Wooden ocean-going yachts need lots of maintenance. Since Bill and I had all but abandoned Amber in our rush to depart England in 1991 I knew she'd require a lot of care. In 1992 I decided to return to the UK two weeks before the race - time enough to get her in shape for the weeks of sailing lying ahead. I hoped.
I drove to Baltimore-Washington airport for the flight to London, strangely (for me) arriving well before departure. After checking my boxes and supplies, I retired to the US AIR lounge to kill some time.
10 minutes before the flight left I wandered to the gate only to hear my name repeatedly broadcast over the airport's PA system. US AIR had conveniently edited such announcements from the ambient lounge noise. I responded to the gate attendant. In seconds a serious-looking official appeared asking about my checked luggage.
It seems my boxes looked suspicious under X-rays. The coils of wire and cylindrical steel objects clearly resembled fuses and bombs. I explained the coils were stainless rigging wire and the cylinders were nothing more than cans of seam compound, but had a hard time convincing the airline representative that I was not a suicidal terrorist. We argued; I suggested he open the box. Our departure time came and went with the plane still at the gate. Finally the official either gave up in frustration or bought the story.
We took off before dinner and arrived at Gatwick airport outside London just after breakfast. I've learned to book red-eye flights whenever possible as they burn up the night only. An hour or two's restless sleep is enough to keep going through the following day.
At Gatwick I rented a compact car and drove for 6 hours to Plymouth. The police seemed uninterested in wild yanks careening half-asleep down the motorways at 100 MPH. Somehow I made it to the marina in the middle of the old city without directions after driving only once down the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Hey - those British roundabouts are confusing when left is right and right is left and sleep fogs your mind. Yeah, a few dozen more locals now hate Americans, but no sheet metal was bent. After returning the car I called Cathy and told her the most dangerous part of the race was over.
Amber was chocked securely in a corner of the yard, looking a bit neglected after her year ashore. I moved aboard and started rebuilding systems.
During the winter I had advertised for a cheap liferaft in Cruising World magazine. The ad elicited a number of replies, though most were somewhat... odd. One lady inherited a liferaft as part of the divorce settlement. I drove to Manhattan to pick it up, loading all 150 pounds of its antique mass into my little Honda CRX. The subsequent inspection proved the raft was a moth-infested deathtrap. It was pronounced "condemned" by the examiners in Annapolis.
Another response came from a fellow in the midwest who had sailed in two earlier OSTARs. He had a liferaft (which proved to be just as worn as the Manhattan Special), but also knew a fellow in England I should call.
Thus I came to meet Jon Worster via telecon from the States. Jon is a Colors Sergeant in the Royal Marine based in Plymouth. He had helped my midwestern acquaintance during his races and now promised to do the same for me.
Jon and I talked via long distance while Amber rested in Plymouth. He visited the yacht ashore in her berth at Queen Anne's Battery Marina and removed all of the food, clothing, and ship's batteries. Arleen (Jon's wife) washed and mended the clothes. Jon disposed of the food and maintained the batteries. He had promised a squad of Royal Marines to help paint Amber's bottom when I arrived.
I met up with Jon at his house in Plymouth. His yard included a WW2 bomb shelter which Jon converted into a beer brewery. We sampled various brews and toasted the Queen, the weather, the race, and eventually the clothesline. He's a fascinating person with a down-to-earth view of sailing and life.
For a week I worked from dawn till well after dusk getting Amber ready for sea. The yard had placed her on the seawall where the winter wind whipped by unmercifully, pulling moisture from her planks and creating seam gaps of astonishing size. Local sailors wandering by commented constantly about the openings, so wide they could peer inside the hull. All wagged their heads and made profound announcements to their friends that she'd never float. I was surprised the English were now so fiberglass-oriented that they seemingly lost the ancient knowledge that built the wooden walls of England. Vast quantities of cotton and seam compound with an awful lot of sweat on my part repaired the gaps.
I love caulking a boat. It takes a certain skill (that is practically valueless in today's polyester boating world) to pound exactly the right amount of cotton into a seam with just the right force. Tapping the cotton home you quickly acquire a rhythm of hammer blows: one, two, THREE, one, two, THREE, with the caulking iron singing in response to the taps from the hammer. Twentysome years ago I repaired boats in marinas where caulking was not so uncommon. Today it's a sound rarely heard.
