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Race of the Century

Rolex's Transatlantic Challenge was a gear-busting, record-breaking international spectacle.

October 4, 2007

The start was a ghosting contest.

The start was a ghosting contest. Onne van der Wal

For decades a mix of fabulously wealthy owners and supremely passionate yachtsmen had dreamed of this day. Like a Currier & Ives print of another century, giant sailing yachts jockeyed for position off New York City’s Sandy Hook, waiting for the start of an epic transatlantic race. The last time such an event took place? 1905.

A century later, 20 entries, among them the speedsters Mari-Cha IV and Maximus, the 1914 Fife ketch Sumurun, and the 250-foot three-masted tall ship, Stad Amsterdam, lined up to take the gun.

In the week running up to the start of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge, Manhattan’s waterfront became a gilded nautical ballroom as parties, some glamorous and exclusive, others spontaneous and never-ending, bloomed in celebration. There were major events as well at the New York Yacht Club, in foreign embassies and chic restaurants and nightclubs, but the most sought-after invitations of were from the contending superyachts, such as the 195-foot Alloy sloop, Tiara, whose deckhouse served as a stage for a live band to serenade the 100 guests and owner Jonathan Leitersdorf. Even the stakes in spectatorship were high, with the New York Yacht Club reserving a block of suites on board the Queen Elizabeth II for those wishing to follow the fleet in style.

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Like the last great race, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge included high-tech machines and floating palaces, but the camaraderie of today’s yachtsmen differed a great deal-for the better. In 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany had forced the exclusively inshore sport of yacht racing out to sea by insulting and challenging the American and English yachting establishments, including his own uncle Albert, formerly Prince of Wales and then King Edward of England.

Billionaire Robert Miller and this 140-foot twin-masted schooner Mari-Cha was the odds-on favorite to take line honors in this 2,925-mile chase from Ambrose Light off New York to The Needles off the Isle of Wight. She already held the outright record, set two years ago when the crew could pick their own weather window: 6 days, 17 hours, 52 minutes. But the record for an actual race had been set in 1905 by the 185-foot three-masted schooner Atlantic, skippered by famed America’s Cup winner Charlie Barr: 12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute, 19 seconds.

An inauspicious start nearly doomed any record attempt. A rogue Nor’easter swept up the coast, and for 24 hours kept the fleet bottled up in port by the threat of 50-knot winds. Then, when the New York Yacht Club finally lowered the flag, there was barely enough wind to fill a spinnaker. Not everyone agreed with the race committee, but Jef d’Etiveaud, Mari-Cha‘s French navigator, put an appropriate spin on the delay. “Hey, one extra Saturday in New York-I’ve had tougher propositions!” he said, adding: “It is one thing to handle 50 knots of wind at sea, but sending 20 yachts toward this type of weather, when a simple postponement can avoid it, would in my mind have been a mistake.”

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Twenty-two hours after the Sunday start, when the light winds had clocked the compass at least twice, Roy Heiner, Mari-Cha‘s Dutch watch leader, reported that they had barely covered 200 miles-and had the new 100-foot Maximus, owned by New Zealanders Charles Brown and Bill Buckley, on their hip. The race would be between these two ultramodern goliaths from that point on.

The winds came back with a vengeance the following Friday, damaging rigs and crews. Mari-Cha launched off a gigantic wave, and the crash sent a shock wave up the rig, shattering the mainsail headboard car. Thirty-six hours into the storm, owner Miller reported, “We have been sailing at around 80 percent with just the No. 4 jib, a trysail and triple-reefed mizzen, but now we have also damaged the mizzen luff track. Our plan is to continue racing with the sails that we have and as soon as the weather allows, we will start affecting repairs.”

Maximus was quick to pounce, but after taking over the lead also ran into trouble. Co-owner Bill Buckley fell and dislocated his shoulder. The crew turned downwind to ease the yacht’s motion. “We got all the medical books out and there was plenty of discussion,” said navigator Mike Quilter. “We then lay Bill facedown on a bunk and gradually dropped his shoulder over the side toward the ground and it slipped back in.” A day later, their mainsail tore up the leach from the first reef and ripped the reefing pad eyes from the mast. By Saturday, Mari-Cha was back in the lead-albeit by only 13 miles.

