An Ocean Apart, by Bill Wright

Suddenly, it’s June, 2007, and the Transpac is coming up.  A sailboat race from Los Angeles to Honolulu.  Soon I will no longer be commuting from my shack in LA to my small university in Orange County, but instead I will be heading offshore.  Away from land.

The Transpacific Yacht Race runs from Los Angeles to Honolulu every two years in July.  It is a very popular race.  It has a colorful and long history, and most every serious sailor in California has at least thought about taking part.  I have thought about it a lot.  My dad was part of that history in 1955, when he sailed as the young navigator aboard the 98-foot ketch, Morning Star.   Today, he is old and sick and every one of his 14 fellow crew-members is dead.  But they were all fully alive back then, and they sailed that ketch to Hawaii faster than anyone had ever done before.  It was a truly historic race, and it burns vividly in my memory.  I was not even four when they did it, but I’ve poured over the scrapbooks many times since; I’ve asked my dad about the race over and over.  Morning Star finished the race in the middle of the night, and the black and white photos of them on the dock in Honolulu, all loaded to the ears in sweet-smelling leis, live with me forever. That legacy is partly why I’m on this race.  But only partly.

I’m racing on a boat called Psyche.  I am an American boy.  I LOVE competition.  I remember team sports in my youth with nothing but nostalgia.  Football, baseball, soccer.  All of these sports have common elements.  Precisely practiced teamwork, combined with exceptional individual effort, wins the contest.  But now I am 55 years old.  How do I express this craving for teamly competition?

Race to Hawaii, is how.  I’m joining a band of 4 like-minded men, all but one middle-aged.  We need one youngster to do the foredeck work, which requires a nimble body and a certain youthful cockiness.  But the rest of us are middle aged.  But we are all as excited as kids about this race.

We converge two days prior to the start at the pre-race dinner with this excitement fairly oozing out of our pores.   This sendoff dinner is a long tradition for the Transpac, with each yacht’s crew, as well as honorable guests, attending. Two years ago, my mom and dad were guests at our table.  This year, he is too frail, so they stay home.  Everyone is bubbling with anticipation and good will. Glasses of ice-cold Mai Tai’s, delicious rum and tropical fruit concoctions, are raised in farewell. The first start is tomorrow.

The next day, the dock is bustling with well-wishers. All are good friends with smiles on their faces. Some are good sailors with little morsels of advice for us.  Some are loved ones with soft words of farewell. We deliver our last hugs, and cast off the dock, drunk with excitement and anticipation.  We wave them all good-bye.  This is the beginning of a long separation from the rest of the world.  I am leaving my wife, and all other close connections to this world.  I will be gone for many days.

You see, Transpac, like any ocean passage, is all about separation.  Separation is an emotion-free word to describe two or more people moving apart.  In fact, most separations have both sadness and excitement in widely varying doses.  Separations tug at heart strings only barely recognized.  This separation is no different; I am only dimly aware of all the heart-strings being tugged.

Another reason I want to be in this race, besides being an American boy with a yen for competition, is because I know I am going to die.  I did not really know this 20 years ago, but I do now.  I know that next year, I might not be up to it.  I might develop a heart fibrillation; that’s what kept my brother from coming with us this year.  Heart problems, cancer, arthritis.  The list is long.  More and more of my age cohort are picking up these afflictions.  In two years, it might be me. I was lucky enough to be invited on this Transpac.  I have to go.

Actually, this realization of mortality may well be the prime reason why this is a race full of middle-aged men.  Of course there are youngsters, and plenty of women, but the majority are middle-aged men.

The start of the race is an adrenalizing scramble against 20-some other boats. We are a bit of a rag-tag crew, certainly compared to the high-end boats.  Roy Disney, LA’s urban legend, has put together a “dream crew” of young men and women whom he has trained hard in a “state of the art” sailboat.  Disney’s is the Hollywood glamour version of this race.  Ours is more swashbuckling; in Hollywood terms, we are a cross between The Dirty Dozen and The Goonies.  Our boat, a Cal-40, was built forty years ago.  Think Millenium Falcon of the sea.

A countdown is established by the committee boat.  Besides the rules of right of way, the primary rule here is that you must stay on the mainland side of the line, set between two buoys off Los Angeles harbor, until the countdown gets to zero, at which point you steer your boat between the buoys away from land.  You sail around Santa Catalina Island (the one in the song).  Then you’re off to Hawaii.

