Long Run In Fickle Weather

The Honolulu race fleet hunted high and low for fitful and elusive winds. Below is Ezra Bowen's log of the 2,230-mile search aboard the yawl 'Jada"
August 04, 1957

July 4, 10:30 a.m. One hour and a half before the start, the oily flat water of the basin off the Los Angeles Yacht Club is packed with the boats that are going to make the 2,230-mile transpacific run to Honolulu. Lying at the outer rim of the basin, the 10 of us aboard George Sturgis' 56-foot yawl Jada are busy, running a spinnaker up out of the forepeak and gathering it in stops with cotton twine, stowing clothes in the drawers and lockers below, oiling bronze snaps and shackles and hailing rivals alongside. The day is hot, and there aren't more than two knots of wind flicking off the shimmering brown hillsides—it is uncommonly still for such an important moment.

Now the fleet is ready to move out. Tasco II, first to drop her mooring, eases past us, puffy wrappings of lamb's wool all the way up her shrouds and around her spreaders to keep the light sails from chafing. There past us goes Prent Fulmor's new Criterion. Fulmor won the last two Honolulu races with his fast little Staghound. Fulmor's new Criterion is big and strong, 61 feet and 34 tons. She needs wind, and if it blows, she'll be tough. Orient, Tim Moseley's beautiful 63-foot cutter, is still at her mooring, crew in light blue T-shirts matching her hull color. She could win it if the wind stays light. Peter Grant's Nalu II, the stubby, high-sided sloop everyone fears in light weather, has already gone out. Barlovento, the scratch boat, is coming from another anchorage. We won't see her till we get to the line. She's tall and tender, and if the wind stays below 15 knots, she'll be long gone for Honolulu.

Now a gentle breeze is coming over the breakwater, blowing away some of the sun's heat. The weather forecast is: winds south at 2 to 5 knots, swinging west, backing to northwest and rising to 18 knots. Good weather for Criterion. Good for our Jada, too. We are heavy and stiff, and we need 15 knots of wind to get moving. Offshore the Pacific "high" is broken into two centers, but it should consolidate fairly well by tomorrow, giving the fleet a straight shot, theoretically, at the rhumb line course (see chart).

We cast off with no rush and no special excitement among the crew. Most of them have made the race three or four times before; some were on Jada last summer when she won the 3,571-mile Tahiti race. Under power, we move through the churning mass of marine confusion in the outer harbor, toward the starting line.

As the sailing fleet moves past large power cruisers, wives and guests dripping off the superstructures of the cruisers shout, "You're lovely, go get it." Farther out, the big, white Coast Guard boat Gresham that will mother us to Honolulu is standing tall and bright in the marine haze. Helicopters hover above, and on the water a half dozen crash boats and Coast Guard auxiliaries pivot around, sirens and horns bleating, to keep the line clear.

At the starting gun, we on Jada are across the line first, rolling for the breakwater escorted by a roaring, wallowing hodgepodge of spectator boats that broke away from the Coast Guard watchdogs.

July 4, sundown. We got around Catalina, fourth in the fleet. Barlovento, Orient and another big cutter, Nam Sang, sailed right through us in the light-moderate headwinds. The winds around Catalina were the strangest I've ever seen—hot blasts of air up to 25 knots, rushing down off the steep hills and laying our lee rail under, then sudden calms of eight knots and one utterly flat spot that stopped us as though we'd run onto a sand bar. Legend, a light displacement sloop rather like Nalu II but bigger, was moving up on us until she fell into a hole in the wind near the tip of the island. Looking back at the helpless rival, Sturgis chuckled and commented, "Oh, that's too bad. I'm such a sportsman I hope they're there a week."

At sundown the wind has swung to the southwest for real and climbed to 18 knots. Catalina has disappeared astern and the hilltops of San Clemente, the last land we'll see until Honolulu, are just barely visible in the evening haze.

