On June 6, the day before the start of the 1980 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, or OSTAR, 65-year-old Phil Weld made a typically direct and puckish prediction from the stern of his 51-foot trimaran, Moxie, as she sat docked in the crowded harbor of Plymouth, England. "The winner," said Weld, "will make it to Newport in 425 hours...." He paused, narrowed his eyes and glanced skyward for counsel, his enormous ears billowing from his head like spinnakers. Then he amended: "Plus or minus two hours."
Satisfied, Weld turned his attention to the soft drink in his hand, a 32-ounce bottle of diet Moxie, bottled in New Bedford, Mass. Corporate sponsorships are an important part of singlehanded ocean racing these days, though the Moxie company had not invested so much as a phone call in Weld's venture. The wealthy retired newspaper publisher from Gloucester, Mass. had named his boat after that obscure New England tonic in order to wryly parody the French sailors—who had won three of the previous four OSTARs and whose entries this year included boats sponsored by a cordial (Miss Dubonnet), an imitation absinthe (Paul Ricard), and a sparkling wine (Kriter VI). "This is the only bottle of Moxie in Europe," Weld said, holding it aloft, ignoring the short-skirted girls on the dock passing out samples of Dubonnet Blanc beneath a red-and-white sunshade. "I'd be honored if you'd join me in a glass."
Weld then read aloud from the original label that Dr. Augustin Thompson of Union, Maine had affixed to bottles-of Moxie back in 1876: "Contains not a drop of Medicine, Poison, Stimulant or Alcohol...and has proved itself to be the only harmless nerve food known that can recover brain and nervous exhaustion, loss of manhood, imbecility and helplessness."
Further, Weld explained, the soft drink had a nifty theme song and he proceeded to sing in a voice most charitably described as willing:
Just make it Moxie for mine
For the strenuous life it is fine,
It's the drink that they serve which will build up your nerve,
So just make it Moxie for mine.
Anne Weld, Phil's wife of 44 years, poked her head out of the cabin where she was unpacking grocery bags full of fresh fruit and vegetables and told him to hush.
Undaunted, Weld invited another of the race favorites, Englishman Nick Keig, whose 53-foot trimaran, Three Legs of Mann III, was tied alongside Moxie, over to join him. Keig arrived, greatly excited, and Weld poured out several small glasses of the soft drink and several large glasses of water as chasers. Everyone sipped. Keig winced horribly and said, "That has to be good for you. I have some rum in the car. Do you think that might improve it?"
"It makes you want to brush your teeth, doesn't it?" Anne noted delicately.
"Actually, it recovers lost manhood," said Weld.
At two o'clock the next afternoon, Weld, Keig and 87 other competitors sailed out of Plymouth and headed for Newport, R.I. Sixty miles out, passing the famous Eddystone Light, Weld was one of a pack of leaders, along with Keig, Mike Birch of Canada, Marc Pajot on the Paul Ricard, two other Frenchmen, Eric Loizeau and Eugene Riguidel, Walter Greene of Yarmouth, Maine and Philip Steggall, a New Zealander now living in Marble-head, Mass. All were sailing trimarans, which, reaching in a steady north wind, pulled quickly away from the slower monohulls. Weld was the oldest sailor in the fleet. He had never won a major single-handed race; his nickname was "Third Place" Weld, because he'd finished in that position in his last four such races, three times in the Round Britain Race and once in the Route du Rhum from France to Guadeloupe.
And everyone agreed that Weld's prediction of a 425-hour transit was absurd; that divides out to 17 days, 17 hours. Only one boat in the previous four OSTARs—held every four years since 1960—had ever made the 3,000-mile trip in under 500 hours, and that was Pen Duick IV, sailed by the late and legendary Alain Colas, who was lost at sea in the 1978 Route du Rhum. Colas crossed alone in 20 days, 13¼ hours in the 1972 OSTAR. Weld's figure presupposed taking nearly three days off that record. And how could he, at his age, even hope for such a victory? "Gray power," said Weld. "I get along quite nicely on four hours of sleep a day. I don't do a damn thing to get in shape but ration out the booze. That's the reason I sail these things. I'm practically on an Elizabeth Arden dry-out cure."
For the first third of the race the winds came primarily from the north, which was ideal for Moxie. Trimarans do not sail as well to windward as monohulls, but on a reach they can run away and hide. "During the first nine days the speedo never went below eight knots," says Weld, who covered 265 miles on his best day. "As long as she has four knots of wind or less than 40, she can average about eight knots. The idea is to stay out of the gales so that you don't have to heave to and stay out of the highs so you aren't caught in flat calm. At one time I was three days ahead of the 17-to-18-day pace, but I knew that would even up. Life comes in pendulum swings, and I was going to have to pay for that wonderful first week with a slow last week. I knew."