We get a terrible start. Our wind is blanketed by a bunch of boats that out-maneuver us to the line.  This reminds us of the ever-possible gloom, lurking in any sailboat race.  If you screw up, you lose.   But this time, we recover quickly by tacking away and heading north for Santa Monica, instead of west to Catalina, for a short 20 minutes.  This turns out to be an effective move that helps us stay in the mix.  Three hours later, we are racing up the coast of Catalina Island.  We know this island.  We’ve raced up her coast many times.  We do pretty well.  Another Cal-40, an old rival from two years ago, is behind us, which is where we want her.  We pass Catalina on our left, and head out to sea.  The lonely sea.

After Catalina, the fleet spreads out.  We lose sight of many of our competitors.  For the remainder of the race, our awareness of their whereabouts will come from our daily morning position reports, by radio, to the escort vessel.  This is a key moment of the day, where disappointment or elation is registered, and new strategies conceived.

There is another reason why this is a race full of middle-aged men.  I like this one better.  Middle-aged men have significantly more “staying power” than do youngsters.  We seem to delight in the problem of focusing; on a tiny ribbon in the middle of a massive sail in a pitching sea; on a tiny compass in a pitch-dark night of vertigo.  What could possibly account for this increased focus?  I think it is because, as we age, we become more, not less, competitive.  This is largely hidden, because our physical powers, to winch in a sail, or maintain balance on a pitching foredeck, have all diminished.  So, what emerges from this mishmash of middle age is persistence.

And in the Transpac, persistence is a critical trait. The race is still a team athletic event; practiced teamwork and exceptional individual effort are key.  But, unlike any team sport I can think of, the Transpac lasts a very long time.  A football game or soccer game is over in a couple of hours.  Maybe rugby goes for a couple of days, but the contesting teams get to go to bed in between.  The Transpac goes, not for hours, not for days, but for weeks.  Persistent concentration wins this race.

A lot of landlubbers assume that you take the sails down at night, at some agreed-upon time, set the anchor and go to bed.  Not so!  We race and race and race and race.  Every minute, we are trying to make Psyche go faster than our competition.  Trimming sails, changing sails, changing course, trimming sails, changing sails.  Never-ending, every day and night.  We are middle aged men and we love this shit.

But, like all middle-aged men, we are fraught with uncertainty.  This year, after two days of sailing as hard as we can, the morning report puts us in the middle of the fleet.  How can that be?  Surely our heroic focus is at a higher level than that of our competition?  Yet we don’t seem to be going fast.  Why the hell not?

Maybe we caught some seaweed on our keel!

This seemingly random possibility plagues modern ocean racers, and a surprising number of boats do what we did near the end of the first 3rd of the race, in 2005 as well as in 2007:  Throw someone overboard to look for debris caught on the keel.  This is the only reliable way to answer the question.  And the question MUST be answered.  The most remote chance of there being kelp down there is enough to drain your strength, and sap your persistence.  We HAVE to know.

But it is such a big, deep, scary ocean.  Who is going to volunteer to jump into it?  The captain, that’s who.  Both years our captain, Steve, answered the call in his skivvies and mask and snorkel, a hilarious vision of middle-aged courage.  Over he goes, looks quick, and we pull him aboard in a kind of quiet panic.

For, there is no separation more terrifying than man overboard.  There have been some very scary man-overboard events in the many years of the Transpac.  One guy in 1951 treaded water for 30 hours, cutting up the bellies of attacking sharks with his knife.  But I digress.

Now that captain Steve has seen unequivocally that there is NOTHING on the keel, we realize that the only way to go faster is to SAIL faster.  More concentration, more focus, more persistence.  We all take a deep breath, and set about raising our game.  We sail as if possessed.  No off-course, no lapse of concentration.  Keep the sails full every second.  Get even more serious about the navigation.  By now, more than a week into the race, we are a fully enclosed unit, sailing in our own world, no other boat in sight, egging each other on to concentrate even harder.

Our boat speed is good, but more importantly, we are making good decisions about WHERE to sail. I should mention that the fastest course to Hawaii is NOT the shortest course.  It would be if the wind were constant all over the North Pacific, but it isn’t.  The wind of the North Pacific is really uneven; like the topography of a mountain range. Unlike a mountain range, this topography of wind changes gradually over the course of several hours.  Perhaps the most important challenge for every boat in the Transpac is to guess where and when the wind will be strongest and from the most favorable direction, and to figure out how best to get the boat to that place at that time.

