Mari-Cha IV Sails Toward the Record Books

LATITUDE 40 30 NORTH, LONGITUDE 58 09 WEST–When we glided down the Hudson River and past the towers of midtown Manhattan two Sunday mornings ago, the start of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005 was still hours away. But adrenaline was already pumping. I was, after all, aboard Mari-Cha IV, the fastest single-hull sailboat the world has ever seen, and we were part of a remarkable fleet of yachts that would re-create the “Kaiser’s Cup,” a legendary trans-Atlantic race that took place 100 years ago.

The starting line was off Sandy Hook, almost the same place where 11 yachts had set out in the 1905 race. That contest came about after Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor, challenged the biggest names in sailing to take part in what became the first international trans-Atlantic race. While the kaiser assumed that his yacht, Hamburg, would win, he wound up being defeated by a three-masted schooner called Atlantic, which was skippered by three-time America’s Cup winner Charlie Barr. Having ridden a violent storm under full sail, Atlantic reached the English Channel in 12 days, four hours, one minute and 19 seconds to establish the most storied record in yachting history. According to the sailing world’s official record keeper, the World Sailing Speed Record Council, it is a race record that still has not been broken.

Some of the 20 yachts in our field did not look very different from those that took part in the Kaiser’s Cup. Sumurun, a stunningly beautiful 94-foot ketch with classic lines, immaculately varnished teak, and a soaring pair of Douglas fir masts, is almost old enough to have been there; it was commissioned in 1914. Stad Amsterdam is almost new, but the 257-foot square rigger looks like a vintage clipper ship. Some of the yachts in the 1905 race also functioned as floating palaces — the Atlantic made its mark in spite of being weighed down with marble floors, Tiffany skylights, four liveried stewards, and cases of wine — and it is no different in the current race. Stad Amsterdam has comfortable staterooms and three chefs. Tiara, a 178-foot-long sloop, has a duplex owner’s suite and a fireplace. It is so big that a helicopter has landed on its stern deck, which is believed to be a first for a sailboat.

Mari-Cha is nothing like that. Except for the high-tech “nav station,” where I am trying to punch sensible words into a lurching keyboard, the rest of the 140-foot-long boat’s interior is open and virtually unfurnished. Take my bunk: It is a “pipe berth,” consisting of nylon mesh stretched over a rectangular frame of carbon-fiber pipes. And there are no liveried servants. Or wine. Our meals consist of freeze-dried food and granola bars.

Given the steady onslaught of wind and waves, the deck is a difficult place to be. Being below isn’t much better, because of the motion of the ship. It feels like we are on an airplane in a zone of endless turbulence. The noise level is also high — a mix of shrieking wind, rushing water, grinding winches, and explosion-like bangs every time the hull crashes off a wave.

The boat is devoted to one thing — speed — and there are virtually no compromises. With a pair of 140-foot masts and a 21-foot-long keel that can be hydraulically moved to one side or the other by up to 40 degrees to counteract the force of the wind, it can carry enormous sails and blast through the water at more than 30 knots (34.5 miles per hour). In 2003, it crossed the Atlantic in less than seven days, smashing the previous record by more than two days. Along the way, it sailed 525 miles in a 24-hour period, which was also a record for a single-hull sailboat.
Since Mari-Cha’s trans-Atlantic record was not set as part of a scheduled race and its departure was timed to take advantage of favorable weather conditions, its record is in a different category than America’s.

The crew that ensures that the boat is always moving at its optimal speed is every bit as extraordinary as our craft. Bob Miller, the billionaire founder of Duty Free Shoppers, is our skipper and the man who paid for this gleaming thrill-making machine. We also have a “racing skipper” named Mike “Moose” Sanderson, who has competed in several America’s Cup competitions and won the Whitbread Round the World Race, and a team of top-rated professional sailors. In addition to me, there are four other amateurs: Mr. Miller’s sons-in-law, Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece and Chris Getty; the commodore and vice commodore of Britain’s Royal Yacht Squadron, Lord Amherst and Sir Nigel Southward. Mr. Getty and I are the only crewmembers who haven’t sailed across the Atlantic.

The race was supposed to start a day earlier but was postponed because of a dangerous storm offshore. When the race began, the wind was light and coming out of the northeast, forcing us to raise and lower sails that weigh several hundred pounds over and over again as we sought to find the optimal combination. We also had to adopt a much more easterly course than we had planned because of the direction of the wind — it was coming from pretty much exactly where we wanted to go — and also to keep close to Maximus, a brand new “super-maxiyacht” that is our closest competition. During the early evening the wind picked up and we hit something closer to our stride, 18 knots, but Maximus was performing just as well. By 1 a.m., it had pulled slightly ahead of us. But during the next several hours we began to pull ahead, and by mid-morning on Monday, Maximus was seven miles behind and barely visible.

Mr. Miller was a happy man when he stepped onto the deck that morning to hear the news about Maximus. He had also learned that Mari-Cha had traveled much farther than Atlantic had during the first hours of the 1905 race. It was also his 72nd birthday, which was celebrated with a granola bar that had held two matchsticks. “Even with this wind,” he said, “we are well ahead of the record pace.”

Tuesday began quietly. After I went on deck for my early morning shift, the sky was illuminated by a full moon on one side, a glow from where the sun would rise on the other side, and a vast electrical storm stretching across the horizon directly ahead of us. Within a few hours, the wind began to build — and with it the waves. By late afternoon, the wind was gusting up to 47 knots. At that point it was obvious why we have so many around-the-world sailors onboard. As waves crashed over the deck, they had to partially lower both of our two mainsails and replace our genoa with a much smaller sail.

The direction of the wind had also changed, so, for the first time, it was not coming from the direction we needed to go. Surfing down the front of the waves, we reached speeds of up to 40 knots and maintained a rigorous pace throughout the night. Maximus could not keep up. By early Wednesday morning it had fallen 70 miles behind us.

Given the constant activity and our sleep patterns, it is difficult to remember what time — or even day — it is. But there is no confusion about what we have to do: We have to get to the English Channel in the next few days so we can beat the Atlantic’s record.

Mr. Knecht is writing a book about modern-day piracy, industrialized fishing and Chilean sea bass.