Jon showed up with 5 gallons of ship bottom paint drawn from an unknown source. The squad of Royal Marines never materialized but somehow I managed to scrape, sand and paint her bottom and topsides, and to apply several coats of different colored paint to both. Before leaving the States I had equipped Amber with a 220 to 110 volt transformer so the American power tools were useful. After painting I got the engine and most of her systems ready for sea.
We launched her into the 18 foot tides of Plymouth Harbour. The threat of massive leaking after a year of drying out in the windswept yard prompted me to rent several huge 220 volt pumps, but the caulking was entirely effective. I never turned the pumps on.
Each night I retired to either the RWYC's bar or to the Atlantic Challenger (a commercial venture also located on the marina's premises). One night I overheard the quintessential English dialog, the ultimate study in understatement. An elderly patron wandered in to be greeted by the female bartender. "Oh, how've you been, luv", she started, "I haven't see yer in a while". The customer replied "Fine, but I've had me a touch of cancer". "Bother, that", she replied, then carried on with a discussion of soccer scores.
I moved Amber to a slip and continued repairing and improving systems. One evening Rod Harvey, the Club's Secretary, came running from the marina. "Jack", he yelled, "give me a hand. Nigel Burgess is arriving." I admit that at the time I'd never heard of Nigel, but later discovered he was a famous British sailor just coming in from Monaco.
Rod piloted the Club's launch past the breakwater where we met Nigel. We secured a line aboard his 60 foot engineless custom racing sloop and started towing. Now, both Rod and I had recently come from the Club's bar, trading insults and perhaps a few too many beers with other racers. Rod especially seemed more than a bit tipsy.
We started back to the marina with Burgess in tow. There was a commotion aboard the racer but we couldn't hear over the throbbing of the launch's ancient one lung diesel. Nigel and his single crew member waved and pointed; we slowed, just a bit too late. The yacht went hard aground! We later learned it drew fourteen feet, far more than either of us expected.
As a Chesapeake Bay sailor I consider myself an expert at getting off the hard but in this case no trick worked. We even ran a line to the masthead and tried motoring off with this in tow to reduce their draft. All our efforts were of no avail, the launch's puny engine no match for the mass of the racer.
We finally gave up after a last conference with Nigel. He was not a happy camper. They spent the night aground waiting for high tide the next morning after we set their kedge. Despite the trouble we caused him Nigel was very civil when I later met up with him at the parties. I was saddened to learn that he was lost in the Bay of Biscay shortly after starting the singlehanded round the world race in late 1992.
Rod and I later towed OSTAR competitor Jose Ugarte who graciously received us aboard in old Spanish style. His army of crew instantly obeyed every order. Jose snapped his fingers and presto! Wine, glasses and cheese appeared. Another snap, and presents appeared. I was fascinated with his yacht, in which no expense had been spared. Every conceivable electronic gadget was mounted over the expansive chart table.
The RYWC mandated that each racer be in the marina one week before the start. Though ostensibly this rule was to give the Club time to inspect the vessels, the commodore admitted its real intent was to keep last minute unprepared arrivals from appearing. They figured we'd all spend the time working on the boats but would at least be starting with vessels with a solid week of floating history.
The last day of May Scott Rosenthal arrived from the States with three large boxes of boat equipment. I gave him a tour of the OSTAR fleet before proceeding to the club for a pint of Blonde's Best, a special beer brewed for the race. By now I knew quite a few of the other skippers. Everyone accepted Scott as one of the family.
The RWYC inspects every participating vessel. They can deny racing privileges to boats they suspect are not seaworthy. This inspection goes under the quaint term "scrutineering", and is a formal, quite rigorous check of all of the yacht's systems and gear. Rumors abounded that the scrutineering was intense and difficult to pass.
I'd sailed all the way across the Atlantic to enter this race. For 20 years I dreamed of participating. Now I lived in terror of flunking the scrutineering. Not that missing the grade would really change anything - I'd still have to sail Amber alone back to the USA. To me, part of the thrill of this particular adventure was being involved in the OSTAR community, not as a rejected pariah or outcast dogging the fleet homewards.
How thorough would the scrutineers be? The rules demanded an extensive inventory of safety equipment. The yacht's structure had to follow certain exacting standards, that, well, Amber just could never meet. Race rules required her cockpit sole to be at least 8 inches above the waterline. Amber's was fully 5 inches short. Any careful inspector with the slightest knowledge of basic physics could measure this discrepancy by looking at the water level bobbing an inch or two down her cockpit drain.
