Ballyhoo: 1975 Transpac - Los Angeles to Honolulu.
By Lesley Brydon: "This is my record of the 1975 Transpac on Ballyhoo."
The race began in Los Angeles harbour on July 4 at 1 am. We left our mooring in Marina Del Rey at 6 am and motored up the coast to the starting line at San Pedro, through the heavy west-coast fog, which lies over the Los Angeles area until about midday every day. Even at that hour, the spectator craft were beginning to converge on San Pedro and the starting line at Point Firmin Buoy.
By 11 am the fog was beginning to lift and thousands of boats were out to watch the 70 race competitors going through their preliminary manouvres. The congestion was dreadful. The Transpac entries all carried identifying flags in distinctive designs and stood out easily with their uniformed crews and the nervous tension on deck.
Ballyhoo's crew were shivering in our green and white T-shirts and feeling a long way from the Aussie sunshine. With her striking green and gold hull, the yacht attracted lots of attention and spectators were speeding around us wishing us luck. I was beginning to feel like Queen Elizabeth as I waved back, acknowledging their greetings.
The opposition looked good too - living up to their description as a fleet of racing grey-hounds. Our old rival Ondine, stately and superior as ever; and confident too. Her owner Huey Long had just spent another hundred grand sharpening her up for the race.
The favourite, Windward Passage, a mean, powerful looking vessel, carved her way across our bows, her twelve giants of crew looking very, very, businesslike. I had a quick flash of relief that I wasn't feeding that lot - they were 12 of the biggest, hungriest looking blokes I've ever seen. Passage had been scaled right down for the race, all excess weight - cupboard doors, tables, chairs, all but the bare essentials, including four crew members, had been thrown out. She was as light as a big platform like that could ever be, and ready to plane all the way to Honolulu.
Last year's winner, Ragtime, a 60-foot sloop, sleek and black and sinister looking was right at home, carving up the Los Angeles fog and gliding through the water like a submarine. She too was a mere shell inside. Attracting a lot of attention too was Hawkeye, a new concept in downwind flyers, keel-less and big bellied, making her Transpac debut.
The three Japanese entries looked very purposeful, their crews, serious and agile, saluting and bowing as they passed us. Perhaps the most striking sight was Shamrock owned by Roy Disney, (yes - think Disneyland), with her crew in green and white striped French sailor's outfits, complete with pom-pom berets. Constellation the legendary 80-foot schooner was perhaps the most beautiful sight of all, a Queen of a vessel, with her spectacular rig and shiny varnished transom, and a crew of about 25 to drive her all the way to Honolulu and the finish line at Diamond Head.
Ahead of us was a 2225 nautical mile course - all downwind except for the first leg to Catalina Island. With a heritage that dates back to 1897, when the race was first proposed by Hawaiian King Kala Kaua to promote goodwill between his Islands and the mainland, the Transpac is one of the world's oldest and longest ocean races.
Yet there was little evidence that LA's Transpacific Yacht Club had been doing this for almost a century. The start was a real mess. With the spectator fleet out of control, it was basically a fight for survival. But with owner Jack Rooklyn at the helm and designer, Bob Miller calling shots, Ballyhoo pulled clear of the rabble and headed off to windward on the first leg to Catalina Island.
This stretch of 30 nautical miles is like a race within a race and a great deal of kudos is attached to being the first boat to Catalina. The windward leg suited Ballyhoo perfectly, and thrill of thrills, we crossed the line first. The reception at the island was overwhelming, and quite unexpected. Fireworks, rockets, guns firing, people cheering, boats darting everywhere in a whirl of spray. It was wonderful, and we were fired up with excitement, as we rounded the island and began the 2225-mile downwind run to Honolulu.
But several days and miles can make a lot of difference and before long, it seemed our moment of glory had come and gone forever. We maintained our position ahead of Windward Passage and Ondine through the night but lost sight of them in the morning fog. 24-hours later, the radio sked revealed they had both headed south in the reported direction of the trades. And so, it seemed, had most of the fleet. Ballyhoo continued to sail high as this was our best sailing angle in the prevailing winds. But this, we soon learned, was our first, and most serious, mistake.
It seemed that local knowledge and race experience drove the other boats south and we struggled to understand how we were never on top of this information, despite lengthy briefings in Newport from so-called experts.
There was much discussion and disagreement on board as to this apparent flaw in our preparation and planning. But as Don Mickleborough pointed out, Rule number 75 B also worked against us: "No bloody Australian boat is going to win this race."
While boats in the south continued to be pushed along by light 10 to 15 knot breezes, those that had sailed high, lost the wind and spent three days wallowing about the Pacific with crews fighting back screams of rage. Amazingly, despite this adversity so early in the race, the mood of the crew remained light-hearted, although their language got worse by the day.
Our crew included some top sailing talent: Skipper Jack Rooklyn and his son Warwick, designer Bob Miller, navigator Stan Darling, sailing master Don Mickleborough, the delivery crew: John Stanley, Tom Stephenson, Dave Burke, Don Tracy, and me as cook. The "strap hangers" as we called those who joined in LA, including John Brooks, Peter Hankin and five from the US - 17 crew in all.
Miller was an unexpected addition to the crew and it was generally thought he must be crazy to get on board after all the problems we had had during the delivery.
We soon saw evidence of this, cementing his bolshi reputation and his enormous self-belief and confidence in his design skills.
He insists there is nothing wrong with Ballyhoo', only the idiots driving her. This point is, of course, contested. Ballyhoo is no downwind machine and for that reason, she is not the ideal Transpac boat. But when Miller himself takes the helm and really drives her hard, she skims through the water like a dolphin; and sailing to windward, can easily out-class her opponents.
