Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New Cape Horn Record

Gitana 13 day on San Francisco Bay:

Lionel Lemenchois and crew had a slow trip of it in their passage from the ocean to a finish line off the Hyde Street Pier. A finish line, that is, of their record-breaking passage from New York to San Francisco, via Cape Horn, along the route established by the clipper ships in the days of yore.

Here is the big cat entering the Golden Gate Strait . . .

The arrival marks the end of a 43-day, 14,000-mile journey that knocks big time off the old, 57-day record. Lemonchois, skipper this time around, crewed on the last two boats that lowered the NY-SF record, but this was the first attempt in 10 years. Considering that the crew hunkered down for weather short of the Horn -- and waited days for a weather window, and still lowered the mark by a chunk -- you know that 10 years of development in boats and weather routing have had an impact. And you know that there is room for another effort to shave time off of this mark.

Gitana 13 fought down-bay in light winds in wide, reaching legs as far as the historic ships of the Hyde Street Pier. She finished, looking leisurely, during San Francisco's morning rush hour . . .

By report, the boat is taking a mooring on the north shore of San Francisco Bay, at Corinthian Yacht Club in Belvedere. Myself, I'm packing to leave for Banderas Bay Race Week/MEXORC, so this is it for me. I'll be checking in on the boats now finishing the Vallarta Race from San Diego. Folks like the fellow in this shot, which somehow seems to want the caption . . .

Hmm. My dominatrix said to put it on this way. Or was it--

But before I go, let's recap the New York-San Francisco record. We'll start with the official capsule of the journey of Gitana 13: "Gitana 13 crossed the finish line of La Route de l’Or, situated just off the infamous island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, at 1707 (UT). After over 43 days 38 minutes at sea, including a forced five and a half day stand-by at Cape Horn, Lionel Lemonchois and his nine crew improved on the reference time held since 1998 by Yves Parlier and his men by 14 days 2 hours and 43 minutes. The maxi-catamaran in the colours of the LCF Rothschild Group covered the 14,000 miles, which separate New York from San Francisco at an average speed of 15.88 knots and thus set their first record time in their 2008 record campaign."

Those of you who read my January blogs on the history of the Cape Horn record -- and paid attention, and have a memory (both of you) -- should already be up to speed. Others might enjoy this look back:

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. The weather was even a bit similar to that welcoming Gitana 13, come to think of it.

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.

It was in 1998, crewing on PRB for Yves Parlier, that Lemonchois set the 57-day record he just overturned.

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