The entire deck had to be enclosed by double lifelines, pulpits and pushpits. Amber's single lifeline ended short of the stern. I had no intention of spoiling her classic looks with a regulation pushpit, so had Scott tie quarter inch lines around the backstay. It looked hokey but met the letter if not the spirit of the rules.
All day long we rushed to complete my checklists of repairs and modifications needed for her scrutineering scheduled for 0900 the next day. I had picked an early inspection to give us time to correct deficiencies.
While Scott sewed six feet of boltrope back onto the mainsail I bought an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). Lokata offered the racers a tremendous deal - 700 pounds for a top of the line unit. Dozens of anxious skippers surrounded the overworked sales people, who were taking money in any number of currencies in the parking lot in front of the Club.
The Royal Western demanded that all racers have beacons fitted with explosive charges that blow the EPIRB free of a submerged boat. The beacon had to be mounted above deck so it could blast free and automatically start transmitting a distress signal even if the boat sank.
Mike Plant was lost some months after the OSTAR when sailing alone to France for the start of the single-handed around the world race. Coyote's bulb keel broke free; when the boat rolled over the EPIRB apparently blew free of its bracket, but for some inexplicable reason Mike mounted it below. Only a brief emission was detected.
Each EPIRB broadcasts a unique code. As we frantically bought these devices we rushed to the post office to send a registration card to a computer facility that registers each code to the beacon's owner. In the event of an emergency search and rescue crews would know which boat was in trouble.
Older technology EPIRBs, like the one I activated 15 years earlier while drifting in a liferaft in the Caribbean, broadcast a simple warbling tone on aircraft distress frequencies - hopefully, a plane passing within 20 miles or so would pick up the plea for help. The 406 MHz units we racers carried sent our distress codes to orbiting spacecraft that downlinked the data and a rough fix to one of many local ground stations. The United States and Russia each have three satellites equipped with these receivers.
The EPIRBs themselves are marvels of modern engineering, designed to float, survive extreme cold and heat, and to broadcast continuously for at least 48 hours. A flashing strobe assists with night rescues. Self test circuits exercise the units without creating a false alarm.
I finally got my beacon and hurried off with it grasped in greedy hands, spending much of the rest of the afternoon bolting it in place and carefully arming its pyrotechnics.
My long-awaited liferaft finally turned up. None of us complained about the rule requiring a $3000 piece of equipment we hoped we'd never use - it was just good sea sense. I'm constantly amazed that a tiny little 50 pound craft can take the place of the yacht in an emergency, sheltering her skipper from the ocean's moods in calm and storm. It seems the opposite of modern industrial might of "bigger is better" to take refuge in a tiny rubber boat when the main yacht goes down.
When the ad failed to elicit a raft in good condition I ordered a new one from an English distributor, but delay after delay had me worried that it would never arrive. I found later they were not so slow at charging my credit card - in fact, they very efficiently billed me for three rafts, a minor annoyance that took months to straighten out.
The liferaft is like a Swiss army boat - pull a string, and a suitcase-sized package inflates into an eight foot round boat with overhead canopy. A man can theoretically survive for weeks or even months bobbing in the rubber boat thousands of miles from land. Steve Calahan, an instructor I studied yacht design under, lost his sloop near Europe and drifted all the way to the West Indies. He spent 76 days alone in the raft before being washed up onto an island.
Bitter experience taught the RYWC that some number of skippers would likely take to their rafts so they insisted on only the best equipment. Each had to have a survival kit with food, flares, and other equipment. I felt these so- called "E-packs", the best in the business, were just not realistic for deep ocean survival situations with rescue perhaps weeks away. Amber carried a pair of waterproof panic bags containing 30 days of very limited rations, navigation gear, and the like to supplement the liferaft's stores.
On most of Amber's really long ocean passages we had rented a liferaft. Voyages of under a few days we figured the unsinkable dingy could do double duty as an emergency lifeboat. Even on trans-ocean passages I've always packed the dingy's sailing rig in it to give us a chance of sailing to a save haven in event of an emergency.
Fifteen years earlier I sank a thirty foot cutter almost a half century old in the Caribbean. She went down in 5 minutes after colliding with what I presume to be a sunken container washed overboard from a ship, driving me into her "liferaft". Arwen had sailed without any sort of emergency craft until I purchased the raft in Fort Lauderdale, my last port. Unlike the miracle of fine engineering I bought for Amber this raft was a world war II surplus aviator boat bought for $45, barely five feet long and made to survive an afternoon in a calm pool - one without rowdy children. The raft kept me alive till rescued by commercial fisherman, but convinced me that even a $3000 top-quality device was cheap.
