NEAR LAND’S END, ENGLAND — We made it!
Shortly after 10 a.m. yesterday (U.K. time), Mari-Cha IV crossed a line near the start of the English Channel to break Charlie Barr’s 100-year-old trans-Atlantic racing record of 12 days, four hours, one minute and 19 seconds. We completed the almost 3,000-mile course as part of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge 2005 in nine days, 15 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, shaving more than two days from Barr’s legendary record.
It was not easy. During the first days of the race, we headed almost directly into the wind and waves, conditions that we believed to be favorable to Maximus, our closest competitor. Then on the night of Wednesday, May 25, as we approached Grand Banks off Newfoundland amid gale-force winds, we suffered a series of breakages that very nearly forced us to withdraw from the race.
First off, our genoa, the forward-most sail, separated from the line that held it to the top of the mast, forcing the crew to wrestle the sail to the deck and replace it with a much smaller sail. Then, as the wind gusted up to 50 knots, the mainsail, the boat’s most important, began to part from the vessel. The 3,200-square-foot sail is connected to 14 “cars,” which slide up and down a milled aluminum track that is bolted to the rear of the mast. After the bow launched off a steep 15-foot wave and returned to the water with an explosive crash, the upper-most car disintegrated and a section of the track began to lift away from the mast. The $300,000 sail was removed in less than five minutes, before the track totally self-destructed, but we were then effectively unable to continue racing.
Just before midnight, Bob Miller, Mari-Cha’s owner, said, “The ghost of Charlie Barr must be smiling.”
A few minutes after that, another major problem arose: The track on the mizzen mast also started peeling away. By then, many, maybe most, of our crew, which includes several of the world’s top-rated professional sailors, had concluded that we should withdraw from the race. It had been the most difficult trans-Atlantic passage that anyone aboard had experienced, morale was terrible, and further damage seemed likely. Most of us thought that repairs, even if they could be made, would leave us too compromised to really compete.
Mr. Miller would not hear of it. “I don’t want to retire,” he said to Mike Sanderson and Jef d’Etiveaud, his top crewmen, very early Thursday morning. “That has to be our very last option.”
By daybreak Thursday, Maximus had erased our lead and pulled ahead by about 30 miles. With just two small sails, we were moving at less than 10 knots when we should have been making at least 12. We had developed a multipronged plan of attack to reverse the damage, but we could not do anything until the wind and waves diminished to the point that crewmen could be hoisted up the mast.
At 11:30 a.m., when the breeze dropped to about 15 knots, Justin Clougher and Francis Tregaskis went up the main mast carrying an electric drill and a power cord that had been assembled using every one of the vessel’s extension cords. Once they were 90 feet above the deck, they struggled to drill seven holes straight through the track and mast as they were being knocked into and away from the mast.
Meanwhile, Damien Durchon and Jeremy Lomas went up the mizzen mast. While they bore holes and drove a dozen bolts into that mast, others used patches and polyurethane glue to repair several tears that had developed in the sail.
At 4 p.m., the repairs were complete and we resumed racing. By then, though, Maximus had expanded its lead to 45 miles. Mr. Sanderson thought we were unlikely to catch up. Our only hope was a wind shift that would play to Mari-Cha’s greatest strength — downwind sailing. “What we have to hope for is a southeasterly shift that comes before it’s too late,” Mr. Sanderson said.
On Sunday morning, almost a week after we left New York, we finally found a favorable breeze, a southeasterly with 20 knots. That is what Mari-Cha was built for, which became obvious as our boat speed also accelerated to an exhilarating 20 knots. We have been moving at about that speed ever since, enabling us to reach the line in time and also maintain a comfortable lead over Maximus, which was about 40 miles behind us when we crossed the line.
It has been a very long trip, quick enough to break the record but longer than any of us expected when we left New York a week and a half ago. But as we crossed the line in fog yesterday morning, the horrendous weather, the crippling problems with the boat, and the lousy food did not seem very important anymore.
Mr. Knecht, the author of “The Proving Ground: The Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race,” is now at work on a book about large-scale illegal fishing and Chilean sea bass.