The first night watch is always fuzzy and strange feeling. There's a white light away to windward, probably the light on San Nicolas Island. Now a red light—and with it the occasional dull glow of a flashlight beam probing up the luff of a Genoa to check the set of the sail. Someone is slipping by us. Then there are no more lights, and we begin the long, cold process of crouching on deck, scrambling now and then to trim a sheet or to secure gear that has shaken down to leeward. At 1:00 a.m., on my first trick at the wheel the wind is 15 knots WSW, the boat rolling at 7¾ knots, the sky crowded with stars, a milky way like a high, bright canopy leading out to Hawaii, and a half-moon sliding over toward the windward horizon.

July 7, 8:00 a.m. Third day out. Latitude 28 degrees 50 minutes north. Longitude 125 degrees 15 minutes west. The wind has swung toward the north and dropped to 10 knots, a little light for us but we should be getting the trades soon. The day is bright and clear, with scattered cumulus. We've come 560 miles. It was cold on deck last night, but the sky was clear, the moon a brightly waxing gibbous that slipped in and out beneath the low wisps of cloud, running southerly across our course. Rolling ahead of us was an endless, wrinkling path of silver, dark on either side, the phosphorescent glimmer of a wave top occasionally fooling us into thinking a rival was near by. The wind backed far enough for us to set the spinnaker, and it stood out high and tight before the mast, drawing well, straining the tackle that held it. The boat took on a rhythmic run, waggling a little, then rising by the weather quarter for the long slide down the backs of the rollers.

This long Honolulu race seems more a sea passage than a race. Here you live with the boat, live with your bunk, learning how to crawl down and pack yourself into the lee corner to sleep without being tossed around, shave in the morning, sitting on the floor, tell the day by the markings on the revolving cylinder on the barograph, fiddle incessantly with the sails, trying to coax an extra quarter of a knot out of a heavy boat in light air, and look on the empty ocean for other boats.

The pattern of the race, which has been a hopeless tangle of conflicting weather reports and bewildering position reports, is slowly beginning to jell. Every morning at 8 all boats in the fleet report their positions with local wind and barometer readings to the Gresham, and the Gresham repeats them back loud and clear, so each boat, in theory, knows the whole race. Actually a lot of gamesmanship is essayed in these reports by tacticians who figure, perhaps, to suck an opponent into a ruinous maneuver. But you can usually figure who is faking, and make fairly accurate compensations. Then, there are plain navigational errors which are frequently more baffling than the calculated gamesmanship. One boat, for example, reported a first-day position that put her three miles inland in the desert behind Ensenada, Mexico. Each morning after roll call, the Gresham also broadcasts a weather map of the entire northern Pacific, so the racers can plot the movement of the Pacific high and stay away from its calm center.

This morning the competition is doing too well. Barlovento is wheeling along up by the rhumb line, close to the high but getting enough wind to put her almost 160 miles ahead of us. If she doesn't fall flat on her face somewhere, the rest of us might as well make this a cruise to Honolulu. Nam Sang is still in front of us, pulling out slowly. Orient, too, is making it tough for everyone. Criterion is running north of us and getting more wind. She passed us yesterday out of sight and is now 35 miles to the WNW. We seem to be holding a more extreme southerly course than most of the other boats except Nam Sang, figuring that the high, which is moving south and beginning to spread out like a gigantic hot dog all across the Pacific, will settle on the northern boys and strangle them. But so far it's Jada that is choking in the noose. Skipper Sturgis puzzles over the morning positions, then announces, "We're just having the hell beat out of us."

July 10, 8:00 a.m. Sixth day out, 1,100 miles from Los Angeles. Latitude 25 degrees 46 minutes north. Longitude 136 degrees 40 minutes west. Wind NE at 10 knots. We search the clear sky for puffs of cumulus, the dark squalls that will tell us we're truly into the northwest trades. But they don't come. We're still sagging south, on Nam Sang's tail, and still being beaten by the boats up north. There's no reason for it. The high (see chart) is on them, and they should be dying. When the morning roll call comes through, by gosh, they are dying. Barlovento is still out front, but she reports wind dropping from 19 knots down to about 10. Nalu II and the rest of the little boys are bunched together up there with only eight knots. Down here we've got 11 to 13 knots. Maybe they're really in a hole, leaving us no one to beat but Nam Sang and possibly Orient. Criterion looks to be hurting. She's still northwest of us, but we've run about 200 miles since roll call yesterday-better than Criterion—and heavy as we are, we can move in lighter stuff than they can. This feels good. We were halfway across and the race more than half lost. Now, with one day's shift in the fickle weather, we have a chance to win. None of the northern boats said anything about jibing and coming south this morning. But they've got to. Barlovento has been running the rhumb line, hoping for the fastest track to Oahu. But none of them can stay up there now. If they do, they've had it.