I installed Amber's new liferaft on the lazarette hatch aft of the cockpit. This position made the locker inaccessible but the raft immediately available in case of another Arwen-like incident.
Later that afternoon Debbie from Lokata and her boss came by for a drink. Scott and I made a practice of issuing standing invitations to virtually everyone we met. Quite a few came down to Amber, driving our beer bill (at $50 a case) through the roof but gaining dozens of new friends.
The visitors and parties became something of a joke among the racers located near Amber. Scott and I worked hard each morning on her systems but were invariable entertaining by lunch time. The incessant laughter and good- natured shouting drifting from Amber's cockpit each afternoon always drew yet more folks by. We were accused, with perhaps a little envy, of winning the non-existent "having the most fun" trophy. To my mind this would be the only laurel worth winning in any sort of sporting event
Debbie graciously agreed to take Amber's old Lokata radar detector back to the shop for a free repair. Its special rechargeable batteries were defective after 5 years of hard use. She returned it in perfect condition the day before the start.
Later a number of us took the water taxi to the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club on the Barbican. We met Alan Wynne-Thomas, skipper of Cardif Discovery (the famous former Thursdays Child). Years before Cathy and I had the chance to visit this boat in Annapolis when Warren Luhrs owned her. I remember being astonished at the gimbaled navigation station - the seat, chart table, and instrument cluster were all mounted to stay more or less level despite rolling. I'm not sure how well it worked - Luhrs reputedly wore a motorcycle helmet at all times to avoid injury from being catapulted around by the seas.
Warren planned to enter this race, but his new boat suffered structural damage on the eastward crossing. I saw a video tape of his 1980 OSTAR trip. Bruised, battered, frustrated by the incessant westerlies, he curses the race, the boat, and himself as we viewers can practically feel the boat crashing into those ineffable North Atlantic rollers. He wonders aloud if this is a reasonable activity for a father of young children, concluding that, dammit, this is just an integral part of who he is.
After Alan completed the OSTAR Scott sailed on Cardiff Discovery from Newport to Baltimore.
Mike Richey held court during the party at the Royal Corinthian. At 75 Mike was the oldest and most experienced racer in the fleet. He lost his Jester in the 1988 race but had managed to build a replica in time for 1992. Everyone pumped him for suggestions on the best course to take. Some racers had no North Atlantic experience and tremulously asked for information about the true nature of this infamous beast. Fewer than half of the entrants had sailed across an ocean before; many viewed the Atlantic with a surprising amount of trepidation.
Despite our frantic preparations Amber's was still not quite ready for scrutineering on her designated day. We awoke before the sun to finish our work. Scott secured sail numbers to the main while I organized the equipment. We fitted a hose to the cockpit drain, exhaled mightily to drive all of the water from it and the associated hoses, and turned off the sea cock. After removing the hose there was no water in the drain; measuring the sole's required 8 inches from Amber's waterline would be almost impossible if the inspectors didn't catch on to our little trick.
A pair of serious-looking English gentlemen came aboard to being the scrutineering. They checked virtually everything while Scott captured the action on video tape. We had a bit of a disagreement over the interpretation of the flares rule. I had spent some $500 on new top-of-the-line flares to meet race requirements, but was still a few short of the required number. I maintained that the three flares packed in the liferaft should count towards the total. After a bit of discussion the officials agreed that these three would indeed make up the shortage.
The scrutineers checked everything. No cushion was left unturned; no locker unopened. They were scrupulously fair, working strictly from the rule book published well in advance of the race, but were meticulous in the detail of their examinations.
A year and a continent away from the awful threat of flunking inspection I can admit to a little cheating. We did blow out the cockpit drain as I mentioned. I was also perhaps a little remiss in charts - the RWYC mandated current charts covering a vast area. Amber carried some 500 charts, far more than required by any stretch of the rules, but some were as much as 10 years out of date. My Chesapeake Bay charts were so old they practically showed the course of the original Ark and Dove.
I do have a "thing" about charts. At almost $20 each it's almost impossible for a yachtsman to maintain a current copy of an ocean's worth of coverage. To me, charts and maps are like books - I buy them whenever I can, savoring each one, learning something every time I look at them. However, I just cannot afford a complete set for every Atlantic port. So I compromise, making sure that somehow, using charts, pilots, sailing directions, or whatever, Amber will always be navigationaly safe.
