I have been thinking a lot lately about the people and the stories that are playing out around me and I just want to take a moment to write about a few of them. When I stop to think about the numerous times we humans can err when put to a challenge at sea, there are also many great moments of victory to share.
Our fellow Navy sailing friend, Steve Gay, arrived back in Newport, RI yesterday after doing his first solo monohull race in the 635-mile offshore Bermuda 1-2 and winning his division on the return double-handed race back against 9 other monohull boats. These boats ranging from 22 to 41 feet in length hail from ports all over the world. In its 40th year, the Bermuda 1-2 is an adventure challenging even the saltiest offshore sailor. Completion of this race can also earn, budding offshore racers reputation and experience needed for entry into some of the longer single-handed circumnavigational races such as Single-handed Trans-Atlantic Race (STAR) and the Europe Two-STAR. The ultimate challenge being the renowned Vendée Globe which is a single-handed, non-stop race around the world.
It’s hard to put into a sentence just how much of a mental and physical challenge solo ocean racing is. It tests not only seamanship and tactical decisions when your competition is clear out of sight, but also the amount of training and preparation that a sailor plans for and then do with or without support. There may or may not be anyone to help and the equipment each sailor selects and tests during their sea trials and training plays a huge part in their race. There is also the trust aspect: do you trust anyone else to install something that, quite literally, your life may depend on? To understand some of these decisions all you have to do is look into the exhausted eyes of a solo sailor returned from sea.
In those glazed over eyes are the calmness of the open ocean and the dark storms endured. Then there is the spark that glistens from overcoming situations that test all human capability. I listened as Steve and his crew, Del, talked about the lessons learned, but then watched them crack a smile when Steve talked about figuring things out. Things like how to get the kite down when he was overpowered in 25 knots of the wind and big waves and then what to do when his boat rolled over in a huge 30+ knot puff at night. Del, who is an experienced Transpac driver from Port Richmond, CA, is a born teacher. He helped Steve prepare for the journey and I listened to him gently encourage Steve to keep going. As a dinghy sailor myself, I often wonder how I would get past the mental tests of the long race if I sailed my boat into a huge lull that left me drifting for hours or how I would deal with a storm cloud approaching or what would happen if my instruments failed with only 360 degrees of flat horizon out there. While his compass and GPS were navigational aids, Steve says he relies mostly on the instinctual feel that only a dinghy sailor gains from many hours on the helm. He contributes his success in ocean racing to growing up racing smaller dinghies inshore in buoy to buoy races. Dinghy sailing requires a sailor to be constantly active on sail trim and the tiller to keep boat speed up. Instruments do not play a large part in your success because in any race the entire course is visible and on a clear day, you can see your next mark.
“There was no instrument that was a close substitute for thirty years of driving dinghies in all sorts of conditions. Boats feel like boats and fast boats feel like fast boats. Instinctive things about when to move the tiller just can’t be learned by anything other than experience. On the other hand, a huge part of this race was knowing how to use the tools available. There is no one else aboard to teach you and no time to read the manuals!” – CDR Stephen Gay
The morning following their finish, as we sipped coffee and ate our donuts, I could feel the exhaustion and guilt that was weighing heavy on our friend after being away for so long from his young family and job as a Navy F/A-18 pilot. Only 24 hours on land and I was already dropping them back off at the boat and saying our farewells again as they embark on the delivery to Steve’s home port in Southern Virginia. As a Navy wife and sailor, I know just how important provisioning is to maintain morale and so as I left, I handed them a box of fresh muffins and I hope that the winds are kind and the skies remain open so they can enjoy the sunrise as they charge back South.
The second story that I’ve been thinking about is that of one of Steve’s competitors, another first-time Bermuda 1-2 competitor, Jason. He is the skipper of another sailboat, an Olson 30 named Concussion that made headlines on both legs of the race. I will tell you that Jason is not as experienced a racer as Steve, but an equally amazing person. He is a crypto attorney from Texas whose crew – his wife – was in a horrific car accident a couple of years ago. She is a ER medic and after being given a second chance at life, they decided to push off the dock and train for ocean racing. As I write this, I believe they have just completed the double-hand leg from Bermuda. At some point this morning or late last night they pulled into Newport Harbor under thick fog together after sailing the last 48 hours with an escort from the USCG Cutter, Tiger Shark, because their mast was in the process of failing. I can tell you from meeting him and his report, that they do not feel defeat. The very fact that they are out there doing this race together is a victory in itself.