Big boats start in Trans Pac

Divisions I and II yachts in the Los Angeles to Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race started their 2,225 nautical mile voyage in an 12-15 knot breeze from the Southwest. Cameramen in the helicopters hovering over the starting area and following the 17-boat fleet along the racecourse to see whether they would clear the west end of Catalina, were filming the Mylar sails, white decks and glistening hulls in nearly crystal clear conditions. As the race boats moved through the white capped seas they left a frothy wake behind.

The conditions for the final start of Transpac 09 were quite a contrast to those of the earlier fleets that have been out on the Pacific since June 29th and July 2nd. Those who have been heading toward Hawaii for nearly a week have covered barely a quarter of the route in the world's most enduring and greatest ocean race. A standard Pacific high is starting to develop. The July 5th starters are likely to sail a little further than the boats that started last week because they will dip a little further south to outrun the high.

Navigators in Divisions I and II grew more confident as the 4th of July celebrations wound to a close and their start approached. The weather patterns were shaping up, leaving Stan Honey, the navigator on Alfa Romeo, the largest and potentially the fastest boat in the fleet, to offer, “We stand a reasonable chance to break the Transpac record.” His predictions had Alfa Romeo encountering winds in the 12-18 knot range during what could be a six-day and 10-hour crossing. Said Honey, “The first night is critical. It sets the stage for the middle third of the race. ” By the looks of it, most of the fleet was going to clear the top of Catalina. In a final chat with Honey before Alfa Romeo pushed off the docks, Honey said that conditions and the predictive weather and routing programs that he and the other navigators use, “were a bit more conservative than they had been.”

It was an exciting start. Akela, Bill Turpin's Reichel Pugh 78, and Westerly, Tom and Tim Hogan's Santa Cruz 70, were up by the race committee boat. Waiting for them to clear out was Philippe Kahn on Pegasus 50, his Owen Clark Open 50. Kahn's strategy was to keep his boat out of close quarters, because raising and lowering daggerboards and moving water ballast during every maneuver takes quite a bit of preparation, especially when you are doublehanding a complicated machine. As Kahn and his crew, Mark “Crusty” Christensen passed by the race committee boat, the individual recall flag went up.

Down at the crowded pin end of the line, Holua had jumped the gun. She freed herself from the rest of the fleet and circled down to clear the line and fight her way through disturbed air and the wakes of racing boats and spectator boats that were trailing the fleet.

The fleet was sailing at about 200º. The wind seemed to be lifting as they headed toward Catalina. Those toward the weather end of the line, and the ones who were forced right after being rolled by larger boats, looked as if they were going to clear Catalina. Shortly after the start, some even hoisted their genoas and peeled their jibs, confident that they had the speed and the angle to get them over 21-mile long island that lay in their path to Hawaii.

As Jay Crum, the navigator on Flash, said Saturday evening after finishing his homework, “We've got the best start (referring to the Division I and II start). If we clear Catalina, we're golden.”

They're off. If the thrilling start was any indication as to what is in store, records will be set.

Photos by Rick Rosen

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