Cathy and I once sailed from New York to Baltimore. This was before Amber had the wonderful diesel engine. Her cranky decades-old gas Gray farted fumes into the cabin and propelled us at a breathtaking 4 knots... in calm water. At sea it was useless. During this trip we gave up on the engine and tacked monotonously 15 miles out, 15 miles in, beating into the incessant southwest wind. Once, after 6 hours or more out of sight of land I was convinced we were looking at the same section of beach we saw on the previous tack. Dusk came, then night, and still we tacked. By midnight Cathy was sick and I was tired. I decided to put into the first available port.
Manesquan was not far away. I had no charts of the inlet, so called the Coast Guard on channel 16 for the pattern of lights on the sea buoys. The Coasties refused to release the slightest scrap of information, telling me "Captain, you are responsible for the safety of your vessel". "That's why I'm calling" I snapped, getting ever more angry. Bureaucracy prevailed; with no help from our public servants we headed in. Cathy weakly asked if everything was OK - by then I was reading the only description of the inlet on board, which gave no useful navigational advice other than to note it was the most dangerous one on the East Coast. The book advised not entering without local knowledge and gleefully alluded to a move entitled "Death at Manesquan". I assured her that everything was, ah, just fine (oh shit!), and sailed on. In the midnight dark with the tide roaring behind us we made it in without a scratch or bump.
To skirt the scrutineers' ire I formed an impressively high stack with the newest charts piled on top with the oldest below. After scanning a few from the top they assumed the rest were up to date.
Finally the inspection was complete, Amber passing with flying colors. I breathed a sigh of relief; now, nothing barred us from the race.
Later we discovered that Amber was the only boat to pass scrutineering on the first try. Each of the other 66 yachts had shortcomings. Some were missing equipment. Others had outdated flares. Most needed minor or major structural changes. David Sinnet-Jones, for example, had to modify his welded steel stantions so they didn't touch the rigging.
Throughout the week scrutineering was the main topic of conversation in the Yacht Club's bar. Nights were filled with a parade of skippers moving equipment around the docks. Amber's big CQR anchor helped more than one boat pass inspection. Her flares saw duty on vessels of several nationalities. Scott and I enjoyed helping our friends and spent the evenings toasting sailors sneaking by, furtively hauling gear under the cover of darkness. To my knowledge most of the violations were minor.
An Irish boat did come in late with literally none of the required safety equipment. Her crew tried desperately to borrow a liferaft, complete set of flares, EPIRB, and other crucial safety gear. The OSTAR fleet almost unanimously and independently rose against this, all of us feeling that their wish to fool the inspectors bordered on the suicidal. They found no one willing to loan gear and in the end purchased vast quantities at the chandler's last- minute inflated prices.
After inspection Franck and Evelyn invited us aboard Salsa for a traditional French lunch. Salsa occupied the slip next to Amber. Evelyn was much admired amongst the mostly-male racers; Franck, at 22 the youngest sailor in the race, got even more attention from the press. A constant stream of camera crews filmed Salsa's (and Evelyn's) every angle. I thought that as Amber was clearly the most classic vessel in the fleet they should focus some of their footage on her, but found most of the media fascinated with Franck and the big-buck French racers, reserving comments like "uh, could you move out of the way" for me.
After lunch we returned to Amber to find Rosie and Bridgett in her cockpit. Somehow Neal Peterson of Stella-R had both of these delightful young ladies living aboard. As Neal was always off hustling a TV or radio contract they soon attached themselves to Amber.
Neal built Stella-R himself in his homeland of South Africa. He suffered a debilitating hip ailment as a child, yet overcame this affliction to become an expert scuba diver and sailor. Now his goal was to become a world-class ocean racer. Neal made up for his limited financial resources by spending much of his time developing affluent contacts.
While sailing to England Stella-R hit a submerged container and lost her rudder. Neal dragged a bucket for 1000 miles, adjusting its angle to steer the vessel. He diverted to Ireland when Stella-R just couldn't be coaxed under her ungainly emergency steering system to make England.
The Irish fell in love with Neal's wonderful personality and quickly adopted him. He met Rosie and Bridgett there starting a threesome we all wistfully wondered about. Now Neal sailed under the Irish flag, prompting a never- ending series of jokes about this Irish black South African.
