Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Flying and Crashing Around Cape Horn

So Gitana 13 today is well into the South Atlantic on her New York-San Francisco record attempt, with Cape Horn ahead and then (if that much goes right) thousands of hard miles to come as ten crewmen work their way up the Pacific Coast of the Americas.

Here I am on the shores of San Francisco Bay, brimming with nostalgia for a time when a passel of big guns were shooting for this unique, all-American record. Clipper ships around Cape Horn, bound for the gold fields—those guys set the standard. It took more than a century for technology to meet the pace.

The USA doesn't see much big-time record-chasing these days, except as a starting point or ending point. But I recall a few vivid years when the Clipper Ship record was the big one that lured adventurous sailors to one spectacular failure after another. In 1988 alone, no fewer than five attempts were planned in the wake of (did I mention) one spectacular failure after another.

Mind you, we are talking Cape Horn, the wrong way, at a pull-the-string-tight distance of 14,000 miles.

I seem to also recall some bickering over which clipper ship record really mattered, but the 89-day passage of the famed Flying Cloud was the benchmark. How hard can it be?

Flying Cloud went 89 days in 1854.

Two years later Flying Cloud made the same passage—reputedly including a 402 mile day—in 185 days. Do the comparison.

Today we have weather routing, but no guarantees. I like to picture Flying Cloud this way . . .

In the 1980s, as a sailing writer for The San Francisco Chronicle (yes, there used to be such a thing), I exchanged no telling how many letters with Frenchman Guy Bernardin, who tried for the Cape Horn record and cracked up more times than I can remember and never made it to San Francisco, and I never met the fellow but I feel as if I know him. He broke boats. He broke masts. He was alone on each attempt, but not alone in his misfortunes. Others tried once, failed, and limped away. Guy Bernardin kept at it.

Did I mention that we are talking Cape Horn, the wrong way?

In 1988/89 came the breakthrough. A year before, maybe two, I had engaged in a frank exchange of views with the sports editor of the paper. I was arguing for more space for one of my stories about a Cape Horn attempt. I expressed the opinion that, yes, these things keep on coming—and going—but sooner or later one will break through and as the boat closes on San Francisco the paper will dispatch a reporter and a photographer in a plane and it will be the biggest story of the season. The sports editor expressed the opinion that I was full of (substance found in a barnyard) and this business of hiring a plane for a photogger, for a sailing story of all things, would never happen.

A New Record at Last

The boat that finally cleared the Horn—after a five day Falklands stopover for repairs—was an early generation Open 60. As Thursday's Child closed on San Francisco in February, 1989, the cityside section of the paper dispatched a reporter (not me) and a photographer in a plane to hunt the boat down. I was meanwhile called in and encouraged to, ahem, proceed with vigor, lest the dratted cityside section steal our (the sports section's) story.

Cityside cared about a splashy passage into the bay. I cared about that too, but I knew too much. I knew that on that very day, Philippe Monnet was in far southern climes, trying to make port after ramming ice. Anne Liardet was closing on the Horn, but running behind the pace of Thursday's Child. And Guy Bernardin (a year earlier he had been in a 60-footer that fell off a wave, broke its mast, and eventually sank) was under tow in his latest broken boat; he would be taken ashore at Cape Desolation under the care of the Chilean Navy.

Honest, it was quite a time.

Thursday's Child was skippered by Warren Luhrs, a honcho at Hunter Marine. His bottom line re. 14,000 miles: "Wouldn't do anything different; wouldn't do it again.'' Luhrs had in company Courtney Hazelton and Lars Bergstrom, whose name lives on the backstay-free Bergstrom rig. Having finally found the right mix of technology, skill, and luck, they sailed through the Golden Gate, to great acclaim, under a bright winter sun on their 80th day out of New York.

Lacking a plan, their team asked their only San Francisco contact (me) where they should time a finish.

And I, lacking the slightest clue as to how the Flying Cloud might have done the job 134 years earlier, suggested two possibilities: Off the San Francisco Marina breakwater (it's just inside the Gate) or off the maritime museum at Hyde Street Pier. Because that's down toward the harbor where sailing ships used to tie up, and where so many were abandoned by crews who took off for the gold fields. The Thursday's Child people decided to take a time at both landmarks.

