History of the Singlehanded TransPacific Yacht Race
by Robby Robinson
In the spring of 1977, a San Francisco newspaper advertisement solicited entrants for a singlehanded race around Southeast Farallon Island, a distance of approximately 25 miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge. The promoter, George Sigler, was the owner of a marine business, “Survival & Safety Designs”. The ad struck a chord in the Bay Area sailing community and over 60 singlehanded sailors set off under the Golden Gate in strong northwest winds which increased to gale proportions. After 10 miles more boats were returning than continuing, but by that evening 14 singlehanders had made it back under the bridge enroute to the finish – another 15 miles up the Oakland Estuary. This was the first of what has become the annual Singlehanded Farallones Race.
The excitement, enthusiasm, and accomplishment of these singlehanded sailors spread to the public and sailors via the local newspapers and marine publications – the “crazy” singlehanders were news on the West Coast in those days. The success of that first Farallones race prompted the formation of the Singlehanded Sailing Society (SSS) and the idea of singlehanding to the next island: Hawaii! The Singlehanded TransPac has become the dream of hundreds of sailors whose first step was often the circumnavigation of SE Farallon Island.
George and the SSS began planning a race to be held in June of the following year, 1978. They enlisted the sponsorship of Pacific Skipper Magazine, which produced the program, and Club Mediterranean, Kauai, where the race would end. The entry fee was set at $200 for SSS members and $250 for non-members.
Thirty-one singlehanders, who hailed from Seattle to Los Angeles, started that first SSS TransPac. Fourteen smaller boats – 22 to 30 feet – departed with reefed sails at 1300, June 15. Four days later, 19 larger boats hit the line in windy, nasty weather which thankfully improved past Mile Rock. Of the combined fleet of 33 starters, 22 boats made it to the finish line in Hanalei Bay. The records that were set during this windy race, dominated by a strong Pacific High pressure system, were to stand for 10 years.
Norton Smith sailed his Santa Cruz 27 Solitaire to a first, both in class and overall in 13 days, 2 hours, and 34 minutes (corrected 9:17:18). Jim Gannon’s finish time in his Freya 39 Golden Egg was only 12 minutes greater (corrected 9:17:30) to take first in the big boat division. Although nine boats dropped out for various reasons, no one died as predicted by naysayers, and no boats were lost, which began an exemplary safety record that persists to this day.
The boats were basically stock production boats, the smallest a Santana 22 which finished in 17 days, and the largest, a Columbia 57 that dropped out of the race. These singlehanders, for the most part, were the type of sailors you might find in the next slip. One thing, certainly, there were no “couch potatoes”, nor were there any losers. Talk to any Singlehanded TransPac finisher – they’re all winners.
After the 1978 success, the SSS moved to establish the race as a permanent event to be held every “even” year.
The 1980 race set a number of firsts. It had the greatest number of participants: 38 starters and 27 finishers. The first multihull, Crusader, a Cross 55 trimaran sailed by Michael Kane, proved that two or more hulls is the quickest way to Hawaii on elapsed, if not corrected, time. Three women started, Amy Boyer on Little Rascal, a Wilderness 21, Linda Weber-Rettie on Rough & Rettie, a Yamaha 33, and Kathy Senelly on Erasmus, a Cal 25. Amy finished second in class and third overall.
The 1980 race was won by the oldest boat entered. Bob Counts sailed his 25-foot Golden Gate Sanderling to a first in class and fleet. Bob, in a pre-race interview, correctly predicted that Sanderling‘s full keel and small rig would allow him to sail to her full potential (PHRF 234). Bob Boyes won the ULDB division in Saltshaker, a Moore 24, and John Carson, won his division in Argonaut, a veteran Cal 40.
Instead of the normal windy starboard tack bash into rough seas off the California coast, the 18 starters in the 1982 race found themselves in a light air port tack beat for the first week. The early finishers all ended up sailing over the High on a port tack into the Trades, while those who followed conventional wisdom and went south only found a long, slow race. As expected, Mike Kane on Crusader finished first again, this time in 13 days. After a 40-hour nonstop dash to the finish, Dan Newland in the Wylie 34 Pegasus was the first monohull to finish. Dan also took first in Division II and first overall with his time of 16 days, 9 hours. Chuck Hawley followed Dan, 5 hours, 20 minutes later in his Olson 30 Collage to take first in Division I and second overall.
Harold Upham sailed his Columbia 8.7 Joshua H to first place in Division III and third overall. Harold, who started sailing when he was forced to give up flying for medical reasons, had completed his third TransPac! 1982 saw a drop in entrants from the previous two races. Out of 27 paid entrants, 18 started and 14 finished by the deadline.