On arrival in Plymouth I had immediately reported to the yacht club. Rod Harvey, Lloyd Foster, and other club officials bought me a drink and invited me to sit down with themselves and Neal, who arrived some weeks before. I learned to my astonishment that Neal had just sold all of his scuba gear, his dingy, and his inboard engine to pay for race supplies. His outlook was typically cheerful, commenting that the reduced weight should help him sail faster.
Rosie and Bridgett had flown over to "help" Neal. Now, as we proceeded to down the last of Amber's Screetch, Rosie wrote a long series of notes as incomprehensible as her accent in Amber's logbook.
Later Rosie and Bridgett planned a surprise birthday party for Neal's 25th. Sailors from six countries waited below on Stella-R, getting a satisfying start from Neal as he hopped aboard.
The Royal Western put on three meals/parties a day for the racers. They told us it was to fatten us up for the days of seasickness and the rough life of a sailor ahead. I suspect they enjoyed the festivities as much as we did. One evening Scott stumbled to a phone after last call at the Club to phone home. Sue hung up on him after he blearily repeated the day's events three times. Falling down only one set of stairs he somehow made it safely back to Amber.
Gordon Frickers painted Mark Gatehouse's dramatic whale collision picture. He stopped by to chat and stayed for hours. He was fascinated by Amber's classic lines, and not-so-subtly angled for a commission. A few days later he was to come by again, with the entire family in tow to give the kids a glimpse of a dying breed of vessel.
Journalists swarmed over the docks in great numbers, all looking for an interesting story. Three from the States, Billy Black (a photographer), Joyce someone or other, and Jim Dean were freelancing for Sail and Cruising World. They came by and interviewed me, though I don't know if any of the material or pictures were ever used.
The OSTAR is a huge sporting event in Europe. Since 1964 the French have dominated the event and now garner most of the press coverage. Their sailing heroes are held in the same esteem as our football stars. The French had the best boats with the most financial backing.
A short distance down the dock Welshman David Sinnet-Jones' Zane Spray waited, tended by David and his girlfriend. David and Suzanne quickly became some of our favorite people. After singlehanding Zane Spray around the world he was now preparing for the solo jaunt to the USA.
We met David in the yacht club's bar as he sipped one of his never-ending series of scotches. It seems a fire extinguisher had let go down below. Suzanne was valiantly cleaning up the mess as David professed a need for "a wee one, to calm me nerves". We soon discovered that Suzanne cleaned and helped without complaint while David "calmed his nerves".
David suffered from a series of terrible medical problems in his long-distance voyages. He left body parts in all corners of the globe - a piece of heart muscle here, a lung there. Somehow he never lost his infectious laugh and spirit of adventure nor his self-depreciating sense of humor.
Suzanne was worried about David's marginal health. We set up a communications schedule between several boats - Amber, Zane Spray, Aeglos and Ladyhawk. None of us expected to be within even hundreds of miles of each other, so decided to use the ham radio frequencies which David's radio couldn't quite handle. Scott helped David modify his unit to shift it's frequency.
One evening the Half Crown Club held a meeting to initiate all of the first-time OSTAR racers into the organization. The Half-Crown Club is named for the size of the original bet in the 1960 race, and is composed only OSTAR racers. The crystal piece given to us new members now lives in a place of honor on my desk at the office.
Alan Wynne-Thomas is the current head of the group, if such a position can be said to exist. There are no rules, no meetings, and not even an official list of members - if you are one, you'll know. He circulated the club's betting book, an official record of bets any racer can place. Fraser Boyd and I exchanged a pair of bets that I suppose I won.
A few days before departure Scott and I drove to Plymouth to buy Amber's provisions. We filled carts with 40 bags of chips, 24 bottles of water, 2 cases of beer, bottles of sherry and wine, massive amounts of candy, 50 bags of cookies... as well as a little real food. Customers gathered to laugh at the crazy yanks.
Amber's stern settled a few inches as we piled it in her cockpit while stowing it all below. A French photographer stopped to take pictures of the mounds of supplies. Every time we provision for a long voyage I despair of finding room for it all, and am amazed that somehow every item disappears into a locker.
Provisions piled high in the cockpit
Suzy came by for a good-bye drink. She used her linguistic talent (five languages) to work for a short time for the local yacht insurance company. Now she was headed home to Germany, a disaster for her boyfriend of a week, Eric.
