The History of the Pacific Cup
by Louis Ickler
with additions by Michael Moradzadeh
Early Races: Ballena Bay to Nawiliwili
In January of 1979, Hal Nelson approached Ballena Bay Yacht Club Commodore Vytas Pazemenas with the idea of starting a low-key, fun race for fully-crewed boats from San Francisco to Hawaii. The first single-handed race to Hawaii had just been successfully completed the previous summer, and the club had a nucleus of members interested in ocean racing, so the timing appeared right.
Berthing in the islands was tight, but a workable finish location seemed to be Nawiliwili on the southeast corner of Kauai. With the support of a small but enthusiastic group of volunteers from the Nawiliwili Yacht Club a finish line was found. It was a small group of six who put the race together originally, but interest increased rapidly, and more volunteers showed up.
40 yachts started the first Pacific Cup beginning June 15, 1980. This was one of our roughest races to Hawaii: only 32 of the boats finished. The three Santana 35s in the race all had damage to their rudders during the first several days. Friendship was picked up by a Navy ship andRaccoon Straights returned to San Francisco with water pouring in a cracked rudder bearing, leaving Wild Hair the only Santana to finish in Hawaii.
The 63-foot yawl Corsair retired from the race and was lost on a shoal on her way back. After the rough weather of the first few days, the winds diminished and only Merlin, the 67-foot Lee Custom, had the speed to outrun the high-pressure area, which moved down on the rest of the fleet. She reached Nawiliwili more than four days ahead of the rest of the fleet, to win first-to-finish as well as first-on-corrected-timing.
In 1982, the competition intensified among the big boats, although the number of boats racing under the International Ocean Racing (IOR) rule had declined to eight boats from 13 in 1980. Merlin was there again and beat her previous record by 1 hour and 28 minutes in elapsed time but was only able to place sixth on corrected time. The race was won by Temptress, a Swede 55, in the PHRF division and overall, withZamazaan winning the IOR division.
In 1984 Merlin again beat her old record and set a new record in elapsed time for the Pacific Cup of 9 days, 7 hours and 49 minutes. The winners on corrected time were Surefire in the IOR division and Magic Carpet in PHRF. In the newly added doublehanded division, Light’n Upwon, arriving only six hours behind Magic Carpet.
In 1986 Merlin again set a new elapsed time record of 8 days, 14 hours, 53 minutes, followed by Swiftsure III only 40 minutes later, andCharley less than 6 hours later. Magic Carpet won on corrected time in 11 days, 9 hours while Sweet Okole won the IOR division.
Reorganization: PCYC is started, and a new finish is found
By the end of the 1986 race the Pacific Cup was well established. The attraction of the Pacific Cup as a race for cruisers as well as racers, and as the only offshore race out of San Francisco, made it increasingly popular. However, the Ballena Bay Yacht Club was finding it more difficult to administer what was turning into a major event with volunteer help - especially in a club with a number of competing activities.
The 1986 race had taxed the facilities of the Nawiliwili harbor as well, and a number of sailors had begun to talk about some other finishing point in Hawaii. It began to look as if the race might fade away unless someone could organize a committed group to keep it going. At this point George Barrett got involved, and on August 4, 1987, he assembled a number of sailors, including the author of this article, in an organizational meeting at St. Francis Yacht Club. With the support of some leading participants from prior races and the Ballena Bay Yacht Club, he drafted the Articles of Incorporation for a new club. The Pacific Cup Yacht Club, whose function would be to take over the organization of the race, was born.
One of the first items of business was the choice of a new finishing line. Talks with Kaneohe Yacht Club, one of the three principal clubs on Oahu that had handled the finish of the Transpac race from Los Angeles, led to the important and happy choice of Kaneohe as the new finishing line.
George R. Barrett had sailed the race as the chartering skipper of Charley, a Holland 67, which won third place in 1986. Although he looked forward eagerly to doing the 1988 race, his health began to deteriorate, and when the boat he wanted to charter was committed to another race, he ran the race from the shore. He ran it well. It was George that made the 1988 race the first Pac Cup with a major sponsor, West Marine, the first to be governed by a yacht club set up solely for the purpose of running this race, and the first to have Kaneohe Bay as a destination. George died in the fall of 1988, but the Pacific Cup continues as a living memorial to him.
In 1988 winds were lighter than usual at 15 to 22 knots, and the seas were smooth. With the Pacific high pressure stretched out in an east-west oval, boats that started out on the rhumb line soon began to fear that they were too close to the high, and by fourth day most boats had turned more to the south. The winner on corrected time was Saraband, a Westsail 32 that had sailed a consistent pace for 14 days, 17 hours elapsed time, an amazing feat in relatively light winds. Second and third places went to the veteran boats Wild Goose and Magic Carpet, while Kathmandu took first in IOR after her competition got caught too far north and suffered from light winds.
Hitting our Stride
The 1990 race had generally nice conditions except for light wind the first few days. We had a number of firsts, such as staggered starts over a four-day period and a record number of entries that peaked at 53 with 45 actually crossing the starting line. The idea of using staggered starts was to have most of the fleet sailing in the same weather conditions and for all entrants to finish within a few days of each other. Hopefully this would result in a fairer, closer, and more fun race. All in all, the new format was a great success. Most entrants finished within three days of each other, and the first five boats overall represented all four crewed classes. In fact, the first three boats overall represented a complete range of sailboat types with first being an ultralight, second a medium displacement racer-cruiser, and third a heavy displacement cruiser. The first three boats overall in order of finish were Oaxaca (Santa Cruz 50), Heart of Gold (Schumacher 50) and Saraband (Westsail 32).
