Transpac Race Prep

How a group of determined mostly military veterans built a race team

Editor’s note: In July of 2019, after 10 days on the race course, the Andrews 70 sloop Trader crossed the finish line in Hawaii to complete the 2019 Transpac Race. Trader’s race wasn’t a winning effort according to the official race results, but for “Team Trader” the completed race was a resounding success, the result of intensive planning and training of a team of 10 sailors, many of whom were military veterans with little or no offshore sailing experience. As Team Trader prepares to compete in the 2021 Transpac, 2019 race navigator Erik Burian, a retired U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander, looks back on how the 2019 race effort came together and how Team Trader will approach this year’s race.  

The 2019 Transpac effort started in the summer of 2018 when retired USMC Colonel Doug Pasnik and his wife Karen Fetzer hosted a group of sailors that regularly sailed with them aboard SY Trader, a 1993 Andrews 70, at their home in Kaneohe, Oahu. As skipper and owner of the boat, Doug announced his intention that night to enter the 2019 50th Transpac race the following summer. This was both a considerable leap into a major sailing endeavor and also what Pasnik viewed as the next logical step in the evolution of Team Trader. 

In the nearly three years since that challenge to advance to the next level of blue water sailing, Trader has come a long way, in both sea miles and as a capable vessel for veteran outreach, a vehicle for veterans to mentor younger shipmates, and an expanding opportunity for rising women sailors. 

Rescued from Hong Kong boatyard

In 2014, Pasnik located and rescued Trader from where she lay in disrepair in a boatyard in Aberdeen Harbor, Hong Kong. After relocating the boat to Oahu, several dozen people periodically sailed on Trader as their schedules and interest permitted, but it was a stretch to call that group a coherent team. Yet, with every social sail, the core group who would ultimately race in the Transpac started taking shape. Those few years were a vital period to understand what it would take to recruit and retain a reliable and consistent cadre of sailors who worked well together and had the confidence to take the big boat offshore in often challenging conditions. 

Safely operating a 70-foot sailboat, with the sail area equivalent to the square footage of most people’s homes, in the open ocean conditions around the Hawaiian Islands requires a level of proficiency that only comes with regular training and getting genuine buy-in from a sufficient number of colleagues. This key element of building a core team is what continues to inspire former Marine aviator Pasnik. 

Trader had a distinct advantage in creating sustainable and resilient teamwork from the very start. Through existing connections and social outreach, many in the group were either active duty military, veterans, military spouses, or one degree of separation from someone who was. This commonality of experience is reflected in the formally communicated “Trader Principles and Values.” 

When someone steps aboard Trader, they quickly realize there is something unique about the way things operate. First and foremost, Pasnik and Fetzer have cultivated and maintained a learning organization with a dedicated coaching mindset and a set of core values. This sets a framework that aligns the team during every sail. The crew trains according to a published standard operating procedure (SOP), and there are defined default positions for the crew to take in the case of an emergency so that everyone quickly knows where to go to help put the boat in a safe condition. Constant dialogue is the expected norm to persistently reinforce a shared mental model and team learning by thinking out loud.

Sailing the Transpac for the first time would take a financial and time commitment that brought many in the larger group to a decision point. Pasnik developed a precise budget, maintenance plan, and a set of key milestones. He presented this comprehensive plan to the interested group in December 2018. The nominal crew size was set at 10 to man two four-person watches (helm, main, grinder, and spinnaker trim). That meant in addition to Pasnik and Fetzer, eight otherwise employed and busy adults would have to sign on to make this plan work.


A leap of faith

Considering that most of the amateur crew’s experience consisted of weeknight sails off Waikiki, a few inter-island trips, and only a handful of local races, this was a leap of faith to the next level of sailing competition. With Trader competing in Division 2 amongst mostly professional crews, there was no confusion over who the team was up against. Although Doug and another longtime crew member, Fred Jameson, also a retired USMC colonel, had sailed the boat from where it was purchased in Hong Kong to Oahu a few years earlier, no members of the team had been in any competitive, long-distance open ocean racing. 

But by January of 2019, a willing and committed core team had formally agreed to participate in Transpac and preparations began on the “Road to the Race.” Shipping the boat to Long Beach from Honolulu was not in the budget, so this required an eastward transit across the Pacific in early June. That further compressed the timeline for maintenance and crew training. As this was the first major race that Trader had entered in her current configuration and under Pasnik’s ownership, the to-do list was enormous. This included the race rating measurements, race safety inspection, developing and validating polar plots, rig tuning and marking, and boat maintenance that would fit into the haul-out period around the holidays and non-training days pierside. 

