I have had a love affair with high-speed sailboats ever since I bought my first catamaran in 1962. I would ride waves at San Onofre and it had powerful enough sails to tow a water skier when the wind blew hard enough. I continued to race catamarans for the next 22 years.
Even with my sailing experience, I was speechless as I gazed at Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle trimaran. The hull and outriggers were built in Sedro Woolly and Anacortes, Wash., and their size is hard to comprehend. The main hull is 100 feet long and the two outriggers are 100 feet apart. That’s right, it’s a sail boat that measures 100 feet by 100 feet. The sails are a 5,000-square-foot main and a 3,500-square-foot jib with a 6,500-square-foot Gennaker – all hanging on a 158-foot-tall mast that is three feet wide at the base. This speed machine has been created by a group of people who couldn’t care less about the yachting establishment and think far outside the box. It is has already gone 20 miles an hour in only seven mph wind and the boat cost Larry Ellison $10 million.
I had made arrangements to have Ron Farrel pick me up in his 35-year-old, 24-foot sailboat so we could chase the BMW Oracle during its sea trials and this is where it really got interesting. I had Oracle’s radio channel written in my notes and as Ron and I took off after them, we disappeared into pea soup fog. Visibility was less than 100 feet and when I said, “Ron, turn your radio to channel five,” he answered, “I forgot to bring it along.” Ron did know the compass course to where they were supposed to be sailing, but 30 minutes later it was obvious to me that we were completely lost because he didn’t have any radar either. By now we had slowed down to about 3 mph when a steep cliff appeared in the fog about 100 feet away.
I relaxed a bit, because I knew Ron would have a chart of this part of the world. He had raced sailboats for 50 years, fished in Alaska for 15 and cruised back and forth a dozen or more times. I knew he had a small handheld GPS, but when I asked him to transfer his GPS coordinates to the location on his chart he replied, “I didn’t bring one.”
We had been chasing this $10 million boat for an hour and a half without a chart, radar, or a radio. When we finally emerged on the other side of the fog bank, where we thought the Trimaran was practicing, there wasn’t a boat in sight between us and Port Townsend, 20 miles away.
When I asked Ron “How are we on fuel?” he responded, “Oops, we better go somewhere and get some.” The closest place was Rosario, a marina about 10 miles from where were sailing. When we got to the fuel dock, Ron put 38 gallons of fuel into a 40-gallon tank at $5 a gallon.
I did have cell phone service and called Dan in Anacortes who said, “They are down sailing off of Deception Pass.” This was in exactly the opposite direction from where we had gone and about 15 miles from the fuel dock at Rosario. Halfway there we were again lost in the fog. It was already after 3 p.m. when Ron wisely suggested, “We should just head back and haul my boat out of the water. They’ll be wrapping up in about an hour or so anyway, so what if we skip chasing it and try and watch it another day when the fog isn’t so thick?” So we slowly cruised back to our favorite Chinese restaurant in Anacortes and never did see the $10 million dollar Oracle speed machine underway.
The international judges have not yet handed down their verdict on whether or not they will let Oracle race, but the designers’ and crews’ goal is to make the boat go 40 mph in 20 mph winds. When it does, the entire crew will still be wearing their crash helmets as they were the day we didn’t get to see the boat under sail. Remember, it is a 100-foot trip from one side of the boat to the other every time it tacks and if anyone stumbled and fell without a helmet they would be as dumb as Ron Farrell and I were …
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