Two years ago, islanders Karl Haflinger and Stewart Putnam competed in the Pacific Cup sailing race between San Francisco and Hawaii, and came fourth by just 3 minutes in their division. Last month, the two tried again, only this time they claimed first place in their division by over 10 hours.
“We were ecstatic, really,” Haflinger said of the accomplishment. “It was just so great.”
The two men, who know each other from working together in the past, were joined by James Ianelli and Alan Johnson of Seattle and David Smullin of Bend, Oregon, to race Haflinger’s 35-foot sloop “Shearwater” in its second adventure across the Pacific.
Haflinger, who owns Sea State, a commercial fishing consultancy, and his wife Mary Nerini have lived on Vashon for about 21 years, and Putnam is a born-and-raised islander — Vashon High School class of 1985 — and both are lifelong sailors.
Haflinger grew up, according to Nerini, sailing “one of those big, beautiful wooden sailboats” with his father on Lake Erie before aquiring his own boat as an adult, and Putnam has been sailing on Puget Sound for the better part of 50 years.
“It’s difficult to say at what age I went from wading at the beach to being in a boat,” Putnam mused. “It was just a natural progression.”
But open-ocean racing is a different kettle of fish, even for veteran sailors.
The Pacific Cup is one of three major trans-Pacific sailing races from the West Coast of North America to Hawaii — the Transpac (from Los Angeles) and the Victoria (B.C.) to Maui being the other two. It is also the “newest,” having its inaugural year in 1980, and, if one is to believe its billing, it is the “fun” race, starting in San Francisco and ending at the Kaneohe Yacht Club on the north coast of Oahu. The race covers a little more than 2,000 miles of open ocean, though the actual distance varies from boat to boat, and race to race, depending on routes taken and wind conditions. The race has been finished in anywhere from a record-breaking six days to a more leisurely 19. Race organizers say that average completion time, in the absence of extreme conditions, is about 10 to 14 days.
To race, crews must have ocean racing experience, and the boats must be handicapped via the Performance Handicap Racing Fleet (PHRF) or Offshore Racing Rule (ORR). The handicap, or rating, is based on a boat’s potential/predicted speed relative to a theoretical boat with a rating of zero and is what determines the division groupings of the Pac Cup, as it’s commonly known. Each division is given it’s own start day/time, with starts across the entire field of 70 boats taking place over a week, so that all of the boats should, all things being equal, finish around the same time. This year, the race starts took place the week of July 9.
Of course, all things are never equal, when it comes to weather on different days, times and in different places, as it is up to each crew to find the wind — and not everyone makes the same choices.
“The boats that started two days before us had ferrocious winds,” Shearwater’s skipper, Haflinger, said. “But after a clean start, we lost it. It took us four days just to get 350 miles out. The wind was just gone.”
Putnam compared it to trying to find the holes in invisible Swiss cheese.
“When the data says that the weather, the wind, is going to look like Swiss cheese … splotchy, with some here, some there, do you believe in the splotches or not?” He explained about trying to make route decisions. “And we had low confidence in doing that. We went south, most of the fleet went north. But you know, you just have to do your best all the time. When you goof up, you stand up and keep going.”
And keep going is what the Shearwater and her crew Haflinger referred to as “as bunch of old guys hoping to make it to Hawaii, and Alan” (Johnson, the youngest of the crew at 30 years old and an experienced ocean-racing crewman) did. And as the patchy, low-wind conditions eventually gave way to bigger wind and waves, Johnson’s racing experience and fearlessness helped the Shearwater’s crew to step out of its comfort zone and into first place in its division, finishing with an official time of 11 days, three hours and 29 minutes. This year, the fastest boats finished in a little over nine days; the slowest took 19.
“He really pushed us to put up a little more sail, a little more often,” Putnam said of Johnson.
The Pac Cup is an entirely downwind race, which is part of the appeal of the trans-Pacific races in general: racing downwind means the boats will use their spinnakers (large, billowy, lightweight sails that typically fly in front of the boat, almost like a giant parachute) and “fly.” Particularly as the boats get closer to the islands and meet the warm and ever-present trade winds.
“After the fourth place two years ago, we really felt we could have done better,” Haflinger said. “This year, we came in loaded for bear and had sails for every condition … and we went really fast (after the slow start). We were better drivers, I think, in the later stages, since we beat everyone we started with.”
Logistics for a race like this included preparing meals that could be frozen and kept on dry ice for the crew of five for 10 days, and on-deck watches that were limited to four hours at a time.
“We actually finished with some meals still in the cooler,” Haflinger said. “We managed to catch a tuna and a mahi-mahi along the way.”
Aside from the divisional win, Haflinger’s best — and worst — memories of the race come from his night watches.
“When the moon and the stars were out, it was magical,” he explained. “We’re moving fast, you could see squalls all around but not coming at us … just incredible. But when it wasn’t clear and the moon wasn’t up, there was no light, and then a squall would slam into us … that was the worst.”
Haflinger added that the crew did not have any “scary” incidents and that the only equipment drama it experienced was that one sail “blew up — shredded into ribbons” and a few lines broke. But both men said that especially after competing previously, they were well prepared with “lots of spares” this time around.
Putnam’s worst memory will be that of getting sick shortly before the race and having to experience the entire event while ill.
“It would have been nice to have been on the podium and not been worried about coughing up phlegm on everyone,” he said. “But the best part was just being out at sea with the dolphins and rainbows … sailing across the Pacific with three other people who worked professional fisheries for many years was a wonderful way to learn and feel connected to the sea. The amount of knowledge on that boat was amazing, and that’s what was really fun about sailing with Karl and his crew.”
As to the future of this victorious Shearwater crew, Haflinger said while he would be happy to crew on a boat for another Pac Cup or similiar race, he would not use his own boat again, having done it twice now.
“It’s literally 1,000 hours of preparation that goes into getting a boat ready for something like this,” he said. “It’s just so much work. And the logistics are tough, especially from up here in the Northwest.”
The Shearwater is now being shipped from Hawaii and then trailered back up to Seattle before Haflinger can bring the green-hulled beauty back to Vashon.
Putnam would happily do it all again.
“If you’re putting up the sails, and nothing is broken, things are good.”