Risk worth the reward

Sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Canada to Maui in the middle of summer can be an exhilarating, yet daring voyage.

As high-pressure systems begin to develop over the region and form what is known as the Pacific High, the quickest route to the island becomes veritably windless and can strand boats for days, even weeks.

Competitors in this month’s Vic-Maui International Yacht Race all chose slightly different routes, including the most dangerous: splitting the high.

“If you split the high you’re either going to be a hero or you’re going to be dead last,” said John Mortimer of Vancouver, British Columbia, on Friday. “We split it, and it worked.”

Despite being rated the second slowest boat in the field, Mortimer’s 47-foot vessel String Theory finished second overall in the race that began July 3 and was completed last week. Peter Salusbury’s Longboard from the same region took first overall, while John Kerrigan’s New Haven out of Bainbridge Island, Wash., finished third overall.

“We can’t believe how well we did,” Mortimer said. “We didn’t enter the race thinking we were going to be on the podium at all.”

Mortimer and his crew of eight finished well behind the other two boats and took silver because of their corrected time. Corrected time is the handicap rating for each yacht, based on design, weight and performance.

Longboard was rated the fastest boat in the fleet of competitors.

“You’re always pleasantly surprised with finishing first,” Salusbury said Saturday. “You don’t fully know how you’re doing and you don’t want to get overconfident. . . . It really wasn’t over until the last couple days.”

While the race over 2,308 nautical miles took about two weeks to complete, Salusbury and his crew of five could never breathe easy until crossing the finish line, ahead of second-to-finish New Haven.

“They were never really far away,” Salusbury said of New Haven. “We owed them eight hours of corrected time so we had to be the first boat home in order to have any success.”

Longboard was the first Canadian boat to finish and claimed four trophies, while New Haven was the first American boat to cross.

“We wanted to win the whole works, but it’s just the way the race played out and conditions,” said Kerrigan, who had seven crew members with him. “Longboard was able to get away in the last two or three days, where the wind conditions were not favorable for our boat but were for his. But it was a really good battle.”

Each of the top three boats took slightly different routes, with Salusbury’s crew sailing south and about 100 miles farther than the others.

Longboard was specially built for Hawaii waters and winds, and requires constant wind pressure to excel, Salusbury said.

“Our strategy is to go wherever the wind is and work out a lead from there so we had options some of the others didn’t,” he said.

The small speedy boat stayed ahead of New Haven throughout the race, as well as tropical system Wali.

“Everyone I talked to that went through the storm said it was quite an experience for them,” Salusbury said. “We were just plain lucky we got in before the storm hit.”

Kerrigan, who was participating in his first Vic-Maui race, said, “It was an adventure and journey, for sure,” but added “before that 50-plus knot storm ran over the fleet.”

Mortimer’s crew was not so fortunate.

“We were hit pretty hard,” he said, adding that they battled the storm for about four hours and had to drop the main sail to keep the vessel under control. “During our last hour of coming into the finish line, we couldn’t see Maui. It’s just pitch black. The only part of land you could see was the hotel lights.”

Mortimer said a yacht in front of them had its mast completely break off due to the storm and it had to jury rig the boat to complete.

“It was absolutely incredible,” he said.

Kerrigan called the race the Mount Everest for sailors and plans to compete in it again. Mortimer said they, too, plan to compete again, hopefully with one of their missing crew members, who had to miss the race due to pancreatic cancer. He said the female member is recovering.

Salusbury captured his second overall win in the race – the previous was in 1980 with fellow crew member Stewart Jones.

“This year was special because we both wanted to come back and do a Maui race and have both of our sons on board,” he said. “It was great.”

* Chris Sugidono is at