So here is another middle-age advantage, closely related to the previous one of persistence.  Judgment.  Navigational judgment in the Transpac is REALLY important.  Wise navigators are generally middle-aged navigators.  The more years you have raced, the wilier you become.  In this year’s race, a few of the less experienced racers have eaten the fool’s gold of heading their boat directly toward Hawaii.  They are stuck in a quicksand of light wind.  We are leaving them behind.  Knowing our navigational decisions are right makes us sail the boat harder still.  The excitement of NOT being in that quicksand sharpens us.

But then, right in the middle of this more upbeat world of persistence and lines and sails and tillers and maneuvers and navigation, comes an email from the mainland.  We maintain daily contact by a satellite connection.  I send a daily email to my daughter Sara (who relays it in all directions, and posts it on our blog) reporting our daily progress.  We also receive text emails from the mainland.  Today, Sara writes, “Dad, Farfar has just come home from the hospital.  He is going to get hospice care at home.  His kidneys are failing.  He is expected to survive another one to six weeks.”

Now I have to make an admission here.  I count myself among a small group of people  who have a hard time with abandonment.  This is the dark side of separation.  Every time someone separates from me, I feel they are doing it BECAUSE of me, and that they are doing it forever.  In short, I suspect I am being abandoned.  This feeling is rarely critically strong, but it is almost always there.  Farfar is the Swedish name for paternal grandfather, literally father’s father; it is the name my children use for my dad.  Farfar was sick before I left, and now he’s decided to die.  This is the ultimate abandonment.

But in fact, I had already made the first move by going on this race.  Some sons would have stayed landside, knowing how frail their dad was.  I chose to sail.  But that is OK, right?  He wanted me to leave.  He would have left if the tables were turned.  He did leave.  All the time.  That is who he is.  I am just getting even.  I abandoned him, and everyone else, by putting an ocean between us.  That is who I am.

So I call him up on the satellite phone, something we only do on Psyche if there is an emergency.  I talk to him for 10 minutes.  That’s a long time by our standards.  We don’t talk about his impending death.  We talk about the race.  I tell him we are doing pretty well.  Third in class.  I tell him about the crazy wind.  About the doldrum separating our boat from Hawaii, about our very effective strategy of sailing almost due south around this doldrum.  I tell him we have the half-ounce spinnaker up and we’re going 5-6 knots.  He listens carefully and asks questions.  We hang up.  Two days later, I call again.  I tell him we’ve just made the difficult decision to stop sailing south around the doldrums, and start heading toward Hawaii. That we are now in first place in our division.  Ahead of all the others. He tells me it sounds as if no one is going to beat the record this year, and wishes us good luck.

I don’t call him two days later.  I wonder if he might be expecting it, since I’ve established a two-day interval between the first two calls.  But I don’t.  I’m not sure why.  I think it’s because I know my dad isn’t usually that interested in my successes.  He really prefers to hear stories about my disasters.  He can listen to those, and chuckle unendingly.  But he has trouble listening to my successes for very long.  He doesn’t really know how to respond.  Fuck-up stories are much more fun.  They make him laugh and laugh.  Interestingly, we, on Psyche, had yet to really fuck up.

But actually, I think my not calling is simply a way for me to abandon him.  Perhaps I am sensing what is coming and want to get my last lick in.

Two days later, we are more than half way to Hawaii.  We are running second in our fleet, well ahead of the rest of our Division, but behind the pesky Cal 40 who has been just behind or just ahead of us the entire race. This all makes us very happy and very frustrated at the same time.

Here’s the weird thing.  The name of this Cal 40 is Far Far.  Yep, my dad’s namesake is ahead of us. This still boggles my mind.  I didn’t make it up, really.

We are locked in a grudge match with Far Far.  She finished right behind us in 2005, and her crew is clearly not interested in losing to us again this year.  We have seen them 5 times in 8 days.  A sea-saw battle.  But now, they have opened up a commanding 15-mile lead.

