Adventure sailors Rich Wilson and Bill Biewenga celebrated the American Thanksgiving holiday at sea today, 1,000 miles south-west of Melbourne, with the record for the sailing passage from New York to Melbourne within their grasp.
Sailing through storm conditions on Wilson's 53-foot trimaran Great American II, the pair was barely 400 miles ahead of the track of the extreme clipper ship Mandarin, the vessel that has held the sailing record for the 14,000-mile voyage for nearly a century and a half. The 400-mile lead is equivalent to about a day and a half of sailing time.
Wilson, from Rockport, Massachusetts, and Biewenga, who lives in Newport, Rhode Island, are out to beat Mandarin's record of 69 days 14 hours, set as she carried prospectors to the Australian Gold Rush in the winter of 1855-56.
When they are not on deck and sailing the boat, the two adventurers send regular audio and text reports, lessons, photographs, and videos, and answer schoolchildren's e-mailed questions. They accomplish all this with the aid of a laptop computer in the navigation station, linked to an Iridium satellite telephone.
Speaking by satellite phone today, Wilson reported: "We've been thrashing along through the night with three reefs in the mainsail and a small staysail and we have been pushed 30 degrees off our course. Now, with daylight, conditions are improved and we only have one reef in the main. We're on course for the mouth of Port Phillip Bay and making some time."
Wilson described today as a memorable Thanksgiving at sea. Eleven years ago on Thanksgiving, he and a crew member capsized off Cape Horn in an earlier trimaran named Great American while attempting to break the sailing record from San Francisco to Boston. They were rescued, and three years later claimed the record on Great American II.
"Those were dark times," Wilson said. "After some hours the boat was flipped the right way up by a wave. As far as anyone knows, that is the only time that has ever happened. Later we were rescued by the vessel New Zealand Pacific, also known as the Big Red Lady. She was the largest containership in the world.
"Because of the crew's remarkable seamanship in bringing the New Zealand Pacific alongside our partially submerged and wrecked boat in the middle of the night, in 45 to 50-foot seas, we lived to sail again."
Asked today in an interview by Melbourne radio talk show host Derryn Hinch why he went back to sea for a second attempt at that record, Wilson replied simply: "We had a lot of kids following the voyage. We wanted to show them that you have to keep trying in order to succeed. You have to get back on the horse again!"
Wilson said that during recent days of the current record attempt, emotions and attitudes on the boat had been up and down as they struggled with light, adverse weather conditions and watched their lead over the Mandarin dwindle from over 800 miles to less than 400.
"The last week has been a real struggle," he said. "What a yo-yo! "We were stymied by a high pressure system. We tried to go north of it but faced very strong headwinds. It wouldn't work. We faced 1,800 miles of sailing into the wind and would not have got to Melbourne in time.
"Then we tried going south but were almost buried in the light winds of the high. We were able to save ourselves by heading back north, first crawling, then walking and finally running out of there.
"Five days ago, I didn't think that we still had a shot at the record, but now we have the opportunity to ride the strong winds of a storm system that is building to the south of us. We have a chance to make it."
After entering Port Phillip Bay, Great American II will complete her voyage off the Royal Yacht Club of Victoria in Williamstown where her finish will be officially recorded by the club's race officer.
To beat Mandarin's record, Great American II must arrive off Williamstown, before 5:21 pm, summer time, on November 28.
The website tracking the voyage of Great American II is http://www.sitesALIVE.com The Ocean Challenge voyage is one of 10 educational programs bringing real-life interactive learning experiences to school children through the World Wide Web.