In 1984, the 17-boat fleet moved easily out the Gate past Mile Rock, disappearing into the fog on June 16, beginning the 2,120-mile singlehanded dash to Hawaii. The California coast soon lived up to its fierce reputation, though, as the solitude of the fog was replaced by 35-knot winds and large, sometimes breaking seas. Randy Waggoner on the 24-foot Radical suffered a broken rudder in a knockdown near the Farallones causing his retirement to Monterey. Paul Connolly on the 32-foot Bit returned with torn sails and a leaking boat. Most were able to carry on despite blowing out sails, getting seasick and very wet.
By the second day the fleet leaders reported a distance of 250 to 300 miles. However, records were not destined to be broken this year, as the nemesis known as the Pacific High expanded and bore down on the fleet. Competitors who veered south to escape had to travel farther and slower as the high caught them.
Peter Hogg, who safely traversed the strong winds and heavy seas during the beginning of the race in his 40-foot catamaran Tainui, was the first to appear in Kauai in 14 days and 16 hours. Next on the horizon was Francis Who?, an Olson 30 skippered by Frank Dinsmore. Frank, who had also sailed in the two previous TransPacs, finished in 16 days, 26 seconds – good for a first in Division I, the Grover Nibouar award and a third overall. His experience and persistence certainly paid off in ’84.
Mark Rudiger arrived 16 hours later in his beautifully crafted Carlson 29 Shadowfox to take first in Division II and a first overall. Mark had a run of 202 miles on the third day which was the record for that race and pretty remarkable for a 29-foot non-ultralight. The smallest boat in the fleet, the Moore 24 Ichiban, skippered by the lone lady skipper of ’84, Grace Sime, finished in 17 days, 17 hours for a second both in class and overall. Grace, a licensed Coast Guard skipper, commented that the sea is a great equalizer, which has certainly proven true over the years.
The ’86 race, like the ’80 version, established a number of firsts. Hank Dekker, a blind sailor, skippered his Laser 28 Outta Sight using braille charts, a braille compass, and a talking loran and clock. Not only did he complete the race in 17 days and 19 hours, but corrected out for a third place trophy in Division I. Dan and Linda Newland, both solo TransPac veterans, became the first husband and wife to compete against each other. They celebrated their second anniversary on the second day of the race via VHF Radio.
Three multihulls of similar size entered the ’86 race, which provided some real competition in that class. Three boats had significant sponsorship, and one, the 40-ft Crowther trimaran Bullfrog Sunblock (which came all the way from Australia to do the race), was fully sponsored. Finally, 5 of the 18 skippers were SSS Trans-Pac veterans, three of whom – Dan Newland, Mark Rudiger and Peter Hogg – were past first to finishers. Some things don’t change, however, and those skippers who chose the conventional wisdom of going south after the June 14 start found only light winds and a longer race. The first three finishers all stayed north. Ian Johnston, first to finish, broke the multihull record in Bullfrog Sunblock with a time of 10 days and 10 hours. His best 24 hour run was 350 miles – Wow! Dan Newland, sailing the borrowed Olson 30 Francis Who?, was the first monohull in at 13 days 6 hours. Although he missed the monohull record by 4 hours, Dan once again finished first in both Division I and overall. Deloyce Alcorn captured first in Division II and second overall with a time of 16 days and 12 hours in his Capri 25, Full Tilt.
The weather gods smiled favorably on the singlehanders in 1988 by providing a strong Pacific High that stayed north. This wasn’t altogether by chance, since the SSS race committee delayed the start date to the end of June in hopes of a more stable weather pattern. Whatever the reason, the 14 starters left with good wind, kept it all the way, and were able to sail the rhumbline course to Hanalei Bay, a new course record being set in the process.
Though Peter Hogg in Tainui was first to the finish line, the winner was Seattle sailor Bill Stange, who sailed his well-named Olson 30 Intense to a new elapsed monohull record of 11 days, 15 hours and 21 minutes (9:06:49 corrected), finally besting Norton Smith’s record of ten years earlier by 35 hours, 13 minutes – a truly incredible performance. Three hours and 58 minutes later, David Hamilton in Grey Ghost, a custom Zaal 38, came in second. Carl Nelson in Cheers, another Olson 30, broke the record, too, with an elapsed time of 12:22:40.
1988 will also be remembered as the first year all starters finished, and the year that the biggest boat was entered, solely to beat the elapsed time record. Unfortunately, Bob Cranmer-Brown’s custom Adler 60 Etosha was plagued by steering problems which prevented a record run.