It's a joy to watch Miller at work. He is a natural sailor and has an intimate feel for the boat. At the same time, he is really very funny. He and Mickleborough were the watch captains and a more casual pair it would be difficult to imagine. Everything is done amid jokes and laughter.
On day five, Michleborough dragged his watch out of bed saying "OK fellas, today we have a change. Today we change underwear." Then, pointing from one to the next: "You change with him and he changes with you."
At that point it looked at if we would be running out of more than clean underwear. With more than three quarters of the distance left to cover, and no sign of any wind, there was more than a small chance we would run out of food and water.
But the wind came at last, bringing with it the excitement of the race. By day seven we were moving along beautifully powered by a big spinnaker and two head sails. It was pretty precarious, but within 24-hours we had overtaken all the smaller boats, including the clever little keel-less machines that had crept past us in the light conditions.
But we had no idea how fast we were travelling. On day two, the speedo had blown up, along with the log and the hounds for gauging relative speed. This was a big handicap as there was no way of gauging any advantage we might achieve from sail or course changes. It was probably one of the last bits of equipment we would have wanted to crack up, and one of the few things for which we had no spare.
Ever the problem solver, Miller rigged up a makeshift speedo with a cup and a length of cord. But by day nine we were travelling much too fast for that to be of any use at all, if it ever had been. The winds increased and the seas built up enormously to the point where we were surfing head-long downhill at frightening speeds.
One night, the spinnaker pole broke loose and the big chute flew off into the darkness, carrying us sideways down the big waves for quite a distance before we hauled it down again.
On another wild night, the spinnaker halyard broke, jamming in a block at the top of the mast. It was blowing close to 30 knots and the seas were huge. John Stanley was hoisted to the top of the mast to release the old halyard and replace it with another. I watched on in horror. The big mast was rolling through an enormous arc over 90 feet up in the darkness with wind whistling angrily around it. It takes some guts to do that. But Steamer did it all without fuss or incident.
Later the same night there was a near mutiny on board. Mickleborough's watch was on duty around 2 am when it started to blow even harder. The boat broached several times throwing the off-watch out of out of our bunks. I had been sleeping in the port bunk in Jack's cabin and woke to find myself tangled up with him, as we were hurled one after the other, on to the cabin floor. Leaping up, swearing, Jack stuck his head out of the hatch, ordering the guys to get the big chute down and put up a smaller one.
Mickleborough shouted for all hands-on deck, and Miller, woken from a deep sleep, said, "What the hell for"?
Hearing this, Jack went into a white rage. He yelled at Miller to get his f-ing watch on deck and change the f-ing sail.
Miller did not budge. He just shouted: "You're a bunch of useless bastards. Can't you sail a boat with a bit of bloody wind? We're not changing any sails."
"Get back in your bunks" he told his watch. And they did.
Jack was speechless for a minute, standing in the saloon in his underpants and very little dignity. Then he tried again.
"Listen to me Miller. This is my boat and when I say get that sail off you f-ing do it."
"You can go and get f-ed" said Miller
Jack was raging: "Your bloody mistakes have already cost me over a million dollars Miller. And any minute now I'm gonna lose another $4000 spinnaker. No one makes a fool of me. Get out here and get that f-ing thing off."
Miller: (at this point, he proves he is quite mad) "You know bugger all about sailing Jack. If you haven't got the guts to leave that sail up there then you can have your f-ing air ticket back and I'll get off this thing forever in Honolulu.
"We are staying here and so is that sail. The only thing wrong with this boat at the moment is that half-wit Mickleborough at the wheel."
Jack: "You'll get off before Honolulu Miller; I'll see to that."
The stunned crew had visions of Miller being thrown over the side with lead topsiders. But he wouldn't budge and the rest of his watch did not move either. They stayed there, paralysed with horror. And the big spinnaker stayed up all night.
And Miller was right. We carried it safely enough. That is, as safe as anyone can be screaming through the dark on top of a wave, with the sea rising in great arcs from the bow and the boat shuddering violently as it hovered within inches of a standing gybe, every few minutes.
The sails remained intact and Miller remained on board; and next day, he and Jack were chatting away like they'd never had a cross word.
On the morning of day eleven, we were broad reaching towards the final leg of the course, the Molokai Channel where the wind was blowing at 40 knots. Apparently it does that all the time in the Molokai. The winds converge on the high mountains of the Hawaiian Islands and are funnelled together to create this sort of weather pattern continually.
But our hope of a race win was out the window. Ragtime had crossed the finish line at 10 am that morning and Ondine was already in the channel, due to finish some five hours later. There were three other boats ahead of us - Constellation, Warrior and Windward Passage so, bar some major incident, it seemed we had no chance of beating them.
But at this point, we knew none of this. Our radio spluttered and died on day seven, so that we were unable to transmit our position for several days. We had signalled a passing passenger ship and asked them to relay our position, hoping someone might be there to welcome us when we arrived.
Later, we learned that a schooner travelling along quite near us, had hit a whale in the dark hours of the morning, sinking within 15 minutes of the strike. Some of the guys on watch had seen what they thought might be a flare, but we were too far away to be certain and consequently, did nothing about it.
Fortunately, another yacht was close enough to sight the distress signal and hauled away to pick up survivors. The boat disappeared without trace. How lucky they were. If it was not for the race, there might not have been anyone nearby. And had it been us; well, that is the stuff of nightmares.
At last, Diamond Head came into sight and we sailed on to finish fifth across the line. We overtook Constellation, then caught up with Warrior, and the two boats sailed neck and neck down the Molokai Channel. The welcome at Waikiki Yacht Club was wonderful. Mai Tais, leis and ladies, people and parties. The celebrations continued for days.
And while we did not win the silver cup, we did take the prize for the first foreign boat to finish, paving the way for future Aussie teams to take on the yanks and blast the hell out of Rule 75B.