And tonight, the sea-witches and goblins have their way with us.  As the sun sets, we fall into a pitch-black night.  No moon, and the opaque overcast blots out every star. Cannot see the ocean, not even a little.  No horizon, no stars, just a bunch of digital readouts, and the mechanical compass.  The wind is only blowing 12-16 knots, but the sea is insanely wild. 3-5 foot swells from the southeast, from the northwest, and from the northeast.  In the daylight, this ocean’s jumble of swells looks unnatural; like your bath tub when you were making much bigger waves than your mom allowed.  Occluded by the black, black night, this sea is completely unfamiliar.  Just looking at the compass gives you vertigo.  You sail along quietly for 5 or 10 minutes, when suddenly a barrage of waves from one, or two, or all three directions converges on you.  The waves knock you off course, but you cannot feel it.  You are concentrating on keeping the boat on course, but you cannot do it.  The boat, fully haunted by the sea witches, suddenly, decisively, jumps its course 30 degrees to the right, or 60 degrees to the left, but you don’t even notice.  You think you are still on course because you didn’t see the compass move, till suddenly you realize that Psyche is stabilized on a course that is 60 degrees wrong!  This means danger.  An accidental jibe (this is sailor talk for all hell breaking loose), a violent spinnaker collapse.  You can do damage to the boat, break up your gear, or even worse, hurt somebody.

If you discover your steering error in time, you quickly muscle the boat back on to course in a panic.  Then everything gets quiet again.  You sail along peacefully for 2 or 5 or 10 minutes, until BOOM, the sea witches jump your course again.  Really, this night is like a haunted house.  You kind of sneak along a pitch-black corridor until, BOO! The sea witch rears her ugly, scary head.

I go off watch at midnight, utterly exhausted from this shit. I’ve been trying to sleep for 2 1/2 of my 3 hours at 3:30AM, when I hear Jim shouting from on deck, “HEAD UP!” in a voice that I had never heard from him.  Psyche lurches sickly over on her fucking wrong side. We are headed for a full-on unintentional jibe.  But that lurch is not what rattles me; it is Jimmy’s voice.  Are the sea-witches inside his brain?  Miraculously, the on-deck crew manages to get the boat back under control again, with only some minor damage.  Now it is my turn to be on watch.  I start by tending the sheets.  There I am, holding on to the spinnaker sheet in the pitch-black night.  This is the line that goes to one corner of the big ballooning spinnaker that floats in front of the boat like a ghost, but pulls like a Clydesdale.  We are committed to constantly adjusting the spinnaker sheet to keep the boat going fast.  But Jimmy asks me to go over to the other side of the cockpit and adjust the “afterguy”, another line that we adjust now and then, as the wind changes a little.  I’ve done this move hundreds of times.  Tie the spinnaker sheet down, go make the adjustment, and then come back to the spinnaker sheet.  But tonight I forget one little thing, tie the spinnaker sheet down.

Instead I simply let go of the spinnaker sheet, and move over to the other line.  This is like just letting go of your dog on a crowded street.  Like just letting go of the steering wheel on a busy freeway to look in your glove compartment.  It is bizarrely, scarily, unnatural.  The goblin ate my brain.  I suddenly notice out of the corner of my eye that the sheet is snaking out fast like a noodle off a fork, accelerating around the winch; there’s the end.  Oh shit.  Catch it. Oops it’s ahead of me, snaking out the blocks and, then, it is gone.  My brain fart has turned the beautiful ballooning, pulling spinnaker into a fucking flag, flogging from top to toe, its errant sheet streaming a hundred feet ahead of us.  That flogging can rip the sail to shreds at any time.  Aaaaarrrrggggh.

ALL HANDS ON DECK.  Jimmy skillfully sails Psyche so that the spinnaker is partly shielded by the mainsail.  We manage to get a piece of the sheet, run it back through all the blocks, around the winch, and crank it in.  Finally the flogging ceases, and we are sailing again.

I am rattled through and through.

Somebody asks, “What happened?”

“I let go of the spinnaker sheet.”

“Was it tangled or something?”

“No, I just let go of it.”

Charlie says what everyone else is thinking:  “What the fuck?”

Sea witches and goblins.  Nothing but mischief.

That afternoon I get an email from Sara saying that my dad had died.  He was either dead or almost dead when I let go of that sheet. There is no doubt in my mind that he was collaborating with those sea witches and goblins.  Egging them on from his etherium.  Don’t let that boy get too cocky, no sir. A good friend suggested that the spinnaker sheet was my dad’s umbilicus, and I had to let go of it.  Let my dad go. Let him leave me one last time. The very last time.

There’s no nuance to death.  It just is.

When the sun comes up, the witches and goblins recede.  We can see the swell and our heading, anticipate sudden course changes and compensate.  No problem.  In fact the seas settle substantially during the rest of the day.

When I first find out about dad’s death, I’m a little stunned.  I climb on deck and sit on the cabin-top looking at the horizon.  The spinner dolphins, who play with us daily out here, come in close and seem to be saying something.  I don’t know what.

