Stan Honey’s career is unrivalled: from breaking records on the water in some of the world's toughest offshores, to technical innovations of it. Sean McNeill chats to the smartest man in yachting
Stan Honey’s first ever offshore race set the tone for his career. Then a lean and mean 14-year-old racing Lasers out of the Los Angeles Yacht Club, Honey already had an interest in all things technical.In 1969 Stan Honey had the opportunity to go yacht racing, and took on the dual roles of navigator and bowman on his offshore debut, not only earning his place on the boat, but taking a seat at the adults’ table.
“It was an absolutely riveting experience,” recalls Honey. “The thing I found most engaging was the ability to compete against – but mostly sail on a team with – grown-ups. There were boat owners such as George Griffith (who conceived the Cal 40 design) and Al Martin (a Los Angeles architect) who, if a kid wanted responsibility, let him have it. I expressed an interest in the bow and navigation, and they let me run with it.”
More than 50 years ago navigators didn’t just hop aboard a boat, plug in the waypoints on the computer and let the routing algorithms take over. They needed to know how to use a sextant and dead-reckon. Navigation before the digital age wasn’t easy. The young Stan Honey, however, embraced the challenge.
“For a kid, that was incredible. It’s what committed me to the sport for life, that experience of responsibility and a set of skills respected by grown-ups,” Honey says.
Now aged 67, Stan Honey is one of ocean racing’s most famed navigators and also a highly accomplished engineer. His achievements in both racing and technical fields have earned him multiple accolades, including a place in three US halls of fame – the National Sailing Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Honey holds 30 patents (eight in navigational system design, and 22 in sports television enhancements). He has won the Trophée Jules Verne, which earned him the Rolex Yachtsman of the Year in 2010, and the Volvo Ocean Race in 2005/06. He navigated Comanche’s record-smashing transatlantic in 2016 – famously hooking Jim Clark’s 100-footer into a single weather system for the entire crossing to take 27 hours off the previous time. Comanche also set a 24-hour monohull record run of 618 nautical miles, which stands today. He’s navigated 24 races from California to Hawaii and won class or line honours 12 times. Since 1992 he has navigated yachts to set 22 sailing records, several of which have been superseded… by him.
“He’s really smart, it’s why I enjoy working with him,” said Ken Milnes, one of Honey’s closest colleagues and friends, who’s been by his side through many inventions over the past 40 years. “In college, I went to Berkeley and Stan went to Yale. I worked very hard at Berkeley, studied all the time. Stan told me that while he was at Yale, he was busy with the sailing team and would cram for finals and ace them every time. I thought, ‘Damnit, that’s not fair!’ He really is a great man.”
Stan Honey graduated from Yale in 1978 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and Applied Science, and later went on to earn his Master of Science in Electrical Engineering (MSEE) from Stanford. Honey applied his navigational and engineering skills to develop technological solutions, both for the public and more secretive projects.
From 1978 to 1983, Honey worked as a research engineer at the Stanford Research Institute. SRI was where clients such as the US military turned for help solving unsolvable problems. Honey led projects in over-the-horizon radar, underwater sensors, radio location systems, and others that are still classified.
“I’ve always had technical interests, whether in radio or electronics, and I’m predisposed towards solving problems that are hard. That’s what interested me in navigation as a kid, it was hard,” Honey says.
Along with Milnes and Alan Philips (another colleague met at SRI), the trio co-founded Etak, the company that developed the first in-car navigation system, with funding from Nolan Bushnell, who founded video game company Atari and also owned the 67ft sled Charley, which Honey navigated to line honours in the 1983 Transpac Race.
“When we founded Etak we spent a month just deciding what to do,” says Milnes. “We had three or four ideas, and finally decided that car navigation was the thing to try. We were young and fearless and dug in, solving one problem after another. Eventually we had a product that went to market.”
The system was launched to great acclaim in 1985. Its innovative ‘heads up’ display was based on principles used by ancient Polynesian sailors to navigate (Etak is a Polynesian term) but set a precedent for how navigation systems in cars and smartphones are used today.
