Global conquest

Liliana Engelhardt | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 6
Scarlet Runner was the last boat out under San Francisco's famous red bridge, but won the Pacific Cup anyway.
Red and furiously fast - meet Scarlet Runner, winner of the 2014 Pacific Cup.

Red cars go faster and, by extension, so do red boats. Robert Date's Reichel/Pugh 52 Scarlet Runner is, as the name suggests, red... and also very fast. That's attested to by a succession of impressive offshore race results since Scarlet's launch in July, 2009, culminating in this year's sensational Pacific Cup win that scooped the grand slam of first in division, first in rating group, and first overall.

Club Marine caught up with Scarlet Runner's owner/skipper Robert Date soon after his return from Hawaii and asked what it felt like to win the Pacific Cup. He reflected for a moment before responding: "It's just huge!

"It's so exciting. It's one of the really big regattas in the world, and we are just so excited about winning it."

But competing in, let alone winning, an ocean race of Pacific Cup calibre is no easy feat, even for this thoroughbred racing yacht and her highly talented crew.

A biennial, 2070nm race from San Francisco, on the US west coast, across the North Pacific Ocean to Kaneohe Yacht Club on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the Pacific Cup is dubbed the 'fun race to Hawaii', but involves some rather serious sailing.

The same could be said about the 3300nm Cape to Rio Yacht Race, which Scarlet Runner completed earlier this year. One of the oldest, longest and toughest ocean races, many of the participating yachts spend up to three weeks at sea and can battle ferocious gales and big seas, or face drawn-out calm periods in the doldrums associated with the region.

Defying the colossal storm at the start, and making the most of the gentle breeze at the end, Scarlet Runner finished second across the line, second in division, and second IRC Overall - a result that earned the boat and crew international respect.

It's said that winning such yacht races requires skill (which Scarlet's crew has in spades), but also some luck, with the variety of weather encountered on the vast expanses of water making them, to some degree, navigator's races. Robert credits a large dollop of his team's success to Scarlet's navigator, Jessica Sweeney, who "found wind where there was none" and judged the weather with uncanny accuracy.

Tour de force

Designed to be competitive against the grand prix-class TP52s, Scarlet Runner is a 52ft downwind sprinter. After repeatedly proving how quick she was on the Australian yacht racing circuit, the crew and boat were ready to follow the trade winds around the world and do some downwind ocean racing along the way.

The mission: the Cape to Rio (a downwind race), some fun in the Caribbean (a mixed bag of regattas), then the Pacific Cup (another downwind race).

Departing home club Sandringham Yacht Club, on Melbourne's Port Phillip Bay, in July 2013, the first leg of Scarlet's 33,000nm world tour took in a few local offshore yacht races between Sydney and Airlie Beach before stops in Mackay and Darwin. Then, manned by a delivery crew of four, Scarlet sailed across the Indian Ocean to South Africa, visiting the Cocos Keeling Islands, Mauritius, and Durban in South Africa, before reaching Cape Town in November, 2013.

Joining Scarlet's delivery crew of Brett Averay, Rowan Leaper, and Tim Kenner in Cape Town were Robert Date and his Cape to Rio 2014 crew of Jessica Sweeney, Damian Knightsbridge, Charlie Hawes, Ben Howland, and David Snoad, plus an ever-enthusiastic onshore support team.

A rigorous training period followed in preparation for the January 4 start of the gruelling dash across the Southern Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The crew nailed the start in sunny, eight-knot breezes, but were apprehensive about an approaching low pressure system, with 50-to 60-knot winds predicted to cross the fleet during the race's first night.

"We sailed into that storm and kept going into it for about five or six hours, which was just horrible," recalls Robert. "Then we bore off, set the downwind sails and let the boat rip. We were doing between 25 and 30 knots in waves of up to six or seven metres... it was like a washing machine."

The Cape to Rio is renowned for testing the seamanship of its entrants and, while the organisers knew the first three days would be tough, they had hoped the fleet would make it through the storm to calmer waters relatively unscathed. The race office's log reported the carnage as it unfolded - of the 36 yachts, 10 were forced to return to port. Tragically, Team Angola's António João Bartolomeu, crewing aboard Bille, was fatally struck by the mast after the boat was dramatically knocked down.

Scarlet bravely ploughed through towering waves and weathered gale-force winds that shredded two sails, damaged another, and knocked the crew about. Debris blocked the engine's water cooler intake, filling the cabin with smoke and hydraulic oil for days. Then the satellite phone stopped working, leaving the crew with no means of sending messages or logging a position report, relying on the GPS for their position and hoping the race office could follow them on the tracker. And during the height of the storm, the starboard steering wheel was smashed when a crew member lost his balance in - ahem - an awkward moment.

"One of the blokes was having a pee off the cockpit... using the toilet is uncomfortable even when you're not in a storm," divulged Robert. "We've stuck the bow of the boat through a wave and the water has come down the deck at about two-metres deep. The water picked him up and washed him straight down the boat, through the steering wheel. He's still clipped on and he's fine, but the steering wheel is broken."

For most of the race, they were without weather broadcasts, vital to determining a course. Instead, Jessica used data recorded before the race, watched the clouds, and read the barometer, ultimately finding what Robert calls a "fantastic ride". It wasn't until day 11 that Jessica was able to access a weather fax by employing an unorthodox method: holding an iPad to a fax signal on the radio's speaker, so an app could pick up the beeps and translate them into a weather chart.