So now it is a naked race.  A race without my dad.

The wind is light, 10-15 knots.  We are sailing as hard as we can.  We are in second behind the other Cal 40.  Farfar, the man, is out of reach.  Far Far the boat is 30 miles ahead, virtually out of reach.  If she stopped dead in her tracks, it would take us 4 or 5 hours to sail to her.  How the hell are we going to make up such a distance?  But we HAVE to beat this boat.  That is all there is to it.  This urgency settles over me.  I baste in it.

Jimmy, and Steve, and I look at the latest weather map, over and over again.  We plot our course along 3 different trajectories and overlay the wind predictions on those courses.  No matter how often we do it, we realize we need to get 60 miles south within 8 hours.  There, if the weather predictions are correct, we will find a wind that will make us go faster than Far Far, whose track is presently about 10 miles north of us.

We talk and talk, and “what-if” and “what-if”, and “yeah, but” and “yeah, but”.  This drives the younger crew-members crazy.  20 year-old Andrew gets sleepy.  42-year old Charlie tells us his brain hurts.  The power of a persistent extended neural net is slow and hiccuppy.  But it works.

We resolve to jibe over that evening and “dive” south for 10 hours.  Sailing like this away from the direct course to Hawaii hurts really bad.  Anxiety permeates the crew.  Are we throwing the race away?  What about the rest of the fleet?  What is Far Far going to do?  But we’ve done the logical heavy lifting, and made the decision.  We stick to it.

By the time we jibe back to our course to Hawaii, it is nearly dawn.  The wind is blowing pretty well, perhaps 18 knots, and it holds there all day, keeping our ray of hope alive.  Then night falls.  Andrew and Charlie are on deck.  The oldsters are sleeping.  A squall comes in.  Charlie shouts down with some urgency, “Wake up guys.  Squall coming in.  Chop chop!”.  Wind gusting to 25, got to get the light spinnaker down, and put up the medium-weight spinnaker.  We do it.  Flawlessly.  The wind is a solid 22-25 knots.  Psyche’s speed is topping 11 knots when she catches a wave.  Nice work.  Back down to bed.

About 1 second of sleep later, all hands on deck! Again.  Heavy rain this time.  The wind is gusting to 28, but now it’s coming more from the beam than before, putting extra strain on the rig.  We change to the heaviest “bullet proof” spinnaker.  13.5 knots says the speedometer.

Now it is my watch. What a joy to fly along at plus 10 knots, with a strong spinnaker and solid gear and a good crew.  The seas are even, the boat responds like it should.  No witches or goblins in sight.  We sail like this the rest of the night.

The next morning’s position gives us a 186 mile total for the day.  That tops our previous best by 15 miles.  We listen breathlessly to the radio roll-call for Far Far’s mileage.

161 miles!  Do the math.

We’ve climbed out of all but 5 of the thirty-mile hole we were in.  In one fucking night!

As the morning wears on, Far Far drops down to our course, and suddenly, there she is, on the horizon, right in front of us.  We get another squall and aim our bullet-proof spinnaker right at her.  Catching her fast now.

The remaining 2 days of the race, we chase Far Far.  She doesn’t let us pass her, but she weighs less than we do, meaning we benefit from a 70-minute handicap.  She finishes ahead of us. We finish 55 minutes later, just before midnight at the Diamond Head bell buoy; our corrected times are15 minutes apart after 15 days. But 15 minutes or 15 seconds; we don’t care!  We beat Far Far and every other boat in our division.  Such a palpable sense of relief when we cross the line.  Won our division.  We did it! A first for me, and the entire crew.  What a scene awaits us on the dock in Ala Wai yacht basin.  Family, friends, even the press!

My lovely love of the last 13 years, and of my life, is there, smiling, on the dock.  This is another first for me.  She is LOADED with leis, and delicious kisses, and giggles.

In the middle of all this, I think of the pictures of my dad in 1955, after the Morning Star won all the awards, almost blinded by leis, grinning from ear to ear.  Somehow I am relieved that I don’t have to tell my living dad how we didn’t fuck up. Yet I can’t help thinking that this scene gives him a kick.  Maybe he has doffed his father-hat and finds full pleasure in my pleasure.  Maybe we can close the gap a little.  An ice-cold Mai Tai seals the deal.

2007 Transpac crew

2007 Psyche Crew

1955 howard wright

Howard Wright, 1955

 

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