• Otter Views: Trans Pac Siren Song

    by Tom Stevens

    New materials and technologies often reach the mainstream via military research labs, validating German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s gloomy maxim that “war is the father of all.”

    But while the military-industrial complex gets first crack at goodies like Kevlar, high-impact plastics and rip-stop nylon, most of these eventually trickle out to the civilian world. There they are happily plucked up by a different army: action sports enthusiasts.

    Plastic resins, carbon fibers and foam bonding pioneered for warplane assembly made modern surfing, cycling and skiing possible. Similarly, military survival research begat the all-weather fabrics and high performance gear that enable sport divers to plumb Antarctic depths and mountaineers to summit Everest.

    There are drawbacks. Survival gear has gotten so good that Everest now hosts amateur climbers whose ineptitude alarms veteran mountaineers. Likewise, graybeard surfers grumble about the crowding caused first by the invention of the skeg, then by the balsa board; then the foam board, the wet suit and the leash; then by Annette Funicello and the Beach Boys; then by the short board, the boogie board, the tri-fin, and so on.

    The mainstreaming of new sporting technology expands the pool of participants, manufacturers, retailers and media outlets. That’s good for business. But it also forces trendsetters to keep pushing the outer edge outward. Last year’s “extreme adventure” is this year’s norm and next year’s passé.

    As an example, Tuesday’s Monterey Herald reported that 15 crews have signed up for something called the “Great Pacific Race.” At one time, clipper ships might have represented the cutting edge for such an event, then racing yachts, then hydrofoils or cigarette boats. But those were yesterday’s ocean races.

    Technology has now produced a rowboat able to cross the Pacific with such reliability and panache that it has fostered its own race. The Herald reports that 38 solo and team rowers from seven countries have paid $12,000 each to enter. Departing from Monterey in June of 2014, they plan to row 2,100 miles to Hawaii, trailed by support craft. It is estimated four-person crews will need a month for the crossing; solo rowers , 100 days. That makes Alaska’s grueling Iditarod look like puppy play.

    As a former islander, I’ve seen the trans-Pacific siren song enchant adventurers  young and old, rich and poor. When I was a kid in the 1950s, it was racing yachts. I remember my parents waking my brother and me in the middle of the night for the drive to the Diamond Head lighthouse overlook. There we would see spotlights illuminate the first “Trans Pac” boat from California to cross the finish line.

    In the early 1980s on Maui, I drove to Kahului Harbor one morning to interview a gaunt, sun-blistered, water-logged, brine-pickled San Diego guy who had just made a solo Pacific crossing in a kayak. A kite sail had let the trades pull him most of the way, but near the end he had to dig in and paddle upwind. He had a satellite position locator but no support boat, and his navigation was excellent. A few degrees off, and he would have zipped past Hawaii to a watery doom.

    At around the same time, two Maui friends decided to attempt the first Trans-Pac crossing in a racing catamaran. One was a young islander, the other a transplanted German baker in his 50s. I interviewed them before they shipped their Hobie Cat to the starting point in Long Beach. They set out from there and vanished in two days.

    Another ocean adventurer lost at sea during my time on Maui was a French nobleman who had married into island surfing royalty. Baron Arnaud de Rochnay’s dream was to windsurf 100 miles from China to Taiwan to promote international goodwill. He set out from mainland China in November, 1984, and disappeared forever.

    In the late 1900s and early 2000s, bionic distance rowers started showing up in Hawaii. They had lightweight, high-tech, rollover rowboats that looked like seagoing survival pods. These solo rowers started from the West Coast, but Hawaii was just a pit stop. They reefed their oars and pulled in for some R&R, then rowed off toward Tahiti or Australia.

    One such super-rower is Roz Savage, the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. The Herald reports she will be a consultant for the 2014 Great Pacific Race. It is hard to imagine anyone more qualified, lest that be race organizer Chris Martin. He reportedly crewed on a record-setting British team that rowed across the icy North Pacific. That voyage took six months.

    As I write this, 30-knot gusts are churning Monterey Bay into a maelstrom of spray, froth and heaving whitecaps. You can row through that if you want. I’ll cheer heartily from land.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 24, 2013

    Topics: Otter Views

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