At the very end of the gangway, four of the nine crewmembers were joking and casually making preparations for the daysail that lay ahead. The lighthearted young crew walked the long, graceful lines of skipper/owner Chris Slagerman’s Choate 68, Cheetah, performing a variety of small, yet essential tasks to insure a successful afternoon of racing practice.
The sleek racer from Marina del Rey that just recently competed in the Cal Cup, along with a slew of other sleds of the same pedigree, will soon be crossing the Pacific Ocean in the Transpacific Yacht Race, a 2,225-mile sprint across the Pacific from Los Angeles to the shores of Hawaii.
None of Slagerman’s crew has done the race before, including Slagerman himself, but there were no signs of apprehension as the team of nine taxied through the main channel huddled around the skipper, who was speaking of the agenda for the day — man overboard drills and spinnaker sets.
They all discussed proper procedure in the event of a deadly error in judgment or random accident that could send any one of them into the cold and inhospitable open ocean.
As Cheetah glided out of the north entrance toward Malibu, the crew raised her sails under typical Southern California summer conditions — sunny skies with a light, building breeze.
The men on board, none past their early 40s, were jovial and excited, clearly charged with the reality that they would soon be in eight-foot-high Pacific rollers, 1,000 miles from civilization, taking part in a storied race that dates back to the early 1900s.
Slagerman was calm at the helm as the boat headed out towards open water. Ten knots of breeze pushed the custom-built racer along at six or seven knots as she headed upwind, easily pushing through the flat water of Santa Monica Bay.
Moments later, the faint sound of a splash echoed in everyone’s ears. Without any warning, Slagerman leapt from his position at the helm into the ocean and watched as his crew handled a man overboard situation as they sometimes occur — without a skipper.
Watch captain Gimmy Tranquillo immediately assumed command and grabbed the wheel. The surprised crew scuffled to their positions to effectively turn the boat around as fast as they could under sail and at the same time keep track of where their skipper was floating. After two passes they hauled a smiling Slagerman onto the swim step.
“I forgot everything I ever knew,” said a grinning Tranquillo of the sneak attack. The crew talked openly of what needed changing and imagined a similar situation in an open ocean setting at night.
While Cheetah’s team was upbeat and excited about the ensuing journey, the reality of a trip like this is that it can be a difficult, grueling trek.
The first leg is often very cold and no crewmember will get a full night’s sleep for the entire nine days they hope it will take.
There will be sail changes and spinnaker take-downs and/or sets in the middle of the night, and if and when the nasty violent Pacific squalls rear their heads, Cheetah will not only endure them, the crew will hunt them down.
“We’re excited about it,” said Slagerman of the squall hunting. “I’m sure it’s going to be challenging to do it right.”
Weather routing is the key to winning Transpac and Cheetah is fully equipped with the latest programs to track weather and assess whether or not the boat is performing to its maximum potential.
Although his boat is older compared to some of the competition and his crew is inexperienced in this race, Slagerman still looks to be more than competitive.
“We want to win,” he said. “We want to do everything we can with all the people and the boat that we have. I bought new spinnakers, an oversized pole to make the boat go faster downwind. We’re really excited to have a great time.”
With that in mind, he is quick to point out that, ultimately, his reason for doing Transpac, like that of so many others, is to undergo a one-of-a-kind experience.
“My purpose for doing Transpac is just to do it — to sail to Hawaii,” Slagerman said. “The race is a grand opportunity to do it with a bunch of boats and have good time.”