Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Good Scout

Steve Fossett is—or was, we don’t know yet, but he's missing—a great sailor. He was also different. A great pilot and balloonist, but different in those worlds too.

Fossett's transatlantic-record navigator, Stan Honey, recalls, "It was the challenge that Steve cared about. After he had set all the records he could on Playstation I asked him if he would get a different boat. He looked at me as if I were crazy."

(Dear reader, for technical reasons, it was easier to put up a new post, after this one, using most of the same material; it's not part of our regular diet, but if you're reading down into this Sunday post from the Monday post above, you're right, it's a re-run. Stick with me; it's not something that keeps on happening and happening--KL)

So it wasn't about sailing, exactly. It was about a drive to set records. Most of them, Fossett knew, would be broken eventually. No matter, as long as he'd been there, done that. He held Pacific sailing records, Atlantic sailing records, and a round-the-world sailing record. Playstation's 2001 transatlantic crossing was the first to break five days, and it was an amazing feat in its moment. The giant catamaran, after months on weather watch and multiple false alarms, hooked into the leading edge of a storm and rode it all the way across the Atlantic, sailing in high wind over yet-to-be disturbed, smooth water ahead of a moving maelstrom.

© Claire Bailey

A year later, on his sixth try, Fossett completed the first circumnavigation by balloon. No one can take that first-ever accomplishment away from him, or the first solo, nonstop, round-the-world airplane flight. Fossett's 115 records spanned the range to triathlons and dogsledding.

His cat also set an east-west transatlantic record, and Fossett's 58-day circumnavigation in 2004, with a crew of 12 and with the boat re-named Cheyenne, knocked six days off the previous best. (The boat's most recent appearance was made sans mast as a transpacific cameraboat for Roy Disney's Morning Light movie.)

Steve Fossett was 63 years old and searching for a lake bed for a jet-powered land-speed record attempt when his single-engined plane disappeared over western Nevada on Labor Day. Hopes continue that Fossett might be found alive, but with those hopes dwindling, I dialed up Stan Honey to ask what it was like to sail with this singular individual. I found Stan in the UK, where he has taken on the role of technical director to the new British challenge for the America's Cup, Team Origin.

[more AC stuff at bottom, but why rush?]

"Steve wasn't a sailor the way a lot of us are," Honey said, "but he never stopped being an unassuming good guy while becoming a famous rich guy. It was normal to him to go to dinner with a bunch of mechanics in blue jeans, and if he talked about himself at all it was something self-effacing, like how he swam the English Channel and set a record for the slowest crossing in history.

"He may also have been the toughest person I've ever known," Honey said, "just in terms of tolerating physical discomfort and going days without sleep. He trained for that. If you talked to Steve about growing up, you got the idea that joining the Boy Scouts was a turning point. Scouting gave him a feel for the outdoors and a vision for meeting challenges. He was an Eagle Scout, and he stayed with Scouting his whole life. If you talked to him about business, you got the idea that, to him, it was something he had to do so that he could finance these other things. He went to school, became a programmer, and figured out that it wasn't going to get him there, so he developed an algorithm for trading commodities. Once he had enough money, he lost interest."

Another American sailor in Fossett's international transatlantic-record crew was West Marine's Chuck Hawley. For him, the defining feature of Steve Fossett is that the man, "Was never just along for the ride. He was focused, he was a co-navigator, he slept the least-possible amount of time, and if there was a sail to be changed he was up there on the trampoline getting the new one up and the old one down.

"Imagine, I show up at the Monterey [California] airport, and Steve drives up in this exotic car, and then we take off with Steve at the controls of the fastest jet a civilian can buy—he has a co-pilot, and they trade off, but again, he's never just along for the ride—and we're flying to Orange County to pick up Gino Morelli and then we were headed for the East Coast.

"People know that Steve was making plans for a land-speed record. What's not well known is that there is also this highly-modified helicopter ready to go for helo records because Steve had that in the works too. It's amazing the variety of skills that Steve Fossett developed, amazing when an individual gets to the top of the game in any one of them, and he did it in so many."

Sunday, September 9

Hawley had spent much of Saturday calling Air Force and Civil Air Patrol/Search & Rescue offices to see if he could help in the search. On Sunday he emailed Stan Honey: "I even offered to take a sonar-equipped boat to Walker Lake to see what I could find on the bottom, but they have three boats there already."

The search area covers some 17,000 rugged, canyon-strewn square miles of western Nevada, with supplemental searches being conducted out of Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch near the popular soaring areas of Minden, Nevada.

Did somebody say America's Cup ?

Lucky Russell Coutts. He's in Hyeres, France for TP52 racing while other members of the BMW Oracle Racing team are in New York for a court hearing at 1400 Monday to determine whether or not Larry Ellison's suit against La Société Nautique de Genève/America's Cup Management/Alinghi will be expedited . . .

lordy lordy however this thing comes out let's expedite and get it over with

. . . and a lot of people around the world are holding their collective breath. Ernesto Bertarelli's people are on hand too, of course. Wanna see lawyers in very expensive suits? Check out either side of the aisle.

It's very nice that the AC 33 arbitration panel on Saturday ruled in favor of Alinghi, but we already know that Ellison's allegation of "self dealing" on the part of the defender renders the arbitration panel and its rulings moot, should Ellison win his point in court. We won't know the answer out of this hearing of course. We'll just learn, maybe, when we begin to get the first answers, or the first opportunity at (sigh) the first appeal.

But it was interesting talking to Stan Honey about the early workings at Team Origin, where, "My chief job is to recognize small differences in performance. In the past that's been done with two-boat testing, but Computational Fluid Dynamics, CFD, has been getting better and better."

[The SNG/CNEV protocol permits building only one of the new 90-footers for AC 33, so forget two-boat testing, in-house anyway.]

"I was impressed when I was working with Juan Koujoumdjian on ABN AMRO's Volvo boats (Honey navigated the Volvo Race winner) at how good his computer models were at predicting performance."

Related news: The head of Team Origin, Sir Keith Mills, last week spoke of why his team had gone forward as a challenger under the existing protocol:

“ACM ran a fantastic event this spring, not only from a sports and entertainment point of view but also by setting the standards on a number of non-sports aspects placing the America’s Cup firmly in the 21st century, in amongst the most important sporting competitions in the world today. Alinghi and ACM should be complimented on running an event in Valencia that has had a massively positive impact not only on the America’s Cup but the sport of sailing as a whole.

“We do not believe that the new Protocol will have a negative impact on the future of the America’s Cup. To the contrary we believe it provides a platform for further growth and some real opportunities for those who decide to challenge."

A bottom line

Congrats to San Francisco Bay ace Chris Perkins, who wrapped up his second International Knarr Championship over the weekend at The San Francisco Yacht Club—in a tiebreaker with Denmark's Soren Pehrsson. Suddenly I realize I should have recorded the Knarr cheer--if you've never heard the Knarr cheer you may have missed out on a complete life--and dropped it here as a podcast.

Too late smart, again—Kimball