Our Race to New York Was No Pleasure Cruise

NEW YORK HARBOR — What a ride!

As we left Annapolis and headed toward the starting line for the sixth leg of the Volvo Ocean Race early Sunday afternoon, I was looking forward to a rapid sprint to New York City on ABN AMRO ONE, which had won four of the five previous legs of the extraordinary 32,000-nautical-mile around-the-world race. It didn’t turn out that way.
Mike Sanderson, our skipper, who is universally called “Moose,” had told us there was the potential for heavy weather. “We’re going to have a pretty hellish night,” he said during a pre-race briefing. “Between 2 and 4 a.m. on Monday, we could have 50 knot gusts.” He asked the 10-man crew to fight hard. “We have a couple of days to sleep in New York, so let’s give it hell for the next 30 hours.” But he also issued a caution: “The most important thing is getting there in one piece. We have a lot to lose: If we break the boat and can’t start in the next leg, that would be a total disaster.”

At the start of the Annapolis to New York leg, the sun was shining and the wind was calm, about eight knots, providing a perfect day for the thousands of spectator boats that had come out to watch. But the wind was too gentle for “Black Betty,” as ABN AMRO ONE’s crew calls its 70-foot rocket of a yacht with its relatively wide hull, it performs better in heavy weather. As a result the six other boats left us behind as the fleet headed south to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and by late afternoon two of them had disappeared into the distance.

That all changed Sunday evening when we were two thirds of our way down the Chesapeake and the wind picked up to 23 to 26 knots. With a push of a button, the 21-foot-long keel canted to the side, enabling us to keep the boat relatively upright in spite of the force of the wind. Betty soon reached a speed identical to the wind’s. It was as if someone ignited booster engines to hurtle us out to sea. By the time we crossed under the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and entered the Atlantic Ocean shortly after midnight, we had passed four of the other boats.

That’s also when the real trouble began. The wind speed exceeded 30 knots and a series of squalls buffeted us with 42-knot winds. Worse, the breeze was coming from the north, the direction we wanted to go. That meant Betty was repeatedly climbing waves that were unseen except for the frothing white at their peaks and then falling into the trough on the other side, a scenario that causes fragile composite-hulled racing boats to break. Remarkably, this was the strongest wind the crew had sailed into throughout the entirety of the seven-month race. They had occasionally seen stronger breezes, but this was the first time such heavy wind was on the nose.

During the early hours of Tuesday morning, Black Betty’s deck became a war zone as the crew battled rain and stinging sleet to reduce the size of the sails we were flying. The bowmen, Jan Dekker and Justin Slattery, had the toughest tasks. Twice they had to change our headsail — wrestling each sail down to the deck, keeping track of lines in the darkness and hoisting replacement sails while the hull crashed off the waves and tons of water washed over the deck. Several battle-hardened sailors became seasick. No one slept until after 7 a.m. Even then, it was only for catnaps and no one bothered to take off their foul-weather gear or boots when they lay down on their bunks or on the floor. They knew another sail change would soon require “all hands on deck.”

There’s nothing like the Volvo (or the Whitbread, as it was known until Volvo took over the sponsorship reins in 2001). The current edition began when seven yachts set out from Spain and headed south last November. After a stop in Cape Town, South Africa, the yachts entered the treacherous Southern Ocean and circled much of Antarctica, making stops in Australia and New Zealand, before heading back north to Rio de Janeiro and then up to the Chesapeake.

I’m only onboard for this one leg, but it’s easy to see how grueling the race is. The conditions onboard — from the uncomfortable bunks to the open toilet and freeze-dried food — are Spartan, and the work is constant. The only place to be is either on deck or lying down in the carbon-fiber black cabin. The only thing that resembles a chair is the swing-like seat where Stan Honey, the navigator, works with a pair of computers and weather information to plot the optimal course.

Black Betty can reach incredible speeds. Earlier in the race, between Spain and South Africa, it sailed 546 miles in a single day. We couldn’t reach anything like that speed while heading into the south-bound wind and waves. The wind direction also meant that we had to repeatedly tack back and forth. With each tack, we lost a quarter of a mile. And each turn meant that hundreds of pounds of gear had to be shifted from one side of the boat to the other.

But we were doing better than our competitors. When we received data about the other boats’ positions at 6 a.m. Monday, we learned that we were ahead of them all.

As the sun set Monday night, we were tacking back and forth up the New Jersey coastline, which was sometimes clearly visible. The wind was still strong, averaging 27 knots, and our lead expanded through the night. But our skipper, who had slept only a few minutes since the start, was not taking anything for granted even after we passed Ambrose Light and made our way toward the bright lights of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and, beyond that, the Statue of Liberty.

Only when we crossed the finish line near the southern tip of Manhattan at 4:06 a.m. and learned that the closest of the other boats still had 23 miles to go did Moose break into a smile. Shaking hands with everyone on his crew, he said, “Nice work guys — that was a real toughie of a race, so this is a particularly sweet victory.”

Despite the hour, spectators and champagne were waiting on the dock, but the crew will not have long to savor its victory. The seventh leg, from New York to Portsmouth, England, begins tomorrow.

Mr. Knecht is a Journal reporter and the author of “Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and The Perfect Fish.”