If coastal Carolina is the Graveyard of the Atlantic, as it has
long been known, then Cape Hatteras reserves a quarter-mile plot
for racing sailboats. Last Friday afternoon, as tidal currents
curling around the cape's long sharp nose kicked up a spin cycle
that even the most experienced skippers would want to
circumvent, a fleet of 17 catamarans lurched straight across the
whitewater on their way to Virginia Beach. Spectators on the
dunes hollered and hid their eyes--"It's like the grandstands of
NASCAR, where they cheer for you to die," one of the sailors
said--as six boats toppled into the waves. While some of the
competitors emerged, drenched and windblown, from the most
harrowing stretch of the Worrell 1000 catamaran race, others
dangled from the edges of their fallen boats in an effort to get
vertical. They were 13 days into the 14-day race up the East
Coast, and they were faring pretty well, considering that in
last year's race two competitors broke their legs, others broke
ribs and five of the 21 teams failed to finish.
Conceived by a pair of brothers over a couple of beers 28 years
ago as an antidote to round-the-buoy yacht-club yawners, the
Worrell makes the Volvo Ocean Race look like a Princess line
cruise. The concept is simple--and outlandish to anyone who has
ever spent more than an hour perched on a catamaran: Two-person
teams (a skipper and his partner, who is called the crew) on
20-foot-long wide-open double-hulled craft cover a 12-leg,
1,000-mile route from the placid shores of Miami to the
rollicking waters off Virginia Beach. Each leg is a sprint,
lasting from five to 15 hours, and is separated from the next by
a few hours of rest on shore. The team with the lowest total
time wins. Because victors don't receive so much as a cent and,
in some less organized years, not even a trophy, contestants,
who range from weekend warriors to the occasional America's
Cupper looking for a change of pace, spend thousands of dollars
and two weeks of hell on water for a year's worth of bragging
"It's not a sane thing to do," admits Matt Struble, a U.S.
champion catamaran racer who won the 2000 Worrell. "It's the
Everest of sailing--you do it to say you did it."
So compelling is the event that last year, one day after the
final leg of the most gruesome Worrell in history, three teams
had already signed up to do it again in 2002. In all there would
be 19 eager entrants in this year's race.
May 26, 2002
Jan. 1, 2002: Preparation
In three Worrells skipper Todd Hart of Manteo, N.C., has never
placed better than eighth. Last year, after he maxed out his
Visa card to finance his effort, he and his crew had so many
equipment failures that they wound up 15th out of 16 finishers.
In the spirit of the new year Hart, 35, has resolved to get his
priorities straight. He quit his full-time job as a boat
carpenter to devote himself to preparing for his fourth Worrell.
"Yacht owners tend to want things done on time, and that just
didn't fit into my Worrell schedule," says Hart, who now
freelances as a carpenter. "This race is like a drug. I've tried
to quit, but I can't."
Unable to cajole last year's crew into another go-round, Hart
has recruited Davis Murray, a yacht repairman in St. Thomas,
Virgin Islands. With matching beer bellies--"We'll be feared
mainly in the bars at each port," says Hart--the duo outweighs
the next-heaviest team by 40 pounds. "That will hurt us only if
the wind is light," says Hart. "We're hoping it blows like
Because each Worrell team spends a minimum of $15,000 for its
catamaran, safety gear, spare parts and accommodations between
legs, most entrants seek corporate sponsors. Although Murray has
brought in a couple of thousand from a spaghetti-dinner
fund-raiser in St. Thomas, Hart has failed to sell his
endorsement. He looks on the bright side. "Having a sponsor
means you're racing for someone else," says Hart. "I do this
because I love it."
May 5: Before the Race
As the sun sets on the eve of the 2002 Worrell, teams mingle on
the pool deck of Miami's Holiday Inn South Beach Resort. The
beach in front of the hotel serves as the launching point for
the race's first leg, to Fort Lauderdale. Crew Alex Shafer is
popping tops off Corona bottles while his skipper, Nigel Pitt,
is doling out lime wedges. While Shafer, the vice president of a
utility company in Eustis, Fla., and Pitt, a residential
contractor from Hartwell, Ga., could underwrite their own
Worrell effort, they put together a deal with clothing
manufacturer Tommy Bahama a few months before last year's race.
Tommy Bahama is taking care of the team's Worrell-related bills,
including this prelaunch party. "The company doesn't care if we
win, only that we go about this the way Tommy would--with style
and class," says the British-born Pitt, runner-up in the 2001
Alter Cup, the world's top round-the-buoy catamaran race.
Big-time sponsorship has its privileges. While all Worrell
catamarans must be the same model--an Inter 20, made by
Performance Catamarans--only Team Tommy has an onboard global
positioning system, which allows visitors to the company's
website to track Pitt and Shafer's progress. And while every
team has a ground crew of three or so friends or relatives who
drive up the coast with spare parts, duct tape and
encouragement, Team Tommy has a support staff of 10, including a
May 6: Leg 1, Miami to Fort Lauderdale
By race day the mood is less collegial. Team Alexander's
skipper, Brian Lambert, a 36-year-old architect, and crew, Jamie
Livingston, a 39-year-old computer programmer, are on the beach
before any of their competitors, making last-minute preparations
on their catamaran. Across the boom they have written a series
of what look like very complex measurements: 3.263., 10, 45.6 0,
[square root] 961.4. "It doesn't mean anything!" the impish
Livingston whispers. "We want to make the others nervous."
