July 21, 2016: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” That’s the short version of navigator H.L. DeVore’s analysis of Warrior Won’s St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy victory in this enlightening interview with him and owner Chris Sheehan by David Schmidt, US editor for the online sailing pub Sail-World (where this article originally appeared).
The scene before a major ocean race can be a heady blend of adrenaline, excitement, nerves, and a pinch of fear. Such was the case before this year’s Newport Bermuda Race as several days before the start various forecast models called for a significant low-pressure system that threatened to turn conditions in the Gulf Stream into the stuff of nightmares. As a result, numerous vessels opted to exercise an abundance of caution and chose not to leave the dock-a wise decision, since halfway to Bermuda defines the term “committed.”
Still, for the bulk of the fleet that opted to race, these early forecasts proved inaccurate, and racers reported fast conditions that saw a new line-honors course record set by skipper Ken Read and the Comanche crew, as well as some quick passage times for many other racers.
While routing and navigation is a massive part of any offshore contest, this year was a case of the rich getting richer, quickly, and no other vessel captured as much silverware at the awards ceremony than owner and skipper Chris Sheehan’s Warrior Won, an X-Yachts’ Xp 44 that proudly flies the colors of the Larchmont Yacht Club in Larchmont, New York. While the team’s trophy list was long, it proudly includes the St. David’s Lighthouse Trophy for the fastest gun in the St. David’s Division, and the George W. Mixter Trophy, which is a navigator’s prize that’s awarded to the fastest handicap finisher.
A large part of the team’s success was obviously due to some great navigating and some seriously fast driving, but-as the time-tested adage goes-“sailboat races are won and lost before the dock lines are untied.” Sheehan, along with navigator H.L. DeVore, watch captains Paul van Dyke and Doug Lynn, and the rest of the Warrior Won crew invested well over a year into building their program, sailing their miles, mastering their vessel, and leaving no preparation stone unturned. As impressive as their results are, it’s even more impressive that Sheehan is a relative newcomer to offshore racing. I recently caught up with Sheehan and DeVore to learn more about their fantastic “thrash to the Onion Patch.”
Tell me about the Warrior Won program. How long have you guys been sailing together and how many Bermuda Races have you done as a team? Sheehan: I started campaigning Warrior Won last year, so it was produced in 2014, I cruised it for a season, 2014, but I started racing last year, and I approached H.L. [DeVore] and two others, [bow specialists] Chris Simon and Ryan Zupon, and the four of us got together in the fall of 2014 and talked of campaigning 2015. So we started this process 18 months ago.
Can you tell me a bit about your crew? Sheehan: As a skipper/owner I decided to go with Paul van Dyke as a watch captain, and Doug Lynn who [is] a contemporary of ours, 50-ish and a lifetime sailor. Chris Simon and Ryan Zupon were the bow men, and H.L., both my mentor, kind of at my back more than just navigator, but having a critical navigator for all distance races was the difference between winning and losing. So the brain trusts would be the two very energetic and experienced bow men, the two watch captains, and [navigator] H.L. DeVore.
The rest of us, myself included, get slotted-in so Peter Carpenter, Roland Shulz, myself, my son, Joost-Olan Sheehan, [and] Andres de Lasa–he had never sailed, never stepped foot on a sailboat until last spring, although a Larchmont native, he’s always been an offshore fisherman, but he also happens to be a volunteer firefighter, EMT, ski patrol, so we needed a medic, a good cook, and an energetic strong, fit local, who wouldn’t mind doing all of those duties, and [he] had a great attitude.
And at one o’clock on Friday at the start of the race, June 17th when 50-plus boats withdrew [due to the weather forecasts], one of them was a J/40 Misty from Rhode Island, and a childhood friend of H.L.’s named Carter Holliday, who had been campaigning with the owner and his son for 20 years on Misty, doing the Marblehead to Halifax, the Vineyard Race, the Block Island Race, and Bermuda races for 20 years–again a contemporary of ours–we phoned him, we contacted the race committee in Newport, and they were very accommodating and allowed us to add an 11th person… We were sort of short on helmsmen. Since Paul van Dyke is a Cat 3 [sailor], he can’t drive, so we were concerned that we were a little out of balance. Our bow men are certainly good drivers, but they’re running bow and the back of the boat was light on drivers, so, with the heavy weather forecasted, we thought 11 wouldn’t kill us, even though we could easily race this thing with nine.
DeVore: I think one of the really cool things about all of this is Chris Sheehan, who is a very experienced cruiser for 20 or so years said, “gee, you know I’ve done a little bit of racing, I really like this stuff, and I want to go at it and do it, and build a team.” And part of building that team has really been a commitment to local club sailing, eight of the 11 [crew]members are originally from the Larchmont Yacht Club, big emphasis there, [as well as involving] teenagers and getting new people into sailing, like Andres de Lasa never, [who had never] sailed a sailboat before stepping on Warrior Won. [Also,] Joost-Olan is [only] 16, that was a big commitment.