As well as technical success, a feature of Honey’s engineering career is that he has worked with many of the same people over many different projects. “Stan has taught me to be honest and upfront with people, don’t pass the buck. Solve the problem and you’re in good graces,” Milnes says. “Honesty is really important to him. He’s not going to BS you.”
In 1989 Etak was acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp group for an estimated $35 million and Honey served as executive vice-president for technology (worldwide), reporting directly to Murdoch. There he conceived the controversial FoxTrax hockey puck, which helped television viewers follow the puck in fast moving ice hockey games by illuminating it on screen.
Milnes and Honey paired back up after Honey had founded Sportvision, which worked with professional sports leagues to develop more pioneering features for television, such as the yellow ‘1st down line’ on NFL broadcasts and K-Zone graphics that track pitches in baseball. Later, Honey and Milnes famously developed the graphics system LiveLine, which was used in the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco, and 2016 in Bermuda, which revolutionised the viewing experience by showing information such as course boundaries and laylines. Suddenly, non-sailors could understand who was ahead, regardless of the camera angle.
“When you look at it on screen, it’s so understandable and simple that you think, ‘Oh, that’s easy.’ But the technology behind it is immensely complicated. It’s a quantum leap past anything the NFL does,” America’s Cup winner and commentator Gary Jobson said in 2013.
Besides being a standout navigator on many of the world’s most technically advanced boats, Honey and his wife Sally have also raced their Cal 40 Illusion to great success in both crewed and short-handed races.
The couple first met when Stan Honey was at Yale and Sally was working for North Sails in Connecticut. By that point Sally was already a two-time US Yachtswoman of the Year for outstanding results in the high-performance 505 one-design, including back-to-back Bermuda Race Week wins, and 1st at the 1974 Canadian Olympic Regatta at Kingston.
In 1977, however, Sally needed help repairing her car and heard from a mutual friend about Stan and his ability to fix just about anything. Sally had her car towed to Yale Corinthian Yacht Club, where Stan was living, and he fixed it for free. The two have been together since.
“That’s how we met. We moved to California in the late ’70s and started sailing 505s together, doing a bunch of Pacific Championships,” says Sally.
“Stan’s taught me a lot about how to get along with a crew in a boat. It takes a while, especially when you have a personal relationship and you’re racing together. You have to treat the other person with respect and enjoy it without blaming the other when something goes wrong. And something always goes wrong.”
The Honeys bought Illusion in 1988 after more than a decade racing the ‘five-oh’, wanting something a little less physical. “We bought Illusion as a cruising boat. But somehow, we couldn’t stop racing,” says Sally.
They found the Cal 40 at a boatyard in Santa Cruz, California, but it was in rough shape. It had been sitting in the yard for a number of years and had bullet holes in the hull. But two years after purchasing Illusion and going through a full re-fit, the Honeys set off on their first double-handed race to Hawaii, which resulted in a 2nd-place finish in class.
Their racing career with Illusion is studded with victories, either single-, double-handed or crewed. Among the highlights are the 1994 Singlehanded Transpac Race (San Francisco to Hawaii), where Stan throttled the fleet, setting a new monohull race record of 11 days, 10 hours and 52 minutes across the 2,120-mile course.
“Underscoring this incredible accomplishment was the fact that more than 100 Cal 40 efforts have been mounted in various crewed Transpacs dating back to the 1960s, and Stan beat all of them… single-handed!” noted author Robby Robinson in his history of the Singlehanded Transpac Race.
Then there was the 1996 Pacific Cup, from San Francisco to Kaneohe, Hawaii. Racing double-handed, Stan Honey and Sally won class and overall honours with a corrected time of 6 days and 4 hours for the 2,070-mile course. “We sailed really hard in that race; I think we gybed 15 times one night. We pushed really hard and won overall. That was fun,” says Sally.
The Cal 40 is a legendary West Coast design that was first launched in 1963 (see page 134). One of the design features that made it stand out was the spade rudder separated from the keel. Legendary America’s Cup designer Olin Stephens wouldn’t incorporate that feature in his boats until Intrepid in 1967. As Stan points out, the Cal 40 has nice manners.
