As I arrived at the docks to take a few photos of offshore sailor Jim Sullivan and his boat Elusive Spirit for this story, I heard the urgent clanging of shackles and halyards banging on masts – a specific rhythm only heard when high-winds shake the harbor.
It was blowing over 25 knots, bowlines were stretching and straining to hold boats in their slips and I caught my hat as I stepped from the car. Walking towards the gate, feeling the substantial pressure of the breeze, I thought, “this is nothing compared to what Jim is sure to see during an 8,000-mile sail to the Philippines.”
But Sullivan is no novice, and when the winds come up it won’t be unfamiliar. It was over 10 years ago, but Sullivan has vivid memories of his past adventures in the merciless open ocean when he was caught in a typhoon and eventually rescued at sea. He hesitates to mention it because he says, “I don’t want people to think that’s what sailing is.”
For years, in a boat virtually identical to Elusive Spirit, Sullivan had been cruising around the South Pacific until he was caught in a storm of biblical proportions near Guam. During the blow his little boat got fully rolled over three times, then later ran over a log that punctured a hole in the bow where it began taking on water. In the calamity, with winds blowing well over 100 knots, he set off his emergency beacon.
Although he later gained control of the situation, help was on the way. An empty car-carrier ship arrived and Sullivan opened a through-hull to let the boat sink as the crew plucked he and his dog from the catastrophic scene. Shaken but not deterred, Sullivan ended up in Guam where he remained for a few years and eventually returned to Southern California due to medical problems he was experiencing.
Like many sailors who arrive back to land without their boats, Sullivan wanted to return to the ocean and close the chapter properly. Not long after being in the U.S. he serendipitously found the same make and model of boat, a 30-foot Cal230 (only 200 were made) and began a three-year-long project of reinforcing and strengthening her for a non-stop, engineless voyage to the Philippines that he’s dubbed the “XPAC 8000.” He’ll leave the docks of Marina del Rey on March 4.
“I started looking at the charts and looking at [the history of] old Spanish galleon ships and I realized what a cool route that is,” said Sullivan of his decision to sail to the Philippines. “I did some research and it seems the last time a boat did this route non-stop and without an engine is the 1700s.”
But this time the skipper would make the boat bulletproof. In the past three years, with many thousands of dollars invested, he has transformed a simple cruising boat, built in 1968, into a hearty blue water beast.
Sullivan has poured over every inch of the boat seeking out areas of weakness and potential failure. He has added bulkheads, removed windows, replaced the mast, strengthened the rigging, added cohesion to deck joints and reinforced structural support all throughout the boat.
There are strategically placed handles and grab-ons everywhere you look for getting around safely and there doesn’t seem to be any area that hasn’t been thoughtfully considered. It’s clear that Sullivan vividly remembers what worked, or moreover, what didn’t work in his last voyage on essentially the same boat.
“When you walk on the deck, it feels like a cement boat,” says Sullivan. “I learned a lot out there the last time and I’ve put it to good use.”
The journey is estimated to take around two and a half months and the skipper says he will likely make the voyage alone unless someone comes along that’s the right fit. The Elusive Spirit will sail north to 12 degrees, passing south of Hawaii, north of the Marshall Islands, south of Guam and onto the Phillipines.
In addition to the adventure aspect, Sullivan is also sailing for a cause. He has forged an association with Ric O’Barry, a famous and outspoken dolphin activist, who was the original dolphin trainer on the TV series “Flipper” and was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove” and founded The Dolphin Project. The fundraising effort is called Pennies for Life and for every mile Sullivan sails, donors can pledge a penny that will go directly to this organization that fights for the protection and humane treatment of dolphins around the world and also to Earth Island Institute, which works to protect the environment.
“You have to show up, be there, and act,” says Sullivan defining his attitude towards the expedition. “If you don’t make it – that’s okay – as long as you tried.”
Once Sullivan arrives on the shores of the Philippines he will begin a job he has secured, marry a woman who resides there and hopefully, feel the contentment of a goal fulfilled.
The Del Rey Yacht Club in Marina del Rey is hosting the XPAC 8000 departure on March 4 between 10 a.m. and noon, where attendees can meet O’Barry and board the Elusive Spirit before it casts off.
For more information on the XPAC 8000, www.thedeepradioshow.com.