Now I wonder about the intentions aboard Gitana 13. The record has turned over a number of times since Thursday's Child, and the exchange has never (yet) come down to hours, much less minutes or seconds, but it could. Not to worry, Gitana 13 skipper Lionel Lemonchois is a two-time veteran of the route. Lemonchois crewed for Isabelle Autissier in a 1994 monohull effort that finished in 62 days and blasted the 76-day record that had been set in 1989 (laurels had not rested long on Thursday's Child) by Canadian Georgs Kolesnikovs and American Steve Pettengill in a 60-foot tri.

Lemonchois repeated the journey in 1998, crewing on PRB for Yves Parlier and setting the 57-day record he now seeks, with a crew of 10, to overturn.

Records are made to fall, and we've had ten years of development to see what's fast and what breaks, or doesn't. Gitana 13 has probably cleared the light air of the equatorial doldrums as this is read, and we know we're not looking at a photo of today's news. Looks good though . . .

© Gitana 13

Dig the 2008 sked for Gitana 13:
• Route de l’Or (New York to San Francisco via Cape Horn)
• The North Pacific (San-Francisco to Yokohama)
• Yokohama – Dalian
• Dalian – Taipei
• Taipei – Hong-Kong
• Route du Thé (Hong-Kong to London)


Guy Bernardin is part-way around the world on a replica of Joshua Slocum's Spray. At the moment he's hunkered down in Talcahuano, a port city in Chile, with a boat that needs repairs and a pocketbook that needs replenishment.

Thursday's Child is alive and cared for on San Francisco Bay and probably can be seen at the Oakland boat show in April.

Flying Cloud is gone with the mists of time, along with so many great ships that plied the Cape Horn route. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park has a fine collection, but there's nary a clipper ship to be seen.


Because the West wasn't built by cowboys—Kimball


The America's Cup was back in court today, and when all was said and done . . .

There was a lot to be said and done.

This from Golden Gate Yacht Club/BMW Oracle Racing:

New York, NY -- January 23, 2008: Justice Herman Cahn of the New York State Supreme Court today held oral argument on SNG/Alinghi’s plea to rethink his decision of November 27, 2007 in which he declared Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) the valid challenger pursuant to the America’s Cup Deed of Gift. GGYC argued that Justice Cahn’s decision was correct in all respects and there is no basis for the court to reconsider it.
“We remain confident that the court will maintain its earlier decision despite SNG/Alinghi’s apparent procedural attempts to delay,” Tom Ehman, GGYC’s spokesman said. “We expect that Justice Cahn will soon issue an order setting October 2008 as the dates for our match, and we look forward to getting the Cup back on the water.”

And this from Société Nautique de Genève/Alinghi:

(New York, 23 January 2008) New York State Supreme Court Justice Herman Cahn heard arguments today over whether the Golden Gate Yacht Club has put forth a valid Deed of Gift challenge for the 33rd America’s Cup to its current holder, the Société Nautique de Genève and its team Alinghi.

“We were glad to make our points and found the Court receptive to our arguments,” said Lucien Masmejan, lead counsel for the SNG. “We look forward to a court order properly addressing the issue of the validity of the GGYC challenge.”

Justice Cahn allowed the SNG to further examine arguments put by the GGYC and invited SNG to present additional submissions on Monday on these issues, including on the definition of a keelyacht versus a multihull. SNG’s submissions will be supported by the interpretation from the International Sailing Federation which was presented to the court (in attachment).

A result in SNG’s favour would put the 33rd America’s Cup back on track with a multi-challenge event in 2011 in Valencia, Spain. As Defender of the America’s Cup, the Deed of Gift gives Alinghi and SNG, as trustee, the serious responsibility of preserving the integrity of this world class sporting event.

The defender also released the text of a statement from ISAF secretary Jerome Pels regarding the definitions of keelboats versus multihulls. You can link to the pdf right here.

I urge all, all, to go and sin no more.