Italian bids to beat New York to San Fran record

  • Fri, 25 Jan 2013

Giovanni Soldini retraces history in his attempt to break the 57-day monohull record

Barca Maserati crew
Barca Maserati crew Barca Maserati crew Barca Maserati crew Barca Maserati crew

Giovanni Soldini's bid to beat the 57-day monohull sailing record from New York to San Francisco has been vying for publicity in the shadow of the Vendee Globe Race but this Italian led quest is steeped in the history of the USA.

The international crew of nine aboard the modified Volvo Open 70 Barca Maserati is engaged in an epic 14,000 mile challenge, retracing the voyages of hundreds of ships and thousands of pioneering navigators from the 17th Century onwards. Those sailors were in search of fame, fortune or for most of those aboard, just a basic living.

In the 19th Century these pioneers were driven firstly by a lucrative trade in minerals and animal skins with the west coasts of South and North America, and then the California Gold Rush that started in 1848. This drove the development of faster square rigged clipper type ships that reduced at a stroke the passage times to less than half the usual 200 days.

A brand new ship called Flying Cloud set the new pace in 1851, arriving in San Francisco after 89 days and 21 hours at sea, having sailed from New York just six weeks after her launching. Although sometimes described as an 'extreme clipper' she had fuller lines than some of her American rivals many of which, including her, were built by Donald McKay of East Boston, Massachusetts.

The same husband and wife team of Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy and master navigator Eleanor Creesy would improve on this by 13 hours just two or three years later, establishing a record that would stand for 135 years, notably longer than that of the racing schooner, America.

In 1989 Warren Luhr's 50 footer Thursday's Child knocked 8 days 12 hours off Flying Cloud's record despite a five day stop for repairs in the Falklands, and since then others have chipped away at the time including Isabelle Autissier, and the current monohull record holder Yves Parlier aboard the Open 60 Aquitaine Innovations. In 2008 Lionel Lemonchois and a crew of nine showed what a big catamaran could achieve when Gitana 13 arrived in San Francisco after just 43 days and 38 minutes.

The greatest challenge is rounding Cape Horn where square-riggers could be held up for a month or more as they attempted to make enough westward progress against the wind before tacking or wearing round to try and clear the Horn. Some would be lucky and find a following breeze round but in poor visibility and before the reassurance of modern navigational aids shipwreck was a constant risk.

The more daring skippers would sail their ships much further south in the hope of finding an easterly wind but the lack of good quality clothing and general disregard for the well-being of sailors by some owners brought the risk of frostbite, scurvy and starvation that could decimate a ship's crew.

Some vessels having endured these hardships would be forced to turn round and either head for cover in the Falkland Islands or run east past Africa in order to complete their voyages. Others would be less lucky, perhaps overwhelmed by big seas and lost without trace, or run down by another ship homeward bound from the west coast of America.

Nowadays there are probably more racing yachts traversing this infamous spot than commercial ships, and Barca Maserati will be much better suited to beating round in a blow than a square-rigger or even the maxi-Catamaran Gitana 13. She was held up for five days there in 2008 before completing her passage.

Although Givoanni Soldini may have planned his departure time from New York on 31st December to make maximum progress down the Atlantic, what kind of weather would await him and his crew at Cape Horn was just as hit-and-miss as when the Creesys aboard Flying Cloud arrived there in 1851 and 1853.

But Soldini has been fortunate, arriving at Cape Horn close-hauled on starboard after just 22 days. Then a bonus, as more wind and a shift to the south-west powered Barca Maserati north-westward towards San Francisco. Barring breakage or bad luck the 57-day monohull record may be looking easy, but now the pressure is on to achieve the ultimate goal, to beat Gitana 13's 43-day multihull record.

Cape Horn and the Clippers

What bonds all these voyages is a tangible link with the history of the development of the American continent, inspired and hastened by some writers of the period. Most influential was Richard Henry Dana, whose book 'Two Years before the Mast' anticipated the development of the west coast of America well before the lure of the Gold Rush.

At the point in history when Flying Cloud set her record there was no railroad to the west coast and no Panama Canal so the only route was by sea around Cape Horn against the prevailing winds, a perilous voyage that had cost thousands of lives through shipwreck, accident and neglect since the early 1700's.

Early navigators would use the Straights of Magellan to the north of Tierra del Fuego but the vicious weather that blows through here often prevented an easy passage for sailing ships, so when the Drake Passage south of Cape Horn was discovered this became the preferred shipping route.

The British Admiral George Anson had a famous brush with Cape Horn after he set out on his own gold rush back in 1741. His fleet of eight sparsely crewed ships was intent on raiding Spanish Galleons in the Philippines. Their westward rounding ended in near disaster with most of the ships wrecked, but aboard the surviving HMS Centurion he achieved his goal and returned home after three years at sea with a huge bounty.

At the height of the sailing ship era an alarming percentage of shipping, up to 10%, would be lost annually around the globe and not until the Transpacific Railway was opened in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914 did the pressure ease from the need to transport goods around Cape Horn.

Giovanni Soldini

Giovanni Soldini is most famous for his victory in the 1999 Around Alone Race aboard his boat Fila and for rescuing Isabelle Autissier after her boat overturned in the Southern Ocean during the penultimate leg of the race. A former Class 40 World Champion with vast experience in mono and multihull racing, his international crew aboard his Volvo Open 70 Barca Maserati includes:

Ryan Breymeier -USA
Jianghe "Tiger" Teng - China
Sebastien Audigane - France
Boris Herrmann - Germany
Carlos Hernandez - Spain
Guido Broggi - Italy
Corrado Rossignoli - Italy
Michele Sighel - Italy

New York to San Francisco sailing records - monohull and multihull

1853 Flying Cloud, 89 days 8 hours
1989 Thursday's Child, 80 days 20 hours
1994 Ecureuil Poitou Charentes II, 62 days, 13 hours and 19 minutes.
1998 Aquitaine Innovations, 57 days, 3 hours and 21 minutes
2008 Gitana 13, 43 days and 38 minutes

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