No team is more experienced in the art of Worrell war than
Lambert and Livingston, South Floridians who have raced together
for four years. Both say that the Worrell is mainly a mental
test. "The navigation is easy--just keep the continent on your
left," says Livingston. "Chemistry and focus are essential.
After two hours it's anyone's game. After five, only a few of
the teams can separate themselves from the pack."
When the starting horn blows at 5:30 p.m., the beefiest member
of each team's ground crew gives his boat a mighty push into
Miami's lazy aquamarine tide. As the catamarans make the left
turn northward, crossing one another's tacks like a fleet of
Indy cars, dozens of oil-slicked sunbathers gaze after them.
May 7: Leg 3, Jensen Beach, Fla., to Cocoa Beach, Fla.
The sailing community follows the Worrell with cultish curiosity.
During a single hour last year the sailing website
(www.catsailor.com) received 28,000 hits. This year the site
delivers breathless hourly updates, including a play-by-play of
Leg 3's nip-and-tuck finish at Cocoa Beach, in which Team Tybee
Island edges out Team Alexander's.
Not bad for a race that was born of a barroom bet. In 1974 Chris
Worrell, who owned a Virginia Beach restaurant with his brother,
Michael, said that no one could sail a 16-foot catamaran from
Virginia to Florida. Michael took the challenge, and after 20
days at sea (and two hurricanes) he came ashore in Fort
Lauderdale and began to dream up ways to lure the world's best
cat sailors into a contest of wills.
Although competitors now come from as far away as South Africa,
race in slightly longer boats and travel south-to-north to take
advantage of more favorable winds, little has changed since the
inaugural Worrell, in 1976. Sitting in a bar at a Cocoa Beach
motel, Michael Worrell, 59, the race director (Chris died in
'94), talks about finding a television network to cover the race
and a sponsor to pony up prize money. "I have a business plan,
but this race is more about the business of survival," he says.
"It's exhilarating to know that you can still go out in the
middle of the ocean and do something in which if you get in
trouble, no one's right there to help you."
May 10: Leg 6, Jacksonville to Tybee Island, Ga.
This morning catsailor.com reports, "Everyone is wondering about
Team Tommy Bahama." Team Tommy, an early favorite, is in sixth
place heading into the longest leg, a 121.3-mile pull into the
Peach State. As the morning breeze out of Jacksonville blows a
sickly five knots--the only thing worse than gale-force winds is
no wind at all--Pitt and Shafer decide to seize the day, and the
ground crew leaps to prepare the boat for the marathon leg. In
the excitement a crew member neglects to run the mainsheet
through the traveler car on the back beam, leaving the skipper
unable to manipulate the mainsail.
After Shafer fixes the problem, Team Tommy catches a southerly
zephyr and arrives on Tybee a searing seven hours and 46 minutes
later, on the heels of leg-winner Team Castrol. The finish
pushes Tommy into third place overall.
Besides hungover ground crew members, nothing wreaks havoc on
equipment more than the hazards the teams encounter past the Deep
South breakers. Loggerhead turtles the size of Volkswagens have
snapped dagger boards over the years. And close encounters with
cabbage-head jellyfish twice pop Team Caribbean Cat Fever's
leeward rudder en route to Tybee. After losing 10 minutes to the
invertebrates, Hart and Murray sail into port in 11th place.
May 11: Leg 7, Tybee Island to Isle of Palms, S.C.
Giant sea creatures are daunting, but the race's two nighttime
legs--to Isle of Palms and from there to Myrtle Beach--have
added to the Worrell's hard-core reputation. The boats move out
of Georgia just before sunset and arrive in South Carolina in
the early morning, only to depart again that evening. One year a
team that found itself grounded on a colossal sandbar well
offshore simply curled up in the jib and slept, waiting for the
sun and tide to come up.
"It's pitch black--you're lucky if you can see each other's
sails," says Pitt. "And you're still doing 30 knots."
With no moon to guide the teams through the tidal currents and
unmarked reefs around South Carolina this year, experience
proves key. Team Alexander's feels its way to Isle of Palms in
seven hours and 41 minutes to move into second place.
May 17: Leg 11, Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Kill Devil Hills, N.C.
With 20-knot winds from the southwest at their backs, Team
Tommy, coming off a first-place finish in the previous leg, and
Team Alexander's, which is all too familiar with the perils of
Cape Hatteras, slice through the whitewater like champion
kayakers. Team Caribbean Cat Fever, a dozen boats back, doesn't
merit quite as many oohs and ahhs from the audience in the
dunes. After a broken spinnaker extension left them in last
place yesterday, Hart and Davis have to contend with a snapped
rudder attachment before they pass Hatteras. They tiptoe by the
cape's point without capsizing but make two pit stops along the
beach before reaching the finish at Kill Devil Hills. On the
second stop Hart takes a leg from an abandoned beach chair to
splint his rudders together.
Later, peeling off his sopping gear, Hart has a weary chuckle at
his own expense. "Yesterday it was bad parts, today it was bad
luck," he says. "That's O.K. I'm looking at the turtles,
checking out the landscape. There's more to this race than the
Hart's house, which he shares with his wife, Jackie, and
11-month-old daughter, Kiersten, is just a few miles from where
he sits, but stopping short of the Virginia Beach finish
line--which Team Alexander's will cross in a Worrell record 71
hours, 32 minutes and 22 seconds for its second consecutive
victory--is not an option. For one more day he will go where the
wind takes him.
"It's like the grandstands of NASCAR, where they cheer for you
to die," says one sailor of the spectators who watch from the
"Having a sponsor means you're racing for someone else," says
Hart, in his fourth Worrell. "I do this because I love it."