The ’90 race saw 19 boats on the line and they started under conditions that hinted Stange’s record might be in danger. With more than 20 knots of wind blasting across the Bay, the rig on Barry Ruff’s Catalina 28 Marlin collapsed within sight of the spectators, sending that boat back to the dock for what would prove to be a three-day delayed start. However, the wind did not last. Ray Jason was becalmed by the time he reached Seal Rocks. In fact, he had to start the engine on his Farallon 29 Aventura to avoid being swept onto the rocks, and motored back to the line for a restart. The Pacific High fell right on top of the fleet and it quickly became a light air race. Sailors who needed it got their 8 or 10 or 12 hours of sleep a night.
Peter Hogg was first across the line in Hanalei in his two-month-old Antrim 40 trimaran Aotea in a time of 12 days, 10 hours. The overall winner on corrected time was Alan Brutger, a laid-back Montana rancher who reported an easy trip aboard his Freedom 44 ketch Polecat. Not so rival Buz Sanders in his ULDB Sonoma 30 Red Stripe. Buz and Alan spent the last three days of the race within sight of each other. Buz was faster with his spinnaker up, but when he took it down to get some rest at night, Alan would catch and pass him with his bigger sailplan. So for the homestretch, Buz decided to keep his spinnaker – and himself – up. As they closed on the finish line, Red Stripe was ahead, but Buz was so tired after more than 24 straight hours at the helm that he sailed right past the finish line! By the time he realized the error, Polecat had finished, beating Red Stripe in by 17 minutes. Buz still corrected out first in Class I. As mentioned, Alan took first in Class II and overall. Ray Jason, the famous San Francisco juggler, finished in 20 days, 4 hours, just in time for the awards ceremony.
The ’92 race saw two brand new Newland 368 sisterships on the line: Frank Dinsmore’s Francis Who? II and the designer in his Pegasus XIV. Dan Newland had won class and overall honors both previous times he had entered the SSS TransPac (’82 and ’86), so he was the odds-on favorite to beat Stange’s record. Seven of the 13 skippers were repeaters this year, though oddly enough there were no multihulls entered. At the start the Pacific High was far to the south, so the best course looked like rhumbline, which is what almost everyone sailed. Naturally, the High moved, carpeting the fleet in light air where most of them spent over two days chatting with each other on VHF. Dan sailed a course that allowed him to escape the High, which so worried Bill Stange when he heard about it that he called the race committee every day to see if Dan had broken his record. Dan and Pegasus XIV did finish first in division and overall with a time of 13 days, 11 hours, but Stange’s record remained secure. Alan Brutger in Polecat was the next boat across the line three days later, giving him first in Class II.
Stan Honey’s Cal 40 Illusion. Bill Stange had reason to worry again in 1994, as multiple (crewed) TransPac veteran Stan Honey sailed his Cal 40 Illusion under the Golden Gate bound solo for Hanalei. Honey got the breeze the boat liked and slid into Hawaii in the new record time of 11 days, 10 hours and 52 minutes – five hours faster than Stange’s Intense. Underscoring this incredible accomplishment was the fact that more than 100 Cal 40 efforts have been mounted in various crewed TransPacs dating back to the ’60s – and Stan beat all of them… singlehanded!
Aotea. Also setting a new record in this windy race was Peter Hogg and Aotea. Although he had participated in four previous SSS TransPacs, finishing first in three of them, this was the first time Peter had posted a record run. And what a record it was: 8 days, 20 hours, 16 minutes, an average of 10.75 knots over the 2,120-mile course! Rounding out the standings in the smallest Single-handed TransPac fleet ever — only 12 boats sailed the ’94 race — was Division II winner Reed Overshiner sailing his International Folkboat Reliance into Hanalei in 14 days, 18 hours.
Both Stan and Peter’s records are likely to stand for a long time to come, as ’94 was one of the windiest races on record. The ’80, ’82, ’84, ’86, ’90 and ’92 races were all plagued with light winds somewhere along the course as a result of the Pacific High being either (a) not strong enough, (b) not in the right position, or (c) being unstable — e.g., dropping down on the fleet. As a result, no records were broken and many boats had some slow days. The history of any race to Hawaii revolves around the Pacific High weather system and the strategies the skippers develop to sail the shortest distance consistent with keeping out of the High.
Other observations: Most SSS TransPac participants have sailed production yachts with a sprinkling of older custom race boats. The most successful production design to compete is the Olson 30, with class firsts in ’82, ’84, ’86, and ’88.
The future? Eventually an experienced and aggressive sailor will target the elapsed time record with a downhill sled or big, radical multihull. And if the wind cooperates, the record books will be rewritten again. There may be someone out there right now who is gearing up for an such an effort. The majority however, will be sailors who, with the help of their families and friends, their dreams and hopes, will meet the challenge of the Singlehanded TransPac in the boats they happen to have. The ones who will experience that once-in-a-lifetime sense of accomplishment when they arrive in Hanalei Bay. The Singlehanded TransPac is not a race for glory – it’s a race you do for yourself.