As an example, Trader had her mast pulled, inspected, structurally reinforced and painted, and the standing rigging and much of the masthead hardware replaced. Almost all of this work was done by Pasnik and Fetzer with significant help from volunteers in the crew, especially Ken and Sherry Williams. Ken is a retired Air Force special missions aviator and combat rescue specialist. Ken came to join the crew through the Warrior Sailing Program and is invaluable in keeping Trader materially sound.

Team Trader is not a commercially financed racing syndicate crewed by professional sailors. In fact, quite the opposite is true. However, for the 2019 Transpac, eight of the 10 were either veterans or active-duty military, including six captains and colonels. One might infer that this lineup seems top heavy with officers or “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but instead it brought decades of diverse military experience dealing with every type of operational, logistical, and organizational problem one can imagine. This experienced lineup also conferred a unique and powerful dynamic to the way the team prepared for Transpac, and that allowed a crew that hadn’t flown a spinnaker before the spring of 2019 to finish the race in a very respectable 10 days. 

Pasnik’s team ethos and steady mantra is “Safe Boat. Safe Crew. Safe Race.” With this as the core organizing principle and a detailed training “programme” generated by British Royal Navy Captain Mike Smith, the team marched through a series of successively more challenging training sails that added individual and team skills.  

Safety training

In the march to the race, every member of Team Trader completed the hybrid “Safety at Sea” course through US Sailing held at Kaneohe Yacht Club and led by Chuck Hawley himself. The team got a chance to “abandon ship,” inflate PFDs, and enter a life raft in the club’s pool. They also got hands-on practice dealing with medical emergencies at sea. This was also the first opportunity to really start thinking about weather planning and ocean navigation. The Safety at Sea course included an extensive discussion of the means to download and interpret ocean weather. Smith also negotiated with Spinlock and was able to secure a discounted group purchase for Spinlock Deckvest 5D. These harness-type life vests became the team’s standard protocol upon leaving the dock.

With the role of co-navigator (and helmsman) for the race, I attended the pre-race seminar hosted by the Transpac Yacht Club in April that featured a discussion of race navigation best practices by the legendary Stan Honey. This helped shape Trader’s voyage plan and methodology. Honey’s freely-shared, perennially winning strategy of breaking the race into sections guided the team’s training and decision making underway.

About midway through the race prep, Pasnik brought on professional sailor Sean Doyle as a coach and mentor. Sean has multiple Pacific crossings in his resume and remains the current record holder as the youngest ever Transpac skipper. Sean brought a wealth of open ocean experience. Though initially intended to augment the crew during the training period, Sean agreed to join Team Trader for the race and pushed the team and boat to even greater levels of performance all the way back to Honolulu. Mat McComas (USN Navy Diver) and Sean Killeen (retired Marine Colonel) rounded out the team for Transpac 2019.

Communication
and navigation

Trader was outfitted with satellite communications via IridiumGo and employed Expedition and PredictWind software to download GRIB files for route planning. The team familiarized themselves with this routine during training sails around the Hawaiian Islands where cellular coverage offshore often supported frequent wind updates. During the 17-day transit to Long Beach north of the mid-Pacific gyre, Mike Smith exercised the navigation routine that would also prove successful during the race itself. Mike and I shared responsibilities as watch leaders and co-navigators for Transpac.

Navy supply officer Captain Mike Benedetto, in addition to being an expert main and spinnaker trimmer, served as the team’s logistician, head chef, and forward basing coordinator in Long Beach prior to the race. He organized lodging during the pre-race training period in Long Beach and together with me, prepared all of the crew’s homemade meals. 

For the 2021 Transpac, there are three returning crew: Pasnik, Jameson, and Ryan Brown, a former Marine helicopter mechanic and Trader’s foredeck man. Ken Williams will sail both legs of the journey. Trader is also welcoming four women who are part of The Magenta Project (themagentaproject.org), and all are already distinguished competitive sailors in their own right. They are Lindsay Gimple, Megan Gimple, Annie Longo, and Sarah Wilkinson. Team Trader is eager to take on the competition and improve on her maiden Transpac accomplishments. n

Captain Erik Burian is a retired career submarine officer in the U.S. Navy and commanded three submarines. Erik has sailed on SY Trader since 2016.

 

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Categories: Racing News, Transpac Race