By June 15, Weld was well ahead of the rest of the fleet, and day by day he stretched his lead so that on the 19th the satellite system used for tracking the boats showed him 234 miles in front of his nearest rival. Each morning he composed a schedule for himself. First he listened to the weather forecasts from the BBC, which included a special segment on conditions in the North Atlantic for the benefit of the competitors. He would then chart his course accordingly, setting the self-steering device on the chosen bearing, leaving him free to attend to the daily maintenance routines that enslave man even at sea, and setting the sails according to wind speed. Weld allowed himself one hour of sleep in the morning, two in the afternoon and one more in the late evening. He kept watch all night. "I sleep like an old hound dog," he says. "I can go below and nap 15 minutes and come back feeling really refreshed."
Between rests he could follow his own progress over the BBC, ever alert for updated weather reports and iceberg sightings. He never saw another sailboat after dawn the second day. He cooked over a small gas stove, and although his wife had supplied him with enough fresh vegetables—scallions and such—to last a good while, Weld himself is anything but a gourmet. "The French have an advantage over us in these races because they can cook," Weld had groused back in Plymouth. "Loizeau will be out there sautèing a mouth-watering steak while I'm boiling up on one of these." He held up a freeze-dried pouch of stew.
For books, he had brought such appropriate titles as Dickens' Great Expectations and Homer's Odyssey. He had also accepted a Bible from the Sisters of Mercy the day before departing, which he stored in his Calamity Locker. And, as always, there was a volume by Anthony Trollope. It was Trollope whom Weld was reading when his first trimaran, Gulf Streamer, was unceremoniously capsized by an irregular wave while he was sailing to England for the start of the 1976 OSTAR. Trollope in hand, Weld suddenly found himself standing on the overhead, up to his waist in water, with no way out of the cabin. He and his crewman finally cut their way through the bottom of the boat, and it was nearly five days before they were rescued. As a result, both Rogue Wave, Weld's next boat—so named because of the bizarre fate of Gulf Streamer—and Moxie are equipped with an emergency escape hatch in the bottom of the main hull. Unlike monohulls, which usually right themselves when capsized, an overturned trimaran is down for the count.
On June 21 Weld had a premonition that he would win the race, and he sat down and wrote an introduction to his press conference. He was forced to put pen to paper because he had brought the wrong size batteries for his tape recorder. "Fortunately, posterity was spared that," he said. "The whole way across it was my only mishap. The weather was perfect for eight-knot sailing. Everything went almost exactly as I anticipated. Preparedness is all."
At four in the morning on June 25—427 hours after the start—a small fleet bearing spectators and well-wishers puttered out of Newport's harbor in the darkness to greet the first arrival as he crossed the finish line at Brenton Tower, a few miles offshore. It was thought that that man would be Weld. At 1:30 p.m. the day before, he had radioed his position; he was only 100 miles east of Newport, off Nantucket Island, and traveling at eight knots in 10 to 15 knots of wind from west-south-west. Weld predicted he would arrive in 12 hours. He had not been heard from or seen since, and there were recurring reports that Steggall's 38-foot trimaran, Jeans Foster, had passed Weld during the night. In the final days, the wind had dropped significantly and Steggall's smaller boat was better suited to light air.
By 5 a.m. the sun, perhaps colored by the residue from Mount Saint Helens' innards, sat redly on the sea. A sail appeared. It was Rogue Wave, Weld's other trimaran, which was heading toward Nantucket in hopes of spotting him. Aboard were Anne, four grandchildren, other assorted relatives and Dick Newick, Moxie's designer, all smartly dressed in bright orange Moxie Nerve Food shirts. An hour later Rogue Wave turned back, having failed to find its man. At 7 a.m., 17½ hours after Weld had reported his position, a boatload of French journalists, those devious rumormongers of the sea, who still clung to the hope that Paul Ricard might suddenly appear, pointed knowingly to their radar screen and declared that Weld was still 40 miles away. There was no way to know for sure. Two days earlier, the sophisticated satellite system that had been reporting four times a day on the position and general well-being of each of the OSTAR boats had collapsed, leaving press and public in the dark.
Suddenly, sails appeared through the haze to the southeast. It was Moxie. The waiting boats converged. Weld sat in the bow waving, a safety harness over his gray sweater, the self-steering device bringing him home. Moxie, looking as clean and fresh as the day she left Plymouth, skated crisply across the seas at eight knots.