July 11, 9:00 a.m. Seventh day out. Latitude 24 degrees 36 minutes north. Longitude 139 degrees 4.0 minutes west. The 0800 roll call tells the story, a story everyone on Jada is happy to hear. By her position, Nalu II obviously had to jibe more than 24 hours ago. Here she comes, slanting down through the fleet. Here comes Legend, jibing too, and the schooner Volunteer. None of the other contenders seem to be turning as sharply as these. Most notably, Barlovento is holding high on the rhumb line. Well, stay up there, big boy, and be happy. They must still be hoping to catch a corner of the trade winds. Things look better every minute, but Criterion is dropping back steadily. Nam Sang is still walking out ahead of us.

July 13, noon. Ninth day out, almost 600 miles to go. Latitude 22 degrees 51 minutes north. Longitude 146 degrees 29 minutes west. Fitful wind peaking at 9 knots, skittish, almost vanishing zephyrs skipping around the compass, killing our speed and making life miserable for the helmsman. Ocean racing could make a schizophrenic out of the position of each yacht at midday each day, indicate the almost ceaseless search for a most stable character. Four days ago we'd lost the race. Two days ago we won it back, and now it's gone again. We still haven't found the trade winds that Jada needs. The whole sky is sitting under a still blanket of stratus clouds that seem to be stifling our wind. The entire weather pattern, in fact, is an utter mishmash. Among the Class-A and Class-B contenders, only Barlovento and Criterion, caught in holes of their own, seem to be suffering as much as we. Nam Sang and Orient keep rolling no matter what happens to the wind. Nalu II is suddenly looking better as she moves south. Volunteer, after a brilliant southerly slant, is now even with us, and, with her winning wind, and also point up how the gamble of a jibe to a more southerly course handicap, now has a good chance to take the entire race. We saw Legend yesterday off our starboard bow, the first sail sighted since the evening of the start. This morning Legend reports a position well ahead of us, to the south, and is clipping along almost 200 miles per day while we make about 180. Once again, with the winds light and the sails requiring little attention, a mild stupor is beginning to overcome the crew of the Jada. There is absolutely nothing we can do to make the boat go faster. We've talked about dropping south to look for wind but decide to keep this course and hope. We've tried every possible way of setting the sails, including a few that looked so odd we doused them right away to keep from making an illegal rig. Our night watch conversation has now run the gamut of marine gab. Eddie Fink, who crewed on the J boat Yankee, has proved to his satisfaction that the Yankee was robbed in the 1934 America's Cup trials against Rainbow. I have stoutly defended the Class-E scow as the finest of all racing-class boats. With our watch mates Tom Skahill and Dick Blatterman, we have explored the question of boats designed as rule beaters. We have discussed Hoot Mon, Comanche—debated whether Bolero would have hit the reef in the Bermuda race, and damned all race committees from here to breakfast. We have fallen to reading pocket books, Lloyd's Register, The Naval Institute Proceedings and a well-thumbed copy of a racy men's magazine. Best way to wake up is to take a bath, stripping naked and scooping up sea water with a bucket tied to a rope. You do all this up in the bow, so that if you slide overboard on a soapy deck, the way Joe Grant, Peter's brother, did from Nalu II in the 1955 race, you've got a chance of grabbing a line before they have to jibe around for you.