One of the biggest skippers was Karl Brinkmann, owner of 26 foot Little Fritzz. Karl was accompanied by his wife Birgdet and friend Eric. They trucked her in from Germany. For days they loaded gear aboard while she sat in a cradle in the parking lot. After launching they were dismayed to see her float over a foot below her lines.
For a week the crew carried a constant stream of spare and non-essential equipment back to the car. One of the two liferafts had to go. The spare generator was retired. Little Fritzz slowly came up to her marks. Every day we'd walk down the dock to find her with a inch or two of increased freeboard.
Both Karl and Birgdet are attorneys. Karl's family owned the law practice he worked in, and were strongly opposed to his participating in the OSTAR. His OSTAR entry cost him his job.
Before Suzy left Eric stayed ashore at her flat. Now all three of them crammed below into Little Fritzz's tiny interior.
I dragged a notebook computer along to replace the Toshiba that failed on our eastward transatlantic trip. My brain overflowed with stories of this wild week, stories I was anxious to record on paper (or, at least, on disk). Unfortunately, the machine just wouldn't boot after arriving in England. We tried every trick our combined five decades of computer experience suggested. Nothing helped. I sighed, resigned to using a pen and paper for the next month or so.
Autohelm offered free autopilot repairs to the fleet from their mobile repair van parked on the dock. This was too good to pass up. I managed to beg a free spare motor from the technician we dubbed "Andy Autohelm".
The increasing journalist density prompted those desperate for a different angle to interview even the poor old skipper of Amber II. I loved being the center of attention for my 15 minutes of fame. Most of the press folks were fascinated by Jon's bicycle I had temporarily stored on Amber's port sidedeck. Everyone wondered, some almost seriously, if I planned to use it to generate electricity in mid-ocean.
Others skeptically wondered if I was going to sail across the Atlantic with it on deck, no doubt surprised by the dingy Amber carried upside-down on her coach roof. Amber was the only yacht in the race to carry a hard dingy, a fact commented on many times by seemingly every European to come down the dock. Racers do anything to trim weight; the 100 pound dingy seemed ungainly and spurious.
I've carried that dingy for tens of thousands of miles. It's essential in new ports where we avoid marinas to shuttle back and forth to the anchorage. The little boat was always mounted upside-down covering the skylight over the main cabin. In most weather conditions I could therefore keep the skylight open, admitting fresh air but no rain even in near-gale conditions.
My 15 minutes of fame
We met Eleanora De Haas at the Royal Corinthian party. She was the only Dutch competitor and outrageously entertaining. A few days before the race a sheriff nailed a writ to her mast impounding the vessel. Apparently there was some dispute with a former boyfriend about the boat's ownership. In the dark of the night the yacht and Eleanora slipped away, never to be seen again. Rumors abounded that she had departed for the Caribbean, leaving creditors and her ex behind.
Scott and I shared coffee and sea stories aboard Nord, Petia Hristova's 25 foot ancient folkboat. Nord was Bulgaria's only entry in this year's OSTAR. Though Petia's English was limited she was delightful company and entertained us with style. Petia creatively financed all of the boat's gear to compensate for Nord's practically non- existent sailing budget. Her mechanical engineer's salary in Bulgaria produced a pittance by Western standards. Somehow she managed to get the boat together despite odds that would be insurmountable to any normal individual.
My Dad arrived from the States a few days before the start. Traveling West to East burns up the day, so all of us had flown over on evening flights. Plymouth is several hundred miles from London, so the weary travelers, having slept little during the airborne night, drove rented cars at breakneck speeds across the English countryside while barely awake. Dad had a little run-in with a curb in town. Scott helped him get the tire fixed, and then we shared a pint at the Club.
The Lord Mayor of Plymouth was determined to stage a welcome for the racers at her headquarters in town. She sent engraved invitations to the competitors and provided a fleet of buses to carry the racers and their helpers to the huge edifice housing the city's offices.
The Lord Mayor, bedecked in a magnificent gown with sash and medals, greeted us in a formal receiving line. Most of the sailors waited more or less patiently since the bar queue formed right behind her. Some came, of course, with a few emergency beers stuffed in their belts. Sailors try to be prepared for any eventuality.