"My prediction of time was pretty good," he shouted happily. "I'm a little late." Then he saw Rogue Wave and he waved elatedly. He disappeared into his cabin and came running back with his movie camera in one hand and an unidentified object held under one of his arms. As Moxie sailed toward Newport in the freshening breeze, Weld took movies of the escorting fleet that had swelled to some 20 small craft and a lobster boat.
As Weld crossed the Brenton Tower finish line at 8:12 a.m.—17 days, 23 hours, 12 minutes after setting out—he pulled the object from under his arm—a threadbare American flag. He was the first American ever to win the OSTAR; in fact, the first to finish better than fifth. Then, as spectators cheered and boat horns blasted, Rogue Wave delivered his wife and the two of them jumped up and down on Moxie's wing like a couple of kids. It was a fine moment.
"My idea of a good voyage is an uneventful one," Weld had said back in Plymouth. Under the tutelage of meteorologist Bob Rice, who also helped in last summer's Eagle II transatlantic balloon crossing, Weld had carefully studied June weather patterns for the last 30 years in the North Atlantic. As a result, he had planned to stay below 45 degrees north latitude once past 35 degrees west longitude. With that in mind, he steered sharply southward for a day on June 14 in order to "stay on the sunny side of some nasty weather that hit my good French friends right in the teeth."
Weld's good French friends could hardly have fared worse if they had been hit in the teeth with a boatload of rabbits. Rabbits? Yes, indeed. It seems that French sailors consider the little beasts to be unlucky, and on a French boat one can get thrown overboard for so much as breathing the word lapin. The gift of a rabbit's foot is practically an invitation to resume the Hundred Years' War. The origins of this superstition are unclear, and any questions on the subject must be euphemistically worded (the swine with the long ears; the furry, hopping one). Even then a Frenchman is apt to answer with terse shakes of the head followed by beads of cold sweat. "No, no," gasped Olivier de Kersauson, skipper of Kriter VI, who had earlier informed Weld that he had hidden a plastic rabbit on Moxie. "We do not talk of this beast. No. Never."
But the curse des lapins hovered over the French competitors. First, Eric Tabarly, the only two-time OSTAR winner, injured his shoulder and was unable to sail Paul Ricard. Because his replacement, Pajot, had not been listed on the original race application, the boat became an unofficial entry. Paul Ricard finished a disappointing fifth, 14½ hours behind Weld. Still, it was the first French boat to reach Newport.
Then there was the case of Florence Arthaud, the 22-year-old Frenchwoman on Miss Dubonnet and one of only three women in the race, who did not even get her vessel to the starting line before the mast toppled. Nearly hysterical, Arthaud retired from OSTAR. Next, on June 12, after leading the fleet for the first three days, Loizeau was forced to turn back for France with a hole in his main hull; and on the 15th Riguidel ran into some nasty weather, lost some rigging and damaged his hull. He continued to limp toward Newport. Other casualties included Michel Horeau and Jean-Claude Parisis, both of whom turned back.
The individualistic French temperament has always excelled at singlehanded racing, but Frenchmen have never shown much willingness to muddle through when things aren't going just right. "The French want to win," said Horeau, trying to explain his countrymen's psyche. "They do not care if they cross with friends. They can do that anytime. Nobody is interested in crossing the ocean slowly, in walking across. The multihulls come not to take a walk. You must win. Americans are more like us, I think."
This attitude drives the British absolutely fruitcakey. In Newport, the mild-mannered Keig said without a trace of smugness, "They're all fantastic sailors and sail the boats very fast, but they don't get here. I wanted to get here even if I finished last."
In fact, Keig finished second, seven hours behind Weld, which may, or may not, be an endorsement for Moxie Nerve Food. There was one other competitor who shared Weld's bottle of root beer, Englishman Nick Clifton, and apparently it affected him, too. Clifton's 42-foot proa, Merlin, overturned on the eighth day of the race, and he had to be picked up by a container ship. He promptly returned to England and married.
Steggall sailed into Newport 41 minutes after Keig, winning the Gypsy Moth Class for boats 32 to 44 feet. It was Steggall and Jeans Foster that provided much of the intrigue in the final days of the race. In an effort to increase safety and make it possible to keep track of the boats' progress, the London Observer—the newspaper that sponsors the Transatlantic—had spent $170,000 to equip each competitor with a self-contained unit that sent a signal giving the boat's position to the orbiting satellite, which in turn relayed that information down to a computer, which sent the results on to OSTAR headquarters in Toulouse. Should, say, a Frenchman have found a bunny in his bunk, there was also an emergency button on the unit which could be pressed to send a distress call. All well and good. Except that from the outset the units malfunctioned, then the satellite became obstinate, and the computer broke down. As the Observer fumed, the competitors sailed on. Steggall's unit went on the blink 594 miles out of Plymouth, and for most of the rest of the race his position was a mystery. On June 14 he sailed side by side with Keig for five hours, but he was not spotted again until June 23, 240 miles from the finish, when a search plane trying to locate Weld happened upon him. At the time, Steggall was in second place, 50 miles behind Moxie and closing.