The credit really goes to Chris Sheehan who said, ‘I want to do this thing, I want to do it right’, and so I’ve been happy to be the guy who sort of whispers about ‘okay, how do you build a team?’ You get two bow men, you get two watch captains, and then you fill in the middle…little bits of advice like that. Chris is a great listener, and [he] has a great bullshit filter, too, when other people’s advice might not be as good, or he’ll question the advice that’s given.
With all the dire warnings about a Gulf Stream pasting, did you guys ever consider dropping out of the race? Sheehan: No, we didn’t. You have, there’s a huge adrenalin rush leading up to it and I feel that X-Yachts makes a very well made boat, I think that it’s designed for the Baltic and the North Sea–the kinds of conditions that were forecast–even if it was twenty-foot seas and potentially forty-five plus [knot] winds. [Having] watch captains and crew who know how to change the sails to the storm jib and maybe a trisail, in that boat, and having all the people on board having raced offshore last year and the early half of this year [was critical].
I [had] no concerns because everyone [had] been offshore, maybe not in those types of conditions, but certainly heavy winds, and they have confidence in each other, in themselves, and in the boat.
[We] had built confidence over the last 18 months, in each other, maybe the less-experienced [sailors] having confidence in the very experienced people on board like H.L., Paul, Doug, even Zupon and Simon who have the most experience. Those of us who may have had a hint of hesitation, we all looked at each other and what came to us was a smile of “yeah, let’s do this.” This is what ocean racing is all about. [These were the] conditions we dream of; the nightmare conditions quite frankly, are 600, 700 miles of no wind.
DeVore: The short answer is “no, we never considered not starting the race.” I was personally a little bit anxious, but I have been in the Gulf Stream twice in my life when it was really bad. Once was in 1986, with Carter Holliday, the last-minute crew that we waived in [from the J/40 Misty], and we had 25-foot breaking, crumbling waves, and we were young kids and we had an experience that we survived. But I also was on a 2008 delivery home, which many people talk about, and we had 55 knots, and 30-foot waves that were crumbling and breaking and we were launched across the deck a few times when someone steered the bow into the wave, but you know, just having those experiences, it takes some of that fear that your imagination can create and turns it a little bit more easily into a vision of how you survive in [those] conditions. It gives you confidence that you can.
One of the things as the navigator that I was watching extremely closely was the three days headed into the start. I was downloading the GRIB files on the same schedule that ultimately I downloaded them on the race. So I was able to watch the evolution of the GRIB files and to see how the U.S. GFS GRIB and the Canadian Gem Model, and then, ultimately, when I acquired the European ECMWF GRIB, I was able to see how they were converging towards what ultimately became a more of a moderated forecast.
And so, on Friday morning when I was hearing some of the hysteria, I already really knew that the forecast was moderating and that many people were just not necessarily listening or looking at the data.
Some people including myself look at the emphasis on the data and the connectivity offshore [as a little bit of a negative], but that’s an extremely positive thing from the degree of safety and understanding [about] what you’re getting into. So by intensely studying the data, I knew that the forecast was moderating, I knew we were going to have a day of light airs, I knew that we could sail and get to the Gulf Stream, and kept an extremely close eye on what was developing. And should we have found ourselves in the Gulf Stream, with the 15-18 foot breaking waves that some of the meteorologists forecast, I [also] knew Paul van Dyke, or Carter Holliday, or some of the guys who’d been in that condition knew that you can just crack off [a few degrees] and stay safe. So there was never a question [of not racing].
From a navigation standpoint, where and how on the race course was the race won? DeVore: We won our class when we saw ahead into the southwest an area of lighter breeze in the GRIB files that I was studying intensely, and we were in the lead, and we gybed [and] took the sterns of our competitors, got to the east, got to better pressure, [and then] gybed back, [but] we didn’t know that that was when we won our class for another 12 to 18 hours. Almost everybody in this race who won their individual classes won from the east where there was more pressure and there was also a better crossing across the Gulf Stream to get to the east of the cold eddy that was to the south. I was dumbfounded because when we gybed to the east and then went a ways and then gybed back to the south, we left everybody back there and they all went and sailed into the light breeze, the southwest that we saw on the GRIBS, and they sat there for hours while we just sailed away. We had no idea until we were to the south of the Gulf Stream and I checked the tracker again.
So that was when we won our class, by getting over to the east and putting ourselves in a good position to cross the Stream, then by being in that position, that gave us the opportunity to really compete for the Saint David’s Lighthouse Trophy. It was a really fascinating thing that took place on board, which was that I was in a very awkward position as the navigator when I saw that we had a thirty-five mile lead, and then a sixty-mile lead, and then an eighty-mile lead over the second-place boat in our class. I kept it to myself for a while, and then I talked to one of the watch captains, and the bowmen, and then eventually I talked to Chris Sheehan who was out on the watch and awake at that time, and the other watch captain.