“It steers terrifically under autopilot,” says Stan. “That results in part from the fact that the Cal 40 doesn’t have a wide stern, and so doesn’t try to turn whenever it heels or rolls. Cal 40s are legendary in their ability to carry sail downwind. In all of our Hawaii races, short-handed or crewed, we’ve never had to douse the kite for control, and the autopilot could steer at any time with the kite up.”
The Honeys have also had an adventurous time cruising with Illusion. There were back-to-back summers in the Pacific Northwest, cruising Desolation Sound and around Glacier Bay. Racers at heart, they’d dipped their toes in the cruising world and found it to their liking.
In 2014 they finally committed to the cruising life. They sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the mouth of San Francisco Bay and turned left, heading south down the California coast, making some 15 stops on their way to San Diego, with friends everywhere to catch up with. They continued on to the Sea of Cortez and the Gold Coast of Mexico, where they wound up spending two years.
“One of my favourite places in the Sea of Cortez is Isla Isabel,” says Sally. “It’s called the Galapagos of Mexico. It has zillions of Blue-footed boobies, frigate birds and iguanas, so many that it’s hard to walk around without stepping on them. They don’t worry about you at all because there are no predators.”
A year was spent cruising Central America to Panama, and another in the Western Caribbean including stops in Boco del Toro, the San Blas Islands, Providencia, Grand Cayman, Cuba and finally Key West. Stan refers to their cruising as ‘commuter cruising’; they’d leave the boat wherever they landed and return home to racing or work commitments before resuming their cruising itinerary.
“Sally and I were not sure that we’d enjoy cruising, but we’ve had a terrific time,” says Stan. “Part of the reason is that cruising is stress-free in a boat that we’ve raced so much double-handed. The cruising community that we’ve run across thinks that we’re nuts because we’re delighted to sail in lots of breeze, even upwind.”
Finally, it was up the East Coast of the US to Newport, Rhode Island, and a date with one more ocean race. “We were on our way to New England to resume old habits and race in the 2020 Newport Bermuda Race,” he recalls.
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The final hurrah
Although the 2020 Bermuda Race was postponed due to the Covid pandemic, they based Illusion in Newport and spent two summers cruising the pine scents of Maine.
The saying goes that you’re only as good as your last race. In that regard, Stan and Sally Honey retire Illusion from competitive racing where Michael Jordan left basketball, on top of the sport. Although they’ll dabble in racing when the opportunity is right, they are now committed to a new endeavour, motorboat cruising. “We’re going to the dark side,” jokes Sally.
The Honeys won’t have their beloved Cal 40 to cruise, but they won’t be far away from George Griffith’s breakthrough creation. Illusion has been sold to Stan’s nephew, and, while Griffith passed away in 2012, the Honeys are talking with his daughter, Mary, about purchasing his custom powerboat, Sarissa. Measuring 48ft in length, 11ft in beam and weighing 5.4 tonnes, it’s a fast, lightweight, trailerable cruiser, perfect for their desires to revisit old locations, such as Glacier Bay.
The Honeys won their swansong event on Illusion, the 52nd Newport Bermuda Race, in June this year, taking 1st in not only their class but also the coveted St David’s Lighthouse Trophy for racer/cruisers. Illusion posted a decisive victory of more than 2 hours on corrected time. Sally Honey said it was the perfect ending to an illustrious, 33-year run with the boat.
“The conditions were perfect for our boat, and we had a pretty good navigator on board,” says Sally. “Stan chose a really good course and the conditions were just what the boat loves, heavy-air reaching. A lot. Really, it was a dream trip, fabulous. I wouldn’t change anything.”
The Honeys are noted for their ability to lure fantastic sailors into their crew and this year’s Bermuda Race was no different. Racing with 1984 Olympic Gold medallist Carl Buchan, fellow Cal 40 owner Don Jesberg and Jonathan ‘Bird’ Livingston as bowman, their collective talent was on par with, if not dwarfing, the top professional crews in the race.
For Buchan, the soft-spoken, intently focused helmsman, the Bermuda Race was his second offshore race and first major race with the Honeys. He’d raced against them many times in the 505, but never with them. “Stan brings a lot to the table,” says Buchan, “but watching Stan and Sally work the boat, the two of them, having sailed the boat as long as they have, are so in tune with it and what is needed. I could sit there and watch them sail the boat all day.”
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