Thursday, June 02, 2005

No Comparison

Nobody is surprised that yesterday the 140-foot schooner Mari-Cha IV won line honors, breaking the 100-year-old race record across the Atlantic Ocean. The Mari-Cha sailed from New York to Lizard Point on the British coast in 9 days, 15 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds. The record set by the schooner Atlantic in the race for the Kaiser's Cup in 1905 was 12 days, 4 hours, 1 minute and 19 seconds. Many have written about the record and the challenges Mari-Cha IV faced included bad weather and a broken mast, so I won’t duplicate coverage you can read here and here. A point of interest to me is the comparison folks are making between Mari-Cha and the Atlantic, an apples to oranges dilemma in my opinion, though physically I can see how it might make some sense when you factor out the advances in material composition and building technology.

Atlantic was built in 1903 at Townsend and Downsey in New York to a design by William Gardner of Gardner & Cox. In overall concept she had a 'classic shape' with long overhangs at the bow and stern, then considered radical for an ocean-going yacht. In comparison, Mari-Cha IV was built by JMV Industries in Cherbourg, France and launched in September 2003. Her deck is much flatter, while her hull has more flair and is generally squarer with a near-vertical bow and a squared-off transom. As a result, Mari-Cha IV’s overall length is some 45 feet (13.7m) shorter than Atlantic’s, but only six feet (1.8m) less at the waterline. As an article on the ISF web site mentions, there are also similarities between the two boats above deck - both are schooner-rigged. Atlantic had three masts of increasing height going aft. Her principal sails, foresail, mainsail, and mizzen sail, were all hung off gaffs similar to a boom, but at the top of the sail, while each mast could be extended with a 'top mast,' enabling extra sail in the form of a topsail to be flown above the gaff.

The only other comparison I can see is that the ocean they both raced on has not changed measurably in the past 100, let alone 1000 years. But it ends there. In 1905 ocean racing was extremely hazardous from a navigational and weather perspective. The charting devices and communications systems that we take for granted today were non-existent in 1905. And the race in 1905 captured the popular imagination in a way that this Transat, however historic, will not. The reason? Racing across the Atlantic aboard a fully manned, modern craft with all the bells and whistles and attendant safety nets means that bad weather becomes a hassle, as opposed to a disaster. It’s not a trivial undertaking by any means – but the drama has leaked from this race like helium from a shriveled balloon. I’m glad that we’ve been able, through technology, to make ocean racing safer…but in embracing these advances we have ceded the authenticity that made for popular appeal.

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