We decided to keep our positions really sort of secret from the rest of the crew, because we still had four-hundred miles to go. It was probably a whole other day, or a day and a half, before we told [the crew] where we were at. I’ve never been in that position.
But the way that we won the St. David’s Lighthouse trophy was we put ourselves in the position, and then coming into Bermuda we were sailing [a] downwind VMG kind of a race. It’s a fine line. You can go higher and faster, you can go lower and slower, and you have to hit the middle of that. And we had some great drivers, and I was really hammering “we’ve gotta stay down, we’ve gotta stay down” because I saw it happening ahead that there was a lift coming and that was going to push us on our starboard gybe up higher on Bermuda, and I also started to see ahead from maybe 80 or 100 miles out that the boats ahead of us, Siren, Maximizer, and Crazy Horse, specifically I could see them all sailing higher, and I could see that if we could sail lower, that we could sail a shorter distance. I called it a “slow motion knife fight on a chessboard” [in our log].
We just stayed low and we did a fantastic job of gybing our way in. There was this one little rain cell on the island that we stayed away from, and ultimately we gybed our way around Kitchen Shoals and sailed our way into the finish, and that little raincell [that] Maximizer and Crazy Horse got stuck in — a 60-foot boat, and a 80-foot boat, or whatever they are, and we’re a 44-foot boat — we gybed our way around and finished, those guys got stuck at Kitchen Shoales I think for something like eight hours.
What was your Gulf Stream strategy? DeVore: Basically there was a counter clockwise cold ring…with an east side almost sitting on the rhumb line, which was the south current going north, and this ring was almost 100 miles wide, and so a favorable current on its west side. There were a lot of people who really committed early to going to the west. So those guys that committed to the west, they had to sail a much longer distance to seek out this favorable current, [but] I wanted to sail the shortest distance, which is always going to win a race if you can manage to do it so long as you’re going real fast. That was a big part of being over to the east. The east was a shorter distance, and the east was finally where the GRIBS showed there was more pressure, and it looked like we could get through there and not get slammed.
If you could go back and redo one thing about this year’s Bermuda race, what would it be? Sheehan: I’m going to let H.L. answer that. He went probably 75 to 125 miles out, I believe we were getting lifted heading southwest, and we were, as was the entire fleet, but a few other boats had noticed that. I think it was probably late night, early morning, and it was dark and maybe people were not paying close attention, but we were probably, we probably went 15 to 25 miles too far southwest.
DeVore: It’s funny because I thought of the same thing that Chris is talking about when you said there was one thing we could change, but we might have actually beat High Noon over the line, potentially. They beat us by an hour. But I think we got enough trophies. [Laughter]
Sheehan: I think he was going to sleep, so I can’t blame him, but when H.L. fell asleep we lost an hour and a half, which would have given us line honors in [the] Saint David’s [Lighthouse Division].
DeVore: We got lifted, sailing down when we got lifted, we sailed a good distance. I woke up and I was not particularly happy that we had sailed in a lift for as far as we did, and Chris Sheehan and I spoke about it a little bit down below, but I have to tell you, on reflection, I certainly would not [have] sailed in the lift for quite as far as we went, but that also when I looked at it and I said, “okay this is not really what I wanted to have done,” and it also made my resolve to get back east that much more steely and determined. And so I wouldn’t want to blame the guys on deck for not gybing, but I do think we would’ve had line honors if we had gybed sooner.
How far from Bermuda were you guys at this point? DeVore: That was still north of the stream. That was just before the key gybe that we won our class with. We were sailing downwind with the light air chute up, and we had about a thirty-degree lift that we sailed in for about four hours. That’s not what I wanted to do, and I blame myself frankly for not making that more clear, in hindsight, we would have been over to the east faster with better breeze and would have been a lot closer in on High Noon.
But you know what, we’re thrilled though. From the perspective of just the wonderful story line of the whole race and how joyous it was, for Comanche to set the record, for us to win overall, in many ways I wouldn’t want to give up that, I wouldn’t have wanted line honors because it was so great that the kids [aboard High Noon] did that. I mean really cool. So we only won seven trophies. [Laughs.]
I like to say we got lucky. But [it’s] very important for people to know this great expression, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” And we were really, really prepared, and Chris Sheehan put the strong team together, we did a bunch of work for the boat, we sailed it for 18 months, we had an agenda to do an offshore race in 2015, we did that in the Marblehead to Halifax race, we kicked some butt, we were trying out personnel all along the way, settling the right personnel, so [when] the opportunity was there for us, and our preparation paid off.