The 1992 race continued to grow: 46 boats starting and 43 finishing. The first start was windy and the next starts were very slow. Overall, the race was relatively fast. It proved to be a rhumb line race because the high was quite far north. Some boats successfully chose a great circle route. The two largest boats in the race (ultralight 70’s) were doublehanded. The smallest boat in the fleet, Team Bonzi, a Moore 24, did a sweep, taking both the doublehanded and the Pacific Cup trophy. Fleet second place went to Ghost, a Morgan 38 from Kaneohe.
The 1994 race saw records fall. First, an all-time high of 58 boats participated. Second, 52 finished, and third, Steve Rander’s Rage brokeMerlin’s long standing elapsed time record of 8 days, 11 hours and 1 minute by finishing it in 8 days, 7 hours and 13 minutes. Probably another first was a proposal of marriage during one morning’s roll call. The small boats dominated the corrected time standings, with Bill and Melinda Erkelen’s home-built Dogpatch 26, Moonshine, winning overall, Division B and the Double-handed class. Chimera, an Express 27, took second and the Olson 25, Siva, took third in the fleet.
The starting conditions for the 1996 Pacific Cup were a repeat of 1992. The first day saw the boats blasting away from the coast, while the next three divisions were wondering if they would ever make it past the Farallones. Conditions were right for Rage, which broke her own record of 8 days, 7 hours set in 1994 with a new record of 7 days 22 hours. Not only did the speed record fall, a record 60 boats made it to Kaneohe. Among them was Illusion, a tried-and-true California-to-Hawaii veteran Cal 40, sailed by Stan Honey and Sally Lindsay, who captured the overall corrected time honors and led a double-handed sweep of the fleet. The Moore 24 Kangaroo Court took second overall, followed by the Custom 27 Wildflower.
In 1998 the speed record was demolished by Roy Disney’s boat Pyewacket as she took more than a full day off the record, finishing in 6 days, 14 hours, and 23 minutes. Pacific Cup veteran Bob Nance won first overall on handicap in Water Pik.
The 2000 race was slow – so slow that several boats floated around the Farallones for three days in the early part of the race and 27 of the 80 boats entered did not finish within the time limit. The winner was Octavia, a Santa Cruz 50, with a remarkable elapsed time of 10 days, 12 ½ hours.
In 2002 the race was in more normal weather, with almost all the boats finishing within a few days of each other. Skip Allan on Wildflower, proving that experience (over 25 ocean passages) does count, not only won the double-handed division but also came in first overall.
In 2004 the start was more nerve-wracking. The day before the first start, the weather service issued gale warnings for the area of the Farallones, which proved overly pessimistic. The race was marked by uneventful weather after that, with the high filling in after the first two days, and making it a slow race. The overall winner was Winnetou, Division A was won by Ghost, the author’s Morgan 38 (18 years after her first Pacific Cup race) and Eyrie won doublehanded with an elapsed time of 14 days and 4 hours.
In 2006 the race was slow again. The position of the high, and to where it was moving, made it a guessing game. Most boats tried a course close to the rhumb line, but after the first few days changed their minds and tried to go south. It took 9 to 12 days for most of the boats to finish, and after 15 days there were still 9 boats that had not finished. First place went to Lightning, with an elapsed time of 9 days, 3 hours, 5 minutes. ET, with a resident naval architect on board, was second. In a tribute to the handicappers, four of the five crewed divisions had a boat in the top ten finishers. California Girl won the prize for the first boat to sail the one million miles of Pacific Cup.
2008 saw a return to near-capacity entry lists, with almost 70 entries, every monohull that entered starting, and every boat that started, finishing. Relatively benign weather kept most boats’ performance to a moderate average, except for Philippe Kahn’s Pegasus which set a new double-handed record of just over seven days, fifteen hours. Double-handed division one held the most drama, with Joby Easton onRainDrop winning division and the overall Pacific Cup, and Ed and Earlinda Polkenhorn, aboard Neptune’s Daughter, travelling rather slowly, but greeted at the docks by the entire fleet who took out time from the awards party to sing “Happy Birthday” to Earlinda. Second overall was Sleeping Dragon a Hobie 33, and third was Sapphire. We introduced several new trophies in 2008, including “Fastest Family Afloat” won by the Rasmussens of Sapphire, and the yacht club Team Trophy, won by Encinal Yacht Club.
2010: Strange Weather, Odd Courses. In a normal race year, skippers and navigators know that a predictable phenomenon called the Pacific High will form at about the time of the race. This offshore zone of high pressure has fine weather with very little breeze at its center. It’s the kind of weather you’d like to vacation in, and sailors whose courses take them too close will find themselves there for a prolonged period. Normally, however, the high is surrounded by clockwise winds that get stronger as you move away from the center. This leads most racers to seek an optimum course sailing in an arc south of the shortest distance to Hawaii, but designed to find strong enough wind to propel their boats at maximum speed.
Not this year. While a high-pressure zone appeared to form near its usual spot, another weather system well to the south shifted the traditional “race” winds well to the north. The few boats who adopted the traditional southerly route soon found themselves running out of “gas” and were forced to head back north just to keep moving. “You lied to us,” mock-complained one racer to the Pacific Cup commodore, who had spent much of the pre-race preparation time expounding on the virtues of a conservative southern course.
As a testament to the impact of weather information and routing software available to sailors, virtually all racers adopted their northerly courses early in the race, to one degree or another. Back on shore, race officials were startled to see, day after day, that the courses taken were all north of the “rhumb line,” a straight line on the map from start to finish, generally viewed as the northernmost sensible course. The final group of starters, the fastest boats in Division E, took the northerly plan to an extreme, in some cases sailing slightly away from Hawaii as they positioned themselves north for their drive to the finish line 2070 miles away.
IN THE END, Everybody made it safely to port, either at the finish, or turned back to try another day. At Kaneohe, all were smiling, as ever.