For Patricia Garfield, the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii has the allure of a homecoming."I have a photograph of my dad holding me when I was about a year old," says Garfield. The photo shows father and infant daughter on a sailboat in Hawaii, where the family lived at the time, with Diamond Head and Waikiki in the background.
"You only see one or two hotels," Garfield says and laughs. "It was obviously a long time ago." Not so long, though, that all vestiges of island-girl identity have disappeared. Six years ago, after Garfield bought a yacht brokerage in San Francisco, she felt again the tug of Waikiki, the memories pulling at her as inexorably as the tide. "I thought, I'd love to be sailing in Hawaii," she says. "And that made me think of the Transpac. There's no better way to sail into Waikiki."
The Transpacific Yacht Race ― or Transpac, as it's more familiarly known ― may provide the greatest, most celebratory entrance into any harbor anywhere on earth. The race, held every other year, sets craft of all sizes on a ripping, sometimes blustery, always roistering downwind run for 2,225 nautical miles from the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles to the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Waikiki.
This year's Transpac, which begins in mid-July, has special significance. It will mark 100 years since the event's inaugural running in 1906. Organizers expect a near-record number of entrants, many of them first-timers, all of them fulfilling a seafaring dream. The Transpac is an aspirational race. Unlike the America's Cup and other exclusive yacht races, any crew that meets certain qualifying standards can compete in the Transpac. So sailing fans aim and plan for it for years, piling up the requisite experience (and treasure chest, as an ocean crossing is expensive).
"This is the one event that every offshore racer hopes to do someday," says Urban Miyares of the Challenged America team, made up of sailors who are paraplegics or amputees or blind. "There's no other event in sailing―or in most other sports― where regular racers, even those who are disabled like us, can be in the same field as the best in the world."
Yacht racing's top boats are indeed here, including Pyewacket, a sleek, stripped-down, ultra-high-tech vessel owned by Roy Disney, nephew of Walt. Pyewacket set the record in 1999 for fastest elapsed time by a monohull, completing the crossing in a brisk 7 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes, and 21 seconds. Pyewacket's competition over the years has included yachts skippered by captains who have won the America's Cup or sailed multiple times around the world.
But the Transpac is just as famous for the quality and exuberance of its welcome committee as it is for the caliber of its racers. Every boat, as it docks in Waikiki, is greeted by a group of whooping, hula dancing volunteers. They cheer, hug crew members, drape them in leis, and thrust mai tais into their weary hands. They do this no matter what the hour. If a boat arrives at 2 a.m., its greeters are there, refreshments at the ready. "It's phenomenal," says Bill Lee, who won the event back in 1977 and currently serves as the Transpac entry chairman. For about 48 hours in July, Waikiki harbor is awash in mai tais, mimosas, Gatorade, and joy.
Racing the Transpac is not without risks. As a poet or two have pointed out, the ocean is democratic. It treats all upon it alike, whether male or female, heiress or steerage rat. And it can be fierce. Transpac crews generally have calm seas for the first few days. Then they turn south, putting the northwest trade winds at their back, and quickly pick up speed―and sway.
"There are some big rollers out there," says Garfield, who has not raced the Transpac before. "It'll be like an E-ticket roller-coaster ride."
Others affect nonchalance. "You don't usually get monster storms on the route," says Miyares, who raced in 2003. "But once you get into the trade winds, you can get really heavy seas." Winds have been known to roar at up to 30 knots. Two-storyhigh waves crash and build again.
Bad weather along the way did hinder the Challenged America crew somewhat in 2003, admits Miyares, who is blind, hearing impaired, and diabetic. "Everybody was getting seasick," he remembers. "We all started taking our medicines in half-doses, to see whether the pill would stay down." Despite this, um, stomach-churning rite of passage, the Challenged America crew for 2005 has had many more applicants than slots and hopes to better its 13-day crossing time. "We have advantages," Miyares points out. "With paraplegics, there's lots of upper-body strength. And I have no problem sailing at night. I never need a flashlight."
For her part, Garfield plans to make history by becoming with her friend Diane Murray, a San Francisco sailing instructor and professional captain, the first women to finish the race double-handed, meaning with a crew of two. Their boat, Charmed Life, a Catalina 470, "is designed equally for comfort and speed, kind of like us," Garfield says.
Charmed Life is equipped with a refrigerator, a freezer, and a microwave, so the women can zap their meals between jibing, tacking, and swabbing decks. Murray plans to use old T-shirts for that task, after she's worn them for a day or two.
Garfield balks at recycling her boat wear. "I like my Tommy Bahama silk shirts," she says. But she's no topside prima donna.
"There's this point midway through the race," Murray says, "where you are almost exactly 1,000 miles from any land. It's the only place in the world where that's true. The ocean is 3 miles deep, you're in the middle of nowhere, and traditionally, first-timers jump overboard and swim around the boat, even if it's the middle of the night. Not everybody will do it."
"I will!" Garfield yells. Then in Waikiki, she says, she'll hoist high a mai tai, recount the adventure, and toast, with gratitude, the crossing―and her dad.
The next Transpacific Yacht Race takes place in July 2007. Visit www.transpacificyc.org for more information.