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Olly as in jolly, haha as in crutch
Richard W. Johnston
July 30, 1973
The Alenuihaha Channel was no laughing matter; it was miles of thrashing current and biting wind that tossed the ocean racers. And it was only the beginning of the first around-a-state contest ever held
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July 30, 1973

Olly As In Jolly, Haha As In Crutch

The Alenuihaha Channel was no laughing matter; it was miles of thrashing current and biting wind that tossed the ocean racers. And it was only the beginning of the first around-a-state contest ever held

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Any landlubber reading the preliminary announcements last year of a new ocean yacht race, the Royal Hawaiian Cup, must surely have conjured up an idyllic fantasy: lofty white sails, filled by gentle tropical breezes, ghosting along the enormously scenic—and sometimes inaccessible—coasts of Hawaii above sleek hulls tilled with sleek people. A good cook below, and cocktails on the afterdeck. Skies ablaze with stars, and water dulcet as an inland lake—after all, the ocean is the Pacific, isn't it?

The sponsors of the race, the Waikiki Yacht Club, made no such promises, of course. The announcement simply said that the competing yachts would start off Waikiki and proceed to port, all the way around the state of Hawaii—past Lanai, past Kahoolawe, past the big volcanic island of Hawaii itself, past Maui and Molokai and Oahu and Kauai and even Niihau, the mysterious feudal fiefdom of an old kamaaina family named Robinson. The race would finish where it began, off Waikiki's Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, about seven days and 755 nautical miles later. Since neither Florida nor Alaska has managed to detach itself from the North American continent, the race would be yachting's first around-a-state event.

The club had been toying with the idea of such a race for nearly a decade, but a dissenting faction had prevailed by asking one question: how can you persuade internationally rated yachtsmen to compete in an event that begins and ends not only at the same point, but 2,000 miles from anywhere? In 1972 the ayes had it, however, arguing that the August race might attract some of the competitors in the July Victoria-Lahaina race and, if successful, surely would beguile entrants in the 1973 Transpac, another July race that ends in Honolulu.

The decision, like most decisions, was made late (too late, as it turned out, for the Victoria-Lahaina racers), but not too late for a number of island skippers. The course was plotted to provide a long beat or reach, depending on the trade winds, to the south tip of Hawaii, a straight beat up the Kau coast, a beam reach or starboard beat to the northwest point of the Big Island, and a 250-mile spinnaker reach or run around the northern shore of Kauai. Chutes also were indicated to the "corner" of Niihau, at which point the race would then go to weather all the way back to Waikiki.

Experienced yachtsmen did not share the landlubber's romantic illusion that the race would be a gentle, sunlit and moonshiny cruise around the islands. They knew from years of sailing the Transpac, the Victoria-Lahaina and the Los Angeles- Tahiti races just how treacherous the Pacific can be. They knew, too, that Hawaiian wind patterns, even the predictable ones, would require expert crew work on all points of sail. This race would be unlike the Transpac, the famous "downhill" run from Los Angeles in which contestants, after clearing mainland coastal waters, set their spinnakers and let the northeast trades do the rest.

The nine sloops that crossed the starting line on Saturday, Aug. 5 were Hawaiian owned—from Silversword, the Morgan 54 that won the Tahiti race in 1970, down to the five 33- and 34-footers in Class B—but their skippers and crews were cosmopolitan ocean racers. More than a dozen had Transpac experience. Others had competed in the Acapulco race, the Mazatlan, the Bermuda, the Transatlantic, the Fastnet, the Tahiti and the Ensenada. At least two had Great Lakes records, several had competed on Long Island Sound, others at Cowes and a few were veterans of South African, New Zealand, Australian and South American waters. None of them had ever raced around the state of Hawaii. Nobody had. So none of them foresaw the extent of the trouble ahead.

What they experienced, in the words of an observer aboard the 55-foot motor yacht Pikake that accompanied the racers as a communications center, was this: "Imagine booking a sightseeing trip through 1,000 miles of fantastically beautiful wilderness. Your vehicle is one of those big cement-mixing trucks that revolve as they go. You and five or six friends are in the mixer, which for scenic purposes is made of Plexiglas. The roads are trails: ungraded, precipitate, sometimes full of rocks, sometimes underwater. At regular intervals your friendly tour conductor shoots 50 gallons of ice water into the mixer. The truck runs day and night at about 10 mph. The mixer turns most of the time. Like the idea? Enjoy the scenery?" It wasn't quite that bad, at least not for everybody. Silversword, the scratch boat, slipped through a furiously confused, 12-foot sea off the Big Island without serious incident. But for some of the others, including the 48�-foot sloop Guinevere and most of the small boys, it was a backbreaker.

Mainland skippers, invited to participate in the 1973 cup race scheduled for this Aug. 11, may find the adventures of the pioneer cuppers instructive. Two boats lost their rudders. One got so far behind and so out of touch that a Coast Guard search was necessary. None, however, had a rougher hour in the mixer than Roughneck III, a Ranger 33 skippered by Nathaniel (Taffy) Sceva. Sceva managed to have his crisis—one could almost say his six crises—against a backdrop of Kauai's brooding, majestic Na Pali coast, a Gibraltar-like upthrust of rock unreachable except by helicopter or boat. Of the nearly two million tourists who visited Hawaii last year, few saw Na Pali. Sceva and his crewmen did not see much of it either.

The battle of Na Pali was only the climactic incident in a sequence of struggles that began in deceptive quiet a week earlier. As the contestants moved out to the start, the northeast trades were blowing and the sun was highlighting the skyscrapers of Waikiki against the purple velvet clouds piled atop the Koolau Mountains. The start was uneventful, save for Ricochet, whose skipper, Greg Gillette, tried to slip the Newport 41 across the line to leeward of Guinevere. He suddenly ran out of room, sheered off and went through a needle's eye between a buoy and the committee boat, then ricocheted off Guinevere before circling to restart. Penalty: three hours off his handicap. Given these histrionics, hardly anyone noticed that Sceva had won the start in Roughneck.

As the yachts began the 200-odd mile beat to the southern corner of Hawaii, everything was beautiful—all on port tack, a bright sun illuminating Diamond Head and Koko Head, and winds of 15 to 20 knots. Even the exit of the Molokai Channel, the ocean corridor of strong winds, stiff seas and treacherous currents that separates Oahu and Molokai and has been the bane of Transpackers, dealt gently with the racers. An astonished observer sighed in relief. "Wow!" he said. "Maybe this really is going to be a nice, placid, scenic cruise." As a whole genre of lady mystery writers used to say, had he but known!

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