As the days ticked over on the way to Rio, the crew repaired broken gear and sails, gritted teeth in bigger and smaller storms, fretted in almost becalmed conditions, and tolerated the increasingly warm and smelly conditions in the cabin.

Creeping toward the finish line in excruciatingly slow breezes, Scarlet Runner finished second across the line, second in division, and second IRC overall.

A few days ahead of them, Giovanni Soldini's Italian Volvo 70 Maserati had galloped across the ocean course, completing it in 10 days, 11 hours, and 29 minutes, shattering the record that had stood for 14 years.

Caribbean sojourn

The Caribbean leg of Scarlet's campaign took in a trip up the Brazilian coast before heading to Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands for the Saint Thomas International, the Les Voiles de St Barth, the Guadeloupe to Antigua race, the Around Antigua race, and Antigua Sailing Week.

"We didn't fare too well in the Saint Thomas as the handicap system in the Caribbean heavily penalised Scarlet for her keel depth, but we won the Guadeloupe to Antigua," says Robert. While the yacht races there probably don't compare to crossing the South Atlantic, they presented their own challenges. But mostly, says Rob, it was sheer fun.

A month later, Scarlet sailed across the Caribbean to Panama to cross over to the Pacific Ocean via the Panama Canal. The delivery then continued on to Acapulco (Mexico), Cabo San Lucas (on the tip of the Baja California peninsula) and San Diego (USA), before arriving in San Francisco in time for the Fourth of July celebrations.

Go runner, go

As far the breeze is concerned, says Robert, San Francisco Bay is a "weird place." During the training period, 20 to 30 knot breezes would blow in the bay but, once under the Golden Gate Bridge, it depleted to eight knots two miles further on. Just not on start day.

"We were all geared up for the start - and there's no wind. We started the race in about eight knots of breeze... we had a pretty shocking start, to be honest, and were the last boat to go out under the Golden Gate Bridge."

With the same race crew aboard (except with Samantha Chandler replacing Damian Knightsbridge), Scarlet Runner started on July 11 with the fastest yachts in the Latitude 38 Division.

The smallest boat in the division at 52ft, Scarlet was up against some tough competition, including the favourite, Roy Disney's Andrews 68 Pyewacket, which boasts an all-star crew of Olympic gold medalists, Hawaii race record holders, and Volvo Ocean Race and America's Cup winners. Also in the division were Frank Slootman's Reichel/Pugh 63 Invisible Hand, which won its division in the 2013 Transpacific Yacht Race and a litany of ocean passages, Max Klink's Botin 65 Caro, with a remarkable register of race wins since its launch in 2013, and the biggest boat in the division - Hector Velarde's Nelson/Marek 92 Locura, with a seasoned crew of 12.

The Pacific Cup is usually characterised by the downhill winds of the Eastern Pacific High, a high-pressure system that can produce very little wind at its centre, but stronger breezes at the perimeter that travel clockwise down the US west coast and westwards toward Hawaii.

The fleet traditionally includes yachts ranging from 25ft to 140ft, with this year's fleet of 56 starting a staggered race over five days - the slowest boats first, the fastest last. But, with the high sliding southwards and obliterating any hopes the Latitude 38 division may have had to break the race record of five days, five hours, 38 minutes, conditions looked a little bleak at first.

"Sailing into the first night the water was glass, not even a ripple, and yet on the top of the mast we had six knots of wind. The wind was at 10m and not at sea level, which suited the boats with bigger masts - they sailed off over the horizon and we got further and further behind on that first night," says Robert.

More time was lost that night when Scarlet hooked a drifting fishing net and was stopped in her tracks. Attempts to dislodge it only caused it to tangle further and wrap around the propeller until Tim, with a knife clenched between his teeth, hopped overboard and repeatedly dove to cut the net away strand by strand. It cost 20 miles and 1.5 hours.

On day 5, after over 1000nm of reaching, the trade wind surge from north-east caught up with Scarlet and gave the crew the type of sailing it had come for: fast, and downwind. Working the sails and the boat hard day and night, dodging squalls, putting up with the deafening grinding of hardened ropes on winches, and replacing the much-needed A4 spinnaker when it blew to smithereens during a midnight broach at 28 knots boat speed, Scarlet gradually clawed back the lost miles.

"We were about 40 miles behind the boat we had to beat - Pyewacket. About two days before the finish, we pulled level with them. We couldn't see them, but we had the information that we were level... and then we just worked ourselves silly day and night.

"We finished in the middle of the night and were pretty sure we'd won, but two of the 24-footers (Swazik and Snafu) that we'd passed somewhere during the race were doing really well. We'd been in port for about 24 hours when a massive storm hit with 70-knot winds and torrential rain. These little 24-footers were bearing down with that wind and getting closer and closer, and catching up on us.

"We eventually beat Swazik by an hour - only one hour in seven days! They did really well, coming second overall... absolutely amazing."

Scarlet Runner finished three and a half hours ahead of Pyewacket (correcting to 2 hours, 3 minutes) in 7 days, 14 hours, 25 minutes and 18 seconds, scooping the Latitude 38 Performance Award, First Place ORR, and Pacific Cup Winner.

Home sweet home

For now, Scarlet Runner is safe in her berth at Sandringham Yacht Club. The next planned ocean race is the 2014 Rolex Sydney Hobart - unless she's sold in the interim, in which case Robert will be looking for the next yacht. Next time, he says, it'll be something a little less racy that he can cruise in with just wife Glenda, or a few mates.