In the reception hall a cadre of tuxedoed butlers carrying silver trays tried to keep up with our calls for drinks. A half dozen TV crews roamed the room, capturing the antics of the more famous (i.e., French) racers. 68 year-old Harry Mitchell staggered by, unshaven and looking like a street person, yet wildly entertaining with his jokes and self-depreciating stories of his sailing exploits. Harry is one of those humans who knows how to make you talk about yourself; it's hard to learn much of him since he is so outgoing and interested in learning from those he speaks to.
Harry entered a single-handed round-the-world race with his family boat. All of the other competitors had syndicates raising millions to build special ocean greyhounds. Several stops were planned with month-long layovers for the sailors to reprovision and make repairs. After two months alone at sea Harry entered Sydney harbor 30 days behind the rest of the fleet; so far behind, in fact, that the race was due to resume the next morning! He worked all night and somehow departed on time. Unfortunately, he drifted a bit too close to New Zealand and ran onto the beach on South Island. Still undeterred he recruited local farmers to dig a channel to deep water with their tractors. Harry raced on but retired after realizing he was too far behind to compete.
Finally the Lord Mayor was ready for her official welcome. The liveried footman, scepter in hand, cleared his throat. The partying carried on. He cleared it again - the noise never abated. Finally, stomping his foot and loudly requesting our attention, a few heads turned in his direction. "Will yer look at that?" I heard a British sailor mumble. Eventually the footman had our attention, and formally, with all the dignity of the British Empire, introduced the Lord Mayor.
She gave a short speech made much, much longer by the RWYC's own Rod Harvey translating each clause into French. Rod hammed it up for the press - the skippers loved it. He ended the translation with the words "Go West!", which became our theme for the next few days.
The race's big social event was a semi-formal dinner at the yacht club. Attendance was strictly limited to one skipper and one helper per boat, in addition to the members of the Club. I had a little problem... Amber now had two on-board helpers (Scott and Dad), and I owed Jon and Arleen an invitation as well.
I met with Stewart, the Club's steward, and told him about the difficulty. Stewart and I were friends at this point. I had helped him carry 60 boxes of supplies to the Club one slow afternoon. He never really replied to my query; instead, Stewart's gaze drifted to the ceiling and he started talking about how much he wanted one of the Europe 1 STAR baseball caps that only the skippers were given. I slipped him my hat; nothing further was said, but all five of us were served in style by the Club's cooks that evening.
The day before the start most of the skippers were a little more serious and subdued, now starting to contemplate the vast seas ahead of us. The RWYC held a mandatory captain's meeting for a final weather briefing and discussion about the start. When H.M.'s Met officer announced we could expect a number of days of force 1 winds the entire room groaned. Fraser Boyd, sitting next to me, said sotto voce "Oh my god, I better buy some more food!" All of us dreaded sailing out of the English Channel in nearly windless conditions. Fortunately this prediction was about as accurate as those we get on this side of the pond.
Fujicolor donated a halyard to Franck of Salsa. A few days earlier Pierre 1Eer gave him some line. Evelyn was thrilled to have something touched by the oh-so-famous Florence Arthoud. Apparently she is the French sailing equivalent of Joe Montana.
Franck's inventory grew with donated liferaft, GPS, EPIRB, and much other expensive gear. A few other skippers grumbled that his life should be so easy; most of us had hocked our futures getting the gear ourselves. I guess that a age 22 he needed some help; at least he had the gumption to participate in the adventure.
Gene, Jack and Scott in Plymouth
I desperately wanted ice to keep meat and drinks cool for the first week or so, but ice is as common in England as it is on a desert island. Dad and Scott went on an ice-hunting mission in Plymouth but came up empty handed. We tried everything, from chandlers to liquor stores, with little success. The locals made fun of the damn Yankees on Amber who needed cold storage. The Empire had existed for 500 years on nothing more than salt beef! Stewart the steward contributed 2 pounds. Jon stuffed a plastic bag of water in the Royal Marines' walk-in freezer. Jon never takes the easy route; to deliver the ice he donned a dry suit, motored a rubber dingy 10 miles to Amber, picked me up and motored 10 miles back (I had a wonderful tour of the harbour). We got the ice and returned by the same route.
The press continued with interviews and I got another few minutes of fame. Scott discovered that a local yacht broker had chartered 21 boats to journalists planning to cover the start.
Dave and Jean Fleck, with 3 month old son Charles, arrived from the States for a brief visit. Dave and Jean are members of the infamous Thursday Night group. Andrei, Franck's uncle, joined us with stories and a bottle of wonderful old scotch.
Amber was ready for sea. We waited only for the start.
Link to part 4 of the story.