“What? Are you kidding me? That never happens!”
Such was the response from a sailing buddy when I told him I was joining the Rio 100 crew for the 800-mile Newport to Cabo race.
His reaction was certainly justified. While I’ve sailed off and on my whole life, my racing experience is limited to some fun times I had on an old 39-foot R-Boat back in the 1970s. So how did I come to be a walk-on to Rio, a 100-foot super maxi and the favored monohull to win?
Hold that thought and let me start with three things you must know about racing on a rocket like this. First, there is a world of difference sailing with a professional crew. It’s akin to a high school football player suiting up and playing in an NFL game. Second, it’s off-the-charts exhilarating to be ripping through the dark of night at 24 knots. Third, you’re almost always nanoseconds away from a catastrophe.
Rio 100 is a custom Bakewell-White specifically designed to win downhill races like the Transpac, Pacific Cup, and Newport to Cabo. It set the record for the Pacific Cup in 2016, won the prestigious Transpac Barn Door first to finish in 2015 despite breaking one of its rudders early on, won it again in 2017, and won the Merlin trophy in 2019.
The crew nicknames her “the aircraft carrier” for good reason. So beamy is the aft deck you could probably land a Harrier jet there. At 145 feet tall, the mast towers over anything in the harbor. Indeed, when bowman Ben Bardwell gets hoisted to the top to check things out, you can lose him in the fog. The main is so large it takes six guys on the grinders to raise it.
Because Rio 100 will often run two jibs plus a kite or reaching jib—plus the main, of course, and running backstays—there is a complicated plethora of lines on deck at most times. After five days of practice and three days of racing, I still only had a rudimentary idea of which sheet and line did what. Belowdecks, you can see straight down 100 feet from bow to stern. Aft of the galley I counted 14 pipe berths, but it was always dark—almost pitch black—and I may have missed some.
Surprisingly, the boat has a commercial kitchen-sized grill. While most maxi crews get a pouch of freeze-dried mystery and a cup of boiling water, we ate well on Rio 100. One night the crew even dined on grilled rib eyes.
Credit for the delicious nosh goes to Rio 100 owner Manouch Moshayedi, who enjoys cooking and preps many meals in advance at his home in Newport Beach. Onboard, Manouch is low key and keeps the atmosphere light with his keen sense of humor. An accomplished offshore racer, he takes turns on the helm but for the most part lets the hired guns run the show.
A while back, I had briefly met Manouch while looking for some dock space that he owned in Newport Beach. We maybe spent 20 minutes together checking out different dock configurations. Fast forward five years later, and knowing that the Cabo and Transpac races were approaching, I sent him a text asking if a spot may be available. He got back to me to say that all the crew spots were filled, but if I wanted to join them for a practice session to show up at the boat in San Pedro the weekend after next.
It had been five years since I had last seen or spoken with Manouch, and the first thing he said to me on the dock was, “Tell me again how I know you?” Nonetheless, after practice he was gracious enough to invite me to join them for the Cabo race as the “embedded journalist” and keeper of the GoPro, all of which underscores one of life’s tenets: 80% of success is just showing up.
Practice for the Cabo race began about six weeks out. Onboard were nine pros and a few amateurs who as far as I could tell were as accomplished as the pros. That practice weekend was followed by additional practices the three days leading up to the start. Several more pros joined for those days, including legendary offshore racers Bouwe Bekking–who has done eight Volvo Ocean Races and flew in from Denmark—and sailmaker Justin Ferris who flew in from New Zealand.
Both served as watch captains and were the alphas onboard. Both were very good leaders, with quiet, confident demeanors and never a raised voice. They didn’t have to, as the other pros were respectful of their knowledge and leadership and seemed intuitively to execute their decisions with unspoken word.
One thing that struck me about racing with pros is that they are just as enthusiastic to change sails at 3 a.m. as they are at 3 p.m. Nothing fazes them. The second night out, we were making a consistent 17 knots, but at 3:30 a.m., the call went out for all hands on deck and we changed from the kite to the R1 to see if we could squeeze out some more speed.
It was a good call—the boat speed picked up to 20 knots. Shortly after hoisting, Morgan Gutenkunst, our cerebral, wiry strategist, decided he wasn’t quite happy with the R1’s leech. To correct it, he was hoisted 40 feet above the water and swung out over the side for an adjustment, all while the boat was heeled over doing 20 knots in the black of night. I thought, I wouldn’t do that if you paid me $100,000.
This year’s Cabo race wasn’t the fastest, nor the slowest. Our class started on a foggy, drizzly Saturday in maybe just 6 knots of whisper breeze. The impressive roster of competitors included Badpak, Hollywood Down Under (which dropped out due to a generator/battery issue), Bolt, Pyewacket, Mirage, and Grand Illusion, to name a few. About 7:30 that evening the wind died to zero. We stopped dead in our tracks for a good hour while the wind made up its mind to slowly shift from the south the southwest. We spent the rest of that night hovering in the 6- to 8-knot range. For Rio 100, it was the equivalent of a Formula One car doing laps while idling.
The further south we sailed, the more the wind picked up. By the next morning we were up to 12-14 knots and by that afternoon and pretty much for the rest of the race, boat speed was in the 18- to 22-knot zone. Credit for staying in the wind went to the soft-spoken wizard of a navigator, Jay Davis, who was constantly scrolling from screen to screen on his Expedition software program searching for a better lane of breeze.
While for the most part the race went pretty smoothly, we did have one $20,000 repair-cost moment on Monday morning just after sunrise. The following seas were running a tight pattern of 6-foot swells. We were humming along at 20 knots with the big kite up when suddenly a taller and steeper trough appeared out of nowhere and caught the lower foot of the kite, shredding it from bottom to top in one heartbeat. Out went the cry for all hands on deck, and instantly the entire 17-man crew snapped into action. In came the torn kite and up went its replacement in what seemed like less time than it would take to swim one length of a pool.
For me personally there were other stressful moments, not least of which was being assigned to the grinder responsible for the windward runner. While that sounds innocuous enough, consider this: Each Harken grinder has four-foot pedals that transfer power from winch to winch. It’s easy to accidentally step on one of the pedals and disengage the grinder from the winch dedicated to the runner, especially at night when it was so dark at times you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. With such a gigantic mainsail and tremendous forces at work on the carbon fiber mast, such a mistake could be catastrophic when you have fewer than three seconds to get the runner up to pressure. Anything later than that and there is always the risk the mast could collapse which, oh by the way, would cost $4 million to replace.
Monday night, the last night of our trip, was magnificent. The moon hadn’t yet risen, and the stars put on quite a show. And while we had started out the first 30 hours of the race in foul weather gear with fleece pullovers underneath, the temperature gradually increased as we progressed southward, so that a t-shirt was all that was now needed even at night. At moments like this, any sleep deprivation was forgotten as I gazed up to see the Milky Way while flying along at 22 knots.
Rounding the famous Cabo Key at the race’s finish Tuesday morning and knowing that we nailed line honors was pretty tall cotton for this amateur sailor. Race committee members from the organizer Newport Harbor Yacht Club greeted us at the dock with smiles and buckets of beer on ice. The last time I had a beer at 10 in the morning must have been 45 years ago in college, but it sure tasted good. Especially after racing on a spectacular yacht with such a talented crew—most definitely the adventure of a lifetime.