The Single-handed Sailing Record: San Francisco to Tokyo
By Michael Reppy
Record Holders—Tabarly And Hogg:
The original record was set by legendary French sailor Eric Tabarly in 1969 in a single-handed Transpacific race organized by the Slocum Society and the Nippon Ocean Racing Club. Tabarly’s boat, Pen Duick V, was innovative and ahead of its time: a 35’ lightweight planing monohull with water ballast and a deep keel. He won the race in 39 days 15 hours, 44 minutes, a full 10 days over his nearest competitor.
Tabarly’s record stood until 1992, when local San Francisco Bay Area sailor Peter Hogg broke it in his 40’ trimaran, Aotea, in 34 days 6 hours, which is still the record to beat.
It is interesting to note that I raced against Aotea twice with my trimaran Nai’a with different catastrophic results: The first in 1992 in The Windjammers race from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, we were chasing Aotea along the coast and Nai’a rounded up and capsized over backwards. And the second was the Double-handed Farallones race in 1995, when we were again chasing Aotea after rounding Farallone Island, and a squall hit that capsized Aotea. Peter Hogg and designer Jim Antrim were rescued, and Aotea drifted away. After several futile searches Aotea was lost, only to wash up one year later on Murilo atoll near Truk in Micronesia, nearly 5,000 miles away. She was still upside down and in fairly good shape except for one ama broken off. Peter decided not to try a salvage operation that distance from home.
There is no longer an organized Transpacific race to Japan, so I set up my own record attempt with an official timekeeper, (designated by the World Sailing Speed Council that certifies world records) on the Golden Gate Bridge to take the starting time, and another time-keeper at the finish line in Misake, Japan, at the entrance to Tokyo Bay.
There are few rules to follow, other than only sail power is allowed (no use of an engine), all sail handling must be by hand (no power winches allowed), and no outside assistance allowed. Professional weather routing is allowed, which I utilize and get regular reports and routing advice onboard by email or sat-phone. I start when weather patterns look favorable. The best weather window usually falls in April and May. We look for a well established Pacific High moved a little to the north, and setting up good trade-winds.
The shortest distance, the “great circle” route, is about 4,500 miles but would take me to the north beating into the prevailing westerlies - not a good option. The better route, and one taken by Tabarly, Hogg and by me on my three attempts, is the “trade-winds” route which goes to the south passing close to Hawaii. It is longer at about 5700 miles, but is faster running with the prevailing trade-winds for most of the way.
My experience has been that the first 2-3 days are rough beating out into strong coastal northwesterly winds, but by reaching off a little to the southwest can make good speed and miles. The wind begins to clock around and by the third day can set a genneker or spinnaker and settle into running with the northeast trade-winds. I must be very careful to stay to the south of the Pacific High, which is a giant hole of dead air. Unfortunately, on my last sail in Thursday’s Child, after a good first week of sailing, we got routed into the high pressure dead zone and I went nowhere for one and a half days!
My aim will be to run with the trade-winds for about 3000 miles past Hawaii and past Midway Atoll. This area is notorious for holes of light air, so good weather routing will be crucial to keep in the wind, even if we have to sail further south to stay in the wind. We lose the trade-winds in the last 1000 miles as we sail more northerly, heading for Tokyo Bay, and often get a series of low pressure systems, and can end up beating into a gale or two before the finish. Approaching Tokyo Bay, we must be very careful to enter and cross the coastal northerly flowing Kuroshio current at the right place to get a speed assist. On my last sail, I ended up sailing against the current, and lost some time. This time, we will monitor the current location closely on the Internet and handle it better!