Like a race horse heading for the barn at the end of a spirited chase, this grand, steel square-rigger is showing her heels to the whitecapped Atlantic, bound for England with just a few hundred miles to go.
But "channel fever," the famous affliction of British sailors headed home after journeys around the world, has not yet set in for the crew of 40 charterers and 30 professional mariners. "Not until you see some birds and smell the land," said veteran offshore sailor Charlie Weiner of Shelter Island, N.Y., sniffing the salt air.
The finish line of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge, a 3,000-mile race from New York to The Lizard at the tip of England that began off Manhattan on May 22, is drawing near after almost two weeks at sea. Brisk, southwest winds have been pushing the 252-foot-long Stad at 12 knots, night and day, and she ticks off 260-mile days, one after another.
In a gust on Wednesday, Capt. Pieter Brantjes smiled to see the speedometer peg at 15.8 knots, which is flying for a full-rigged, 1,000-ton ship. But while it's fast for an old-fashioned square-rigger, it's barely loping along by modern standards.
Mari Cha IV, a 141-foot carbon fiber schooner owned by billionaire Briton Robert Miller, founder of duty-free airport shopping, smashed the century-old record for fastest passage in this race on Wednesday when it sped past The Lizard after 9 days 15 hours 55 minutes at sea. That clipped 21/2 days off the mark set by three-time America's Cup champion Charlie Barr on the 185-foot schooner Atlantic in 1905.
Times have changed but the North Atlantic has not. Both Barr and Miller battled strong winds and rough seas to set their records. Barr rode a southwest gale into the English Channel a century ago after trailing oil bags from the gunwales to calm the sea; Miller's crew overcame light winds at the start followed by ferocious headwinds before settling into the westerly flow that sent the big yacht scudding along at 20 to 25 knots the final few days.
Mari Cha IV was pressed by its principal rival, the brand new, 100-foot New Zealand-built sloop Maximus, which also broke Atlantic's record, finishing just a few hours behind Mari Cha. Maximus co-owner Bill Buckley dislocated a shoulder in rough seas early on but it was popped back in place by crewmen, who afterwards pronounced the skipper "a tough old bugger."
Likewise on Mari Cha IV, the going was hard. "It has been a difficult, hard-fought crossing all the way," said the reclusive Miller at the finish, "but now, I am pleased to say, a most satisfying one."
Twenty boats ranging from 70 to 252 feet crossed the starting line off Ambrose Light in gentle zephyrs two weeks ago. Only 18 were expected to make it to the official finish. Eighty-one-foot Carrera, owned by New Jersey car dealer Joe Dockery, retired with mainsail damage after sailing into strong headwinds on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
The light winds at the start cost Stad Amsterdam any chance of finishing in a timely way, and Brantjes retired from racing after firing up the engine to motor to fresh winds the second day out. But he's had smooth sailing since as westerly winds filled Stad's 26 sails and the makeshift crew slowly learned the ropes to brace and trim the clouds of canvas.
With whitecaps dotting the sea around us, Claudio Marzollo and I scampered up the mizzenmast to the crow's nest the other day. There wasn't much to see, just open water in every direction and puffy white clouds on the horizon. The newer boats had long since left us in their wake and the smaller, older ones languished far behind.
"It's like racing steam locomotives against the Concorde," said Marzollo of the diverse fleet, which included state-of-the-art racers like Mari Cha IV alongside antiques from the early 1900s like wooden beauties Mariella and Sumurun.
Stad's amateur crew could appreciate both. The 40 charterers are members of the Storm Trysail Club, an international association of experienced blue-water sailors who have endured bad storms at sea.
This was Marzollo's third transatlantic passage. The first was on a 40-foot wooden sloop bound from Bermuda to Copenhagen, the second on a 56-footer going to Hamburg. How do those experiences compare to two weeks on a square-rigger?
"Well, those trips both took 23 days, so they were a lot longer and a lot rougher," said Marzollo, 66, swaying with the roll of the big ship from his perch 100 feet up in the rigging. "But the biggest difference is, we were making our own decisions in those races, so we were much more involved. Here, we're really just following directions. This ship is so complex, you couldn't learn it in the time we have.
"It's like a luxury cruise with work thrown in. When they need us, the crew use us the way they'd use a winch."
But no one's complaining. Among the STC charterers are a dozen from the Chesapeake region, including immediate past commodore Dick Neville and his wife, Barbara; Washington real estate man Mike Winston, former Northern Virginia beer distributor Jack King, America's Cup sailor and TV commentator Gary Jobson, Richmond resident Jim Rogers and Annapolitans Kevin, Rod and Amanda McNeil, Marcia Marshal and Al Graf.
Despite drawing the toughest watch, the midnight-to-4 a.m. graveyard shift that interrupts their sleep every night, the Chesapeake sailors seem to be enjoying themselves. "I couldn't be having a better time," said Kevin McNeil, who left the worries of his Baltimore fuel oil business behind.
For most, it's their first time across the big pond. They've heard about channel fever but haven't yet experienced it. It won't be long now.