KEY WEST, Fla.
Experienced offshore sailors know the three words that stand above all others a skipper wants to hear from his crew: "Aye, aye, sir."
So it figures Jahn Tihansky would take nothing but pleasure from his 10 years of offshore adventures here, leading teams of sailing students in the annual 160-mile Fort Lauderdale-Key West Race. He always does reasonably well in the results and has even won the thing a couple of times.
Moreover, Tihansky's student crews pay to compete, hoping to learn some tricks and share in the excitement of ocean racing at the top level. They come aboard with little or no knowledge -- just a complete willingness to do as they're told.
It sounds ideal, and in many ways it is. Still, says Tihansky, who owns the J-World sailboat racing school in Annapolis where hundreds of students take courses each summer on Chesapeake Bay, "Every year I do this offshore racing thing, the first day out I wonder why I'm still at it."
His five students may have wondered the same thing at about midnight 10 days ago, when the 38-foot racing sloop Pamlico, chartered by Tihansky for the event this year, smashed along off Key Largo in 25 knots of wind, struggling under a flailing spinnaker, dancing on the edge of disaster on a coal-black night as seas broke over murderous submerged coral reefs a few hundred yards away.
"Twelve feet!" came the harried cry from below as navigator Dan Rugg monitored the depth-finder.
"Hang on!" Tihansky shouted, yanking the wheel hard left to drive the boat out to deeper water. Pamlico heeled sharply, warm black water from the Gulf Stream sluiced down the deck in a gusher, sails flapped chaotically and everyone clung to the life rails.
"You okay?" I asked Russ Mancuso, a bespectacled government attorney from Arlington whose previous sailing experience consisted of a few placid-weather outings in dinghies at Belle Haven Marina on the Potomac.
"I'm fine," he replied. "It's just that every time I have to stand up to do something I think I'm going overboard."
Mancuso never took that perilous header, happily, nor did any of the other four students or three instructors who bashed through the wild, windy night. By dawn, Key West was in sight off the starboard bow, and all the rigging and everyone's fingers and toes were intact. The spinnaker had been doused for safety's sake shortly after the close encounter with the reef and they'd spent most of the 13 hours of darkness juddering along at 9 to 15 knots under mainsail and big jib, which feels like flying on a 38-footer, especially at night.
With the finish in sight and morning's gray light to work by at last, Tihansky reckoned he could once again fly the powerful spinnaker. Students and instructors scurried to their posts, up went the 'chute, down came the jib, and Pamlico shot into overdrive. "Eighteen knots!" someone shouted from the cockpit. "Twenty! Twenty-point-nine!"
Earlier, student Paul Reed, a Texan who went to college on a bullriding scholarship, mentioned he'd been told offshore sailing was 80 percent boredom, 10 percent terror and 10 percent exhilaration. From the look on his face, he recognized this as the exhilarating part.
He was not alone. Records fell during the 30th Lauderdale-Key West as strong easterly winds blew all the way, powering the 43-boat fleet southwest to the fastest finish ever. Carrera, an 81-footer with a crew of top professionals, knocked nearly three hours off the elapsed time record, finishing in 10 hours 24 minutes under skipper Ken Read, who steered Dennis Conner's entry in the last America's Cup. "I can say it was the most exhilarating race I've been a part of, maybe ever," said Read. "You have this unbelievable cloudless night, the sliver of a moon over your bow, the reef breaking 200 yards to your right and the wind doing 25 to 30 knots."