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Prospector team digs in for a second go at Transatlantic Race

by Stuart Streuli 19 Feb 17:48 GMT 25 June 2019
Prospector team at 163rd NYYC Annual Regatta © Rolex / Daniel Forster

After a hard-earned third-place finish in IRC Class 3 in the 2015 Transatlantic Race, the Prospector team is back with a new boat, many of the same crew and an itch to better their performance from four years ago.

The Transatlantic Race 2019, scheduled to start Tuesday, June 25, off Newport, R.I., is organized jointly by the Royal Yacht Squadron, New York Yacht Club, Royal Ocean Racing Club and Storm Trysail Club. The race is a direct descendant of the first great transatlantic ocean race, which started from New York Harbor on December 11, 1866. The 2019 edition will be the 31st transatlantic race organized by the New York Yacht Club, and it remains one of the sport's most enticing challenges. The race will start off Castle Hill Lighthouse in Newport on Tuesday, June 25.

The Prospector teamled by Paul McDowell, Dr. David Siwicki and Larry Landry, and Marty Roesch and managed by Landry and McDowellis one of five returning entries from the Transatlantic Race 2015. Landry, McDowell and Siwicki, along with three others, entered the 2015 race as a challenge to themselves. They'd been racing with and against each other for many years and were eager to add the transatlantic passage to their collective sailing passport.

The passage was as ocean passages gosome of the most white-knuckle, nerve-rattling moments the "hobbyists" had ever experienced opposite calm seas and beautiful sunsets unobstructed by land. Successful racers with offshore experience, they had never charged hard in 30-knot winds and six-foot seas in a pitch-black night, and that's what they encountered in the first 24 hours of the race when they blew out both the A5 and A6 asymmetric sails.

"That first night in the Gulf Stream, we blew up two kites partly because we weren't smart enough to take our foot off the accelerator," said Landry, the navigator. "There were some scary moments. We had a soft sail up in 35 knots of wind and couldn't figure out how to take it down because we weren't rigged for a letterbox takedown. A minute later the problem became academic because we broached and the sail blew to a million pieces. The boat will tell you when to back off. When it's hard to drive and the driver is hunting to keep it on its feet, the boat is telling you to step it down."

There were more nights like the first two throughout the 11-day passage, and in the midst of the mayhem McDowell frequently felt the weight of leading a crew of 16 in such challenging conditions.

"This is my hobby, and it was enormously stressful for me and the other owners," said McDowell. "The whole trip was very windy. We blew up all our spinnakers early and that pressured us into a situation where we had to find as much wind as possible to keep the speed up. Occasionally it was more than we bargained for. When it's super windy conditions with big breaking waves going downwind, if you have a jibe broach and a guy goes over the rail... you have to be careful. There's a lot of pressure on me and the other owners."

After completing the first Prospector program in mid-2016, the group planned to take some time off. Then a 68-foot grand-prix racer (top photo) hit the market. Seeing an opportunity not to be missed, Landry, McDowell and Siwicki doubled down and decided to continue their offshore racing adventures.

Prospector "Mk. II" is a Mark Mills design that was originally built in 2008 at New England Boatworks. Since purchasing the boat in 2016, they've posted some very respectable results in high-profile events such as the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup, Pacific Cup, Puerto Vallarta Race and the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race. Given the right conditions, Landry believes they can chop three to four days off their 11-day passage in 2015.

"This is an amazing boat, but very, very different," said Landry. "The new boat is an F1 race car compared to the Farr 60. She also was an amazing boat, but was an older design. The new boat is one of the last mini-maxis built strong enough to sail offshore. It's going to be a wetter ride, but should be faster too."

"The new boat is a completely different animal, both more and less frightening at the same time," said McDowell. "The older boat went 12 knots no matter which direction it was pointed. With the new boat, we can plane at 18 to 20 knots. It's tons of fun, but noisy and water's everywhere."

In preparing for the upcoming Transatlantic Race 2019 crew safety is the first item addressed. Each crew member is allowed to bring a dry bag for personal clothing, which consists largely of base- and mid-layer underwear. The temperatures get cold in the North Atlantic. They're equipped with top-of-the-line safety harnesses, each with an AIS beacon, foul weather gear and sea boots. They are "kitted-up" as the racing rules dictate, or watch captains demand.

"Each watch captain is allowed to call for full gear whenever he sees fit," said McDowell.

Landry and McDowell both agreed that a significant lesson learned from the first Transatlantic Race was knowing when to back off the accelerator. In the first 24 hours they'd blown out two of their most important off-wind sails, sails that would be needed later in the race given the routing predictions. The A5 was eventually repaired and put back into use, but the A6 was completely blown apart. They'd unnecessarily handicapped themselves at the start of a long passage.

To aid with deceleration the Prospector team has fitted a third reef point, fitted with reef locks, on their mast and boom. During the Transatlantic Race 2015 they found that a third reef with J4 and/or genoa staysail was a fast setup. They've also practiced and refined the "letterbox" takedown method, where a soft sail is retrieved between the loose foot of the mainsail and the boom. This allows the sail to collapse in the lee of the mainsail, affording more control as it is wrestled belowdecks through the main companionway. Finally, when the conditions are really hairy, they'll limit the number of drivers to only the most experienced and their stints at the helm will be limited to 20 or 30 minutes to keep them as fresh as possible.

As they enter the final months of preparation for the race, Landry couldn't be happier with the growth of the program. "I generally characterize us as a collection of friends who are good amateur sailors. We're vastly more experienced now by virtue of what we've done. It's all about the magnitude of the challenge. From the seamanship involved to the challenge of optimizing the boat and the camaraderie that develops with the crew. It's all a fantastic challenge."

McDowell refers to offshore racing as "voyaging; it's a great escape," he said. "I like the aspect of long distance racing where you're self-sufficient. If there's a problem, no one comes and gets you; you can't call it quits and sail into a nearby harbor. You have to get the boat there yourself. I like that aspect."

That's an aspect that has drawn many of the 24 entries to the Transatlantic Race 2019.

The Notice of Race for the Transatlantic Race 2019 can be found on the race's website, along with entry information and a full archive of race documents, results, blogs, photos and videos from the 2011 and 2015 races.

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