looking or even thinking about where it is. Use a small quick-release dive knife and sew it into your lifejacket pocket.