Last month 22 boats passed under the Golden Gate Bridge bound for the shores of Kauai, Hawaii in the Single Handed Transpac race. Two of the skippers were from the Marina del Rey area, one of whom was sailing a 21-foot boat, the smallest in the fleet.
The boat, sailed by Jerome Sammarcelli, is what’s known as a Mini-Transat boat – a little bruiser, slightly longer than a family car, that’s designed to manage open ocean conditions. It was created for a contest called, yes, the Mini Transat, a race that crosses the Atlantic Ocean from France to Brazil.
Some of the most respected racers in the world have participated in the Mini-Transat. Ellen MacArthur, Michel Desjoyeaux, Sam Davies and other legendary sailors have cut their teeth and earned respect sailing the smallest boat in ocean racing. Sammarcelli’s mini is a Pogo 2 that his company, Open Sailing, builds in Long Beach and sells in Marina del Rey.
Sammarcelli, 37, has done some long distance sailing in the recent past but never a crossing this long. The trip is over 2,100 miles and took him two weeks to complete. He said he mostly slept in 45-minute increments and ate dehydrated food, but would do it again.
After an initial acclimation period that lasted about three days, where he confessed to keeping an eye on how far he was from Los Angeles in the event of a change of heart, Sammarcelli pushed through upwind conditions that gradually gave way to a wind direction that would allow him to fly a spinnaker and sail the boat in the way it likes to be sailed – off the wind.
“It’s always three days for me to get used to the new environment. After the third day, I felt okay. I was cooking properly, I was getting a lot more sleep, I reorganized the boat – things were better; it began to feel like home away from home.”
At this point Sammarcelli got into a rhythm and began the strategy/routine of negotiating open-ocean weather patterns. These types of contests are decided by a sailor’s (and their shore team’s) ability to find suitable air.
“I had a lot of friends advising me as to what to do and I read what [famed navigator] Stan Honey wrote about this race. It’s not rocket science but that said, you still want to do it right,” he said.
Although he began the race in a partial informational blackout, Sammarcelli sailed the first 1,000 miles second in his class and was fourth overall, but he admitted to making some tactical errors that sent him down the leader board towards the end of the race.
He battled back during the last 500 miles of the trip when he found the side-effect conditions from a hurricane situated near Acapulco, Mexico. Although he made amazing speeds during this time – 22 knots at one point – he also suffered some knockdowns and round-ups that can be dangerous.
“It was crazy; I’ve never seen waves like this – breaking waves in the middle of the ocean – very steep. It’s not like you can wait for the wave to push the boat and surf it. The wall was so steep you had to luff up and surf the wave down like an actual surfer.”
These conditions lasted for days and while Sammarcelli said it wasn’t stressful while he was up and driving, it was a bit when he had to sleep.
“Eventually you have to go to sleep and rely on the autopilot, but you still want to go fast,” he said. “This is when it’s a little scary.”
Sammarcelli said that the boat rounded up [editorial note: the boat gets overpowered and violently heads into the wind landing on its side] enough times during the trip that he essentially got used to it.
“I woke up so many times rounding up – it was not a big deal anymore. You’re on your side and everything’s falling – you don’t want to spend too much time like this, but you ease the main and keep going. You’re prepared for these things – it’s okay,” he explained. “If you’re inside, you go outside and hook yourself on, collect your thoughts for a few seconds and put the boat back on track. I never felt unsafe during these situations.”
Sammarcelli finished fourth in his class and ninth overall in a fleet of 21. Fellow Marina del Rey sailor Whitall Stokes finished second overall and first in his class.
One competitor didn’t finish because he had to be rescued at sea. Derk Wolmuth on the Vindo 40 Bela Bartok activated his EPIRB about 450 miles off the finish line due to a medical emergency – a staff infection. The boat was abandoned but later recovered and returned to Hawaii.
Sammarcelli is hopeful the next time he makes the trip that he will be part of a fleet of Pogo 2s that will be built in his own local manufacturing facility.