But a day later, a 30-foot whale went bump in the night. Jeans Foster was doing 9½ knots, when suddenly the whale surfaced in front of it. "It was like hitting a brick wall," a bleary-eyed Steggall later recalled. "I thought there was a chance I might win. The boat was going very fast in the light wind." As it was, his centerboard broke off and he had to sail the last 100 miles without it. "It was depressing to look behind me," he said. "I was leaving a wake like a barge. The boat flattened the water out. Sailing to windward without a centerboard is like trying to roller-skate uphill."
More dangerous than whales are icebergs, which can drift below the 45th parallel and make it impossible for singlehanded sailors to sleep more than an hour at a time in safety. Most sleep in the daylight. "Nights are also a dangerous time because of the shipping lanes," says one sailor. "You never know when the watch has just been out at a party." During the 1976 OSTAR, the Polish singlehander Kazimierz Jaworski (who brought in the first monohull in this year's race, the 56-foot Spaniel II, in 19 days, 13 hours, 25 minutes) fell asleep one night in waters known for icebergs. He had a gauge on his boat that sounded an alarm when the water temperature fell to a certain point, indicating a possible iceberg, and he was awakened by its ringing. "I could smell it," Jaworski recalls. "They have a certain smell. But all around there was fog. I didn't know left, or right, or behind. All I could do was keep sailing. Then I was by it."
For Canada's Birch, a slight, smiling, elfin-eyed man who is tough as nails, it was a different story. Birch's experience and toughness stem from his regular job of delivering yachts to their home ports, often in winter, after the owners have sailed them to some distant shore. He was the prerace favorite by virtue of his third-place finish in the 1976 OSTAR and his win in the 1978 Route du Rhum. "Birch has a 90% chance to make it first no matter what the conditions," said France's de Kersauson. "But it is the worst, this thing to be favorite."
Almost as bad as rabbits. Sailors claim uncanny instincts, and the night before the race Birch was absolutely certain something awful was going to happen to him. His third day out, it did. As he sailed downwind briskly in strong seas, a rogue wave hit the underside of his Olympus Photo's wing deck and tore a hole in it about three feet square. Birch was below at the time, and water shot into the cabin at a furious rate. "I'd like to think it was a whale," he said, "but it was only a wave. It sounded like a monster sledgehammer."
Using the shelves inside his cabin to repair the gaping hole, cementing it as best he could with fiber glass, Birch continued across. In his log he wrote: "I've done a repair job but it's not that great. Will have to wait and see what happens. That's the race for me." Amazingly, though Olympus Photo kept taking on water, Birch finished fourth, a scant half hour behind Steggall and an hour and 11 minutes after Keig. The last entry in Birch's log read: "12:45 GMT [Greenwich mean time]—Phil Weld for President!" Birch wrote that same message on a broken chunk of Olympus Photo's bright yellow hull and posed with it upon arriving at the dock. "Isn't it a fantastic thing," he said to a friend. "I'm so happy for Phil."
The OSTAR sailors will continue to straggle in for a few weeks. It is remarkable to see their faces when they land. There are no losers. "People seem to come back and do this race time after time," says Birch. "It's the people...the boats...." Said Arthaud, skipper of the ill-fated Miss Dubonnet, "When you love something you can't exactly say why. We can't explain it. We don't know why."
Weld talks about the Lindbergh Syndrome, the joy of singularity. "There's great satisfaction in doing something on your own without having someone to account to," he says. "I feel very, very contented. I was resigned to being third, and I must say it is very heady being first."
Late that first afternoon, after a brief rest from his crossing, Weld returned to the dock to welcome Birch and Keig and Steggall to Newport. He had abandoned his Elizabeth Arden dry-out cure and was killing some brain cells in much-deserved celebration. Moxie was dressed out in fluttering signal flags strung from the top of the mast, and the sun threw a flattering golden light on the harbor scene. In one hand Weld grasped the yellow sign Birch had made for him; the other was around his wife's waist. Steady as she goes, mate.
He passed an English couple, friends of Keig from the Isle of Man, who stopped and watched the winner weave off down the dock. "It's his day, isn't it?" the Englishwoman said. "He did it alone."
Start June 7
Finish June 25