There were plenty of big stories in this years Transpac Race. Comanche‘s 5-day, 1 hour record, Mighty Merloe‘s stunning victory and the return of Merlin are probably the top three.
The Merlin story includes a part that’s very near and dear to us in the Pacific Northwest. It was Carl Buchan’s first big offshore race of the kind. Pacific Northwesterners are eager to claim Carl as one of our own, and with good reason. He’s won an Olympic Gold Medal (with Jonathan McKee in the Flying Dutchman) an America’s Cup – sort of – (with Dennis Conner in 1988) 505 North Americans (with Carol Buchan) Tasar Worlds (with Carol) and last but not least the Star Worlds (with Hugo Schreiner).
On Madrona, a 40-footer to his own design, Buchan is a perpetual force on the PNW race courses including events as diverse as Round the County and the Race to Alaska.
Most importantly, through all of it, he has retained both his humility and energy for the sport. Both came in handy on Merlin this year. As one might expect, Merlin‘s crew was rife with experience led by The Wizard himself, Bill Lee. Buchan may ooze boatspeed and racing smarts, but he was the offshore newbie aboard Merlin. Staying in character, he did his job and learned a lot.
Sleep The first learning curve is one of the most important and challenging. “I was starting to get into a rhythm the day before we finished. I was a basket case before that sleep-wise,” Buchan explained. I’m not sure how he did it, but accepting that you have a problem is always the first step.
Knowing the Boat “One of the things that became clear was the importance of knowing the boat, in particular the polars and (sail combination) crossovers. You usually don’t have other boats around to get that performance feedback. It was great to have Pyewacket out there. They were always pushing us. We were expecting to fall behind early, but our goal was was to be within about 20 miles when the high speed running conditions started to favor us.” In the end, Merlin beat Pyewacket into Hawaii by a couple of hours and only trailed the much higher rated Runaway on elapsed time. On corrected time, the Alan Andrews-designed Pyewacket won, followed by the Santa Cruz 70 Catapult and the Merlin.
Merlin While it may have been tempting to think of Merlin’s 2017 Transpac as a trip down memory lane for a 40 year old boat, it was obviously a lot more that that. Over the years she’s been modified and upgraded many times, and since buying the boat a year or so ago Bill Lee has put in a number of other changes. Here’s a Scuttlebutt post with more on the program. “Once in a while Bill would say something like ‘at this point in the race back then’ but he’s really forward thinking,” explains Buchan. “It’s not clear what the next phase will be for the boat, perhaps chartering or selling.”
Offshore Tactics Buchan is used to finding the fastest way upwind, downwind or to a point somewhere along the course that will take advantage of current or expected windshift. In the Transpac, the usual course of things is to be lifted on starboard gybe as you make your way to Hawaii. The big decision is when to gybe to port. “Things happen more slowly out there on an ocean race. You set a waypoint into your plans and maximize your speed to that point. But conditions are always changing, so you’re constantly updating that information and updating the game plan. You have to be set up to take in that information.”
A Transpac for Madrona? Watching Madrona take shape locally in carbon, with many helping hands, was fascinating for many of us. At the time we heard Transpac mentioned. “Even when I built the boat it was on my mind,” Buchan says. Madrona‘s moderate beam and relatively full ends not only look like it would go fast downwind, it does. A couple of memorable Round the County runs revealed Madrona as not just a really fast 40-footer, a blisteringly fast 40-footer in the right conditions. “In many ways, the Transpac would be right up Madrona‘s alley,” Buchan said. Hmmm.
In the end, Buchan’s understated summary was “I got that out of the way.” Tellingly, he also said “I certainly enjoyed the longer distance race. I came away seeing it’s a very interesting challenge, especially for the navigator.” My guess is he did a lot more than check something off a list – I’m pretty sure he absorbed a tremendous amount of Transpac know-how, and we’ll see it again, processed and upgraded.