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An interview with Dobbs Davis about the 50th edition of the Transpacific Race

by David Schmidt 8 Jul 2019 08:00 PDT July 10, 2019
Super Maxi RIO 100 at 2015 Transpac finish © Race Yachts

Hawaii. Mere mention of this beautiful island chain amongst serious offshore sailors immediately sparks conversation of the world-famous Transpacific Race, which starts on the waters off of Los Angeles and finishes off of Honolulu’s Diamond Head formation, yielding a racetrack of some 2,225 nautical miles. Transpac, as the race is affectionately known, is organized by the Transpacific Yacht Club and now raced biennially (odd-numbered years following WWII) and has a proud and rich history hailing back to 1906.

More importantly for anyone who loves sailing fast under spinnaker, Transpac also has a long track record of serving-up fantastic conditions, once teams crack off their sheets and aim their bows for what can only be described as one of the planet’s prettiest destinations.

Not surprisingly, the race has long attracted some of the world’s fastest boats. To help give some perspective on how much the race—and sailing—have evolved since Transpac’s inaugural event, skipper H.H. Sinclair won the 1906 Transpac with a time of 12 days, nine hours and 59 seconds aboard Lurline, his 86-foot schooner. Flash-forward 99 years and skipper Ken Read, sailing aboard Comanche, the all-conquering, VPLP-designed 100-foot super maxi, sailed this same patch of brine in just five days, one hour, 55 minutes and 26 seconds.

I checked in with Dobbs Davis, media manager for the 50th edition of the Transpacific Race, which is set to kick off on July 10, via email, to learn more about this classic West Coast distance race.

Can you describe the race’s culture to an outsider?

The culture of this race is not unfamiliar to any West Coast offshore sailor who is used to starting in cold places and heading towards the warmth: laid back but serious when it’s needed, with competent and able seamanship, and ready for the long miles.

Can you give us a 35,000-foot view of how the race has changed in its 50 editions (and over 100 years) ?

Well, my first race o Hawaii was in 1980 as a teenager, so I’m only 10K feet up. But clearly the progression of the race has followed—and sometimes helped set—the trends in the sport.

Like most offshore races, the early pre-WW II days were mostly custom cruising boats in search of adventure in Hawaii or beyond. A handful were dedicated custom race boats, like Dorade (1936).

Then in the 1950s were recreational cruiser/racer boats from California, and in the 1960s some new production designs that were innovative and successful on the Transpac course (e.g., Cal 40s) along with dedicated custom downwind designs (e.g., Ragtime and Blackfin). The real breakthrough was 1977 with Merlin that showed that light fast designs for the same rating will always beat the generalist IOR Maxi lead mines. This started the idea of fast is fun, an inherent concept for Transpac ever since.

What about the boats and the attitudes of the sailors?

See above, except that about 20 years ago as the entry numbers waned TPYC promoted the casual Aloha class concept of having true cruisers who wanted to be part of the fun.

This could only start when the [use of] multiple start days was introduced to try to compress the finishes of the fleet.

Given the distances involved, what do you see as the biggest performance breakthrough over the race’s proud history: faster, lighter boats (starting with Merlin), GPS/GNSS navigation or sat-comms for weather routing?

[Ultra-light displacement boat] ULDB sleds, for sure. Weather routing has helped, but not like being on a boat that sails 25-50% faster.

What’s the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the race in terms of weather?

For Transpac 50 we should be close to being “normal”, i.e., East Pacific sea surface temperatures are not high, so with no obvious strong El Nino pattern in place this year the North Pacific High looks fairly stable and able to deliver the usual pressure in the usual directions.

Can you tell us about any special 50th anniversary celebrations that you and the other organizers have planned?

75% of our skippers are new to Transpac, so the First Starters Party should be well-attended - it will be at Shoreline YC in Long Beach on 5 July (https://2019.transpacyc.com/assets/documents/first-starters-party19.pdf).

Then the usual Skippers Briefing the next day, followed by the Aloha Send-off party in Long Beach at the bandshell next to Gladstone’s. And in Hawaii, the parties will all be epic simply due to the size and scale of the fleet: nearly 100 entries creates an enormous crowd of not only sailors but family and friends as well at the Mount Gay Rum parties at Hawaii and Waikiki Yacht Clubs.

And the final Awards ceremony in Honolulu will be huge: we had to organize space at the Hawaii Convention Center in Ala Moana.

If you were a gambling man, what boat(s) would you be looking at for the barn door trophy? What about for the overall win?

Ha, I don’t gamble, too many variables! But with the Barn Door [trophy] now being re-dedicated back to being awarded to the first-to-finish monohull, it’s hard not to go with Comanche again if there is “normal” weather.

For corrected time this too is even harder to predict before the first reliable forecasts become available. If it’s a straightforward drag race then breeze-on conditions favors the planing modern race boats, like Sydney-Hobart winner Alive or the Pac 52 Badpak.

But this is not statistically favored-[world-famous navigator] Stan Honey said in the last cycle that all they needed for Comanche to break the record was steady breeze, not strong breeze.

And in these sub-planing conditions the usual Sleds are favored by their optimization not only for the course but the decades of collective experience on these teams-like on Pyewacket.

While we understand that Transpac is an offshore contest, can you tell us about any steps that you and the other race organizers have taken in recent years to “green-up” the regatta or otherwise lower its environmental wake? While we understand that Transpac is an offshore contest, can you tell us about any steps that you and the other race organizers have taken in recent years to “green-up” the regatta or otherwise lower its environmental wake?

Efficient offshore racing by its very nature is already Green since every team already wants to minimize clutter and waste. Every team in the Transpac knows the high-profile stories and their own observations about the trash in the North Pacific, and no one wants to contribute to that. So this concept is a priori, needs no special promotion-“best practices” are already established.

Anything else that you;’d like to add, for the record? With this fantastic record turnout for Transpac 50, it’s great to see such tremendous enthusiasm for offshore racing [on] the Pacific. It proves the sport is not dead or dying, but very much alive and thriving.

Even our organization of next year’s Transpac-Tahiti Race, a 3,571-mile speed-reaching course to paradise, is on a great track, with already seven confirmed entries over a year out and more expected in the coming months. This shows the spirit of adventure still lures us out to sea.

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