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Mal Parker aboard Peter Harrison’s Sojana was helping to reef a headsail when his left arm was pulled into the winch, breaking it in two places. Harrison and his crew headed for nearest land-the French islands of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, south of Newfoundland, from where Parker was flown to Montreal for an emergency operation.

Farther down the fleet, the crew on Carlo Falcone’s 67-year-old Fife-designed yawl Mariella were busy reefing and shaking in tune with the lightning-lit 40-knot squalls, until losing the top of their mizzenmast. “With a fantastic gut-wrenching splitting sound, the staysail plummeted to deck for the second time today,” said Sophie Luther. “This time it was due to the top of the mizzenmast snapping off above the spreaders. Luckily, all our communications seemed to be unaffected…. We all realized that there was nothing we could do until morning except strap it all down and have a nice mug of hot chocolate.”

Atlantic faced a similar storm in 1905, and owner Wilson Marshall pleaded with skipper Charlie Barr to stop the boat. “You’re paying me to race and race we will,” the hard-nosed Scotsman retorted before locking the hapless owner and his guests in a cabin and leaving them to pray for salvation. The following day, Barr’s decision was vindicated by a record 24-hour run of 341 miles.

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Chris Gongriepe’s 152-foot classic schooner Windrose of Amsterdam actually matched Atlantic’s 24-hour record. After sailing all day at 14 to 15 knots under a full main, foresail, staysail and code zero spinnaker, Captain Nick Haley reported that “Atlantic was a bigger boat, but we are happy because we have beaten our previous record by 20 miles.” Windrose was now leading her class ahead of the two Ed Dubois-designed superyachts, Tiara and Drumbeat.

By now, Mari-Cha was 390 miles from the Lizard, broad reaching at 20 knots across a 20-knot southwesterly with Maximus clinging on 30 miles astern. With 160 miles to go, the gap had extended to 40 miles, but as Jef d’Etiveaud reported, it was not a foregone conclusion: “We are pushing the boat to her maximum, changing sails often to stay in the groove. This is no easy task on Mari-Cha; with its schooner rig we have a combination menu longer than a Chinese takeaway!”

Mari-Cha passed the Lizard the following morning to set a race record time of 9 days, 15 hours, 55 minutes, 23 seconds (an average of 12.61 knots). Nine hours later, Robert Miller and his crew could finally celebrate as they passed the Needles finish to take line honors. They could not save their time on Maximus, however, which finished just 5 hours later to give her Kiwi crew a share of the silverware.

“This was my seventh transatlantic and by far the toughest one,” Miller said. “At times I felt the ghost of Charlie Barr looking down on us and enjoying every bit of hardship we were encountering. The competition has also been tough-Maximus and ourselves have spent the whole race running close together.”

Another to feel that they had put the ghost of Barr behind them was Windrose of Amsterdam, third among the four yachts to break Atlantic’s record. “That was important,” Jerry Dijkstra, the Dutch navigator and designer of the yacht, said emphatically. After they had destroyed their heavy furling genoa, Windrose was unable to sail upwind, dictating their tactics for several days until conditions moderated enough to fly a blade jib as a replacement. This diversion allowed Drumbeat and Tiara to slip ahead and take first and second on handicap in their cruising class. At the Lizard, just 1 second separated the two yachts-though this was extended to almost 5 hours by the finish after Tiara suffered problems with the spinnaker.

Reflecting the mood that spread across the finishing fleet, Mark Lloyd, the owner of Drumbeat, said, “I am hugely enthusiastic. I’ve had the time of my life. It has been a huge celebratory event. We have had a really, really good race.”At the prize-giving at Queen Victoria’s retreat at Osborne House, the great-granddaughter of Charlie Barr, Phillipa Beckinsale, was on hand to meet her ancestor’s successors. Not quite Queen Victoria or the Kaiser, but in yachting circles, royalty.

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