July 15, 8 a.m. Eleventh day out. Latitude 22 degrees 27 minutes north. Longitude 152 degrees seven minutes west. Wind ENE at 10. Weather squally with scattered overcast. Yesterday afternoon, for the first time we got some trade wind weather. The overcast broke up, the sun came through clear and hot, and the clouds broke into lumpy cumulus. The water, kicked up by a 13-knot breeze, was an expanse of deep, sparkling blue, mottled by white caps—the kind you see in bad paintings of clippers, hanging over people's mantelpieces. Then, after dark the cumulus built up into big, gray, rain-splattering masses. The first one that came over spit rain, took the wind up to 15 knots and boosted our speed to a couple of bursts over nine knots for the first time in days. Then, about 2:30 a.m. a good squall hit. The rain was a fine, driving mist. Wind rose above 20, and Jada smoked down the short gray swells, throwing a roaring speedboat wake, yawing wildly 25° to windward, then dipping her boom into the water to leeward as the Kenyon speed indicator spun up to 10.7 knots. With this kind of help, spooky as it is out here in the small hours, we could still catch Legend—maybe even Nam Sang. But as we go off watch, the rain is letting up, the boat steadying. By 3:15 a.m. the wind is almost gone, and Jada slows to 4½ knots. Monday morning is hot and clear, no more than 11 knots of wind. Legend checks in south of us. We think we might still get her, but we are wrong. At the moment when we are pooping at 6½ knots, she has a spanking breeze almost on her beam, and is eating up 220 miles one day, and 200 the next. Her long southerly slant, which we thought she had carried too far, has been beautifully timed. She jibed back around for the finish a day ago, and now has a straight shot up along the islands to the Molokai channel leading into Diamond Head. The wind is right where she wants it. Now nobody can beat her but Nam Sang, who reported this morning only 150 miles from the finish, and possibly Nalu II, who is somewhere down there, sitting comfortably on one of the fattest handicaps in Class C. Volunteer, a leader until yesterday, is having a schooner's troubles running downwind. She has to jibe back and forth to keep the wind in the right quarter.

July 16, 8 a.m. Twelfth day out. Our last day at sea. Latitude 22 degrees 18 minutes north. Longitude 155 degrees 22 minutes west. Day clear with scattered cumulus. Wind now ENE at a healthy 18. We've finally gotten our weather hardly 100 miles from the finish, much too late. Too late for Barlovento, too—she finished last night at two minutes after 10. But Nam Sang crossed the finish at 5:43 this morning, taking what looks like a death grip on first in Class A and maybe first in the fleet. As the day wears on, clear with 15- to 20-knot winds sending us skidding down the trade wind white caps, reports keep coming in. Nalu II is 22 degrees 25 minutes north, 152 degrees 26 minutes west—too good for us and possibly even too good for Nam Sang. We have Criterion for sure. She's three to five hours back. Volunteer is now definitely out. Orient finished at 11:44 this morning, 40 minutes behind Nam Sang on corrected time. That leaves only Legend for us to worry about. We need to beat her to keep first in Class B, and Nam Sang has to sweat out Legend's arrival to be sure of fleet honors. By noontime, we have the high hills of Maui in sight. The wind stays fresh, and we really feel we have a chance against Legend. Then, at 4:50 p.m. the word comes in—Legend just finished, riding 25-knot winds in the Molokai channel, making 13 knots, blowing out one spinnaker and settling another in five minutes—such a good finish that she dashes both Nam Sang's hope of over-all win and our hopes for Class B. We pass through the glare of the Diamond Head searchlight at 9:15 p.m., second in Class B and ahead of Criterion, only mildly happy about either of these circumstances. But it is exciting to be finishing such a long voyage and tying up at the dock; it is fun to be draped by the heavily fragrant flower wreaths, hear the Hawaiian music, and taste really cold beer after 12 days. For us, it's all over. For Charles Ullman, skipper of Legend and his crew, there is still the business of sweating out Nalu II. Nalu II fails to make it in time. Her time is good enough to win Class C, but the 1957 Honolulu race goes to Legend. Nalu II is second in the over-all, giving the light displacement boats the first two spots, causing a fair amount of chin stroking about the effects on future yacht designs and handicaps. Nam Sang and Orient, two cutters, are third and fourth. Our Jada is fifth. The morning of the 19th, Altura shows up and gathers neckloads of fragrant leis as Class-D winner.

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JADA

CLASS B

12

12

51

BARLOVENTO

11

13

02

(Scratch boat, followed rhumb line)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)