Whereas the New York Yacht Club's 1997 Transatlantic Race saw a number of giant modern classics such as Adela and Adix compete, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge was open to a more eclectic mix of yachts 70 feet (LOD) and longer. The Grand Prix division featured two of the world's largest pure racing yachts, Robert MILLER's 140 foot (43m) Mari-Cha IV and the brand new New Zealand 100 footer Maximus, owned by Charles St. Clair BROWN and Bill BUCKLEY. At the opposite end of the spectrum came the Classics such as the largest vessel in the race, the 250 foot (76m) clipper ship replica Stad Amsterdam, and the 1914-built Fife-designed 94 foot Sumurun, belonging to the race's chairman A. Robert TOWBIN.
The bulk of the fleet lay in the two Performance Cruising Divisions ranging in size from Clarke MURPHY's chartered Swan 70 Stay Calm, to the two 170 foot Ed Dubois designed near-sisterships Tiara and Drumbeat.
With the fleet gathered in the shadow of New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, the start was delayed by a day, due to an extremely bad weather forecast for the start area. On Sunday 22 May 2005, the 20 competing yachts paraded past the Statue of Liberty and out to the start line due south of the Ambrose Light marking the channel into New York Harbor.
Even with the start delayed, as the boats headed up the eastern seaboard of the United States, the feature of the first week was the weather - either too much or too little of it. A depression moved across the fleet, and then two days into the race, stopped off the Nova Scotian coast. 'North of that storm centre, we are looking at 30-50 knots and 20-30 foot seas developing,' warned meteorologist Ken CAMPBELL. 'That would be Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday and part of Thursday. Anyone north of 40 degrees north will be in some very heinous conditions,'
In the Grand Prix Division, leaders Maximus and Mari-Cha IV were lucky - they headed southeast across the front of the depression into the strong southwesterly winds on its eastern side. Two days into the race, Mari-Cha IV's navigator Jef D'ETIVEAUD reported 40 knot winds and the giant schooner was averaging 24 knots. Meanwhile, Joe DOCKERY's 81 foot (24.7m) Grand Prix Division yacht Carrera stuck to the great circle, a more northerly route, sailing into stiff headwinds. On day four, captain Simon DAVIDSON reported their retirement due to 'catastrophic mainsail failure while beating upwind in 40 knots and very large seas in the Gulf Stream.'
On the same day, Captain Pieter BRANTJES of the Stad Amsterdam reported their retirement, too. 'That is because we came into an area with not much wind, and our charter will end on 8 June in Cowes. To be there in time, we have to use the engine. There have been too many lulls and not enough wind for the vessel. If we have no wind or headwinds, it is difficult for us.'
While crews on other yachts reported sailing in 50 knots or more, other yachts caught in the increasingly large centre of the depression found themselves tackling light, shifting breeze. 'We have ten knots from the northeast, and we are pushing the boat as hard as we can to drive ourselves through the centre of this flabby area of low pressure, which is making it all a bit difficult. The next 15 hours will be quite tricky for us,' admitted Stay Calm's navigator Mike BROUGHTON on 24 May.
The conditions took their toll on the leaders, too. On 26 May, the headboard on Mari-Cha IV's mainsail broke along with some of the cars used to attach both the mainsail and similarly sized mizzen sail to the mast. One option was to retire, but instead they turned downwind for twelve hours and sent four crewmen up the mast to fix the problem. They were successful in their repairs, but not before Maximus, some 40 feet shorter, took over the lead.
While breaking boats was one thing, on former GBR Challenge boss Peter HARRISON's 115 foot (35m) ketch Sojana, problems took on a more serious nature on 27 May, when crewman Mal PARKER had his arm pulled into a winch, breaking it in two places. With PARKER requiring immediate surgery, Sojana was forced to divert to the nearest port with a landing strip. They chose the remote French island of Saint-Pierre to the south of Newfoundland, where PARKER disembarked and was flown to a hospital in Montreal, Canada. 24 hours later, Sojana rejoined the race but was unable to regain her place at the head of Performance Cruising 1 Division.
Passing Newfoundland represented one of the most hazardous parts of the course. Those such as Sojana and Mike SLADE's Leopard, which ventured north into the Labrador current, bending clockwise around west and south Newfoundland, found themselves in freezing conditions. Meanwhile others farther to the south had to deal with the Grand Banks and the unusual conditions of thick fog and strong winds as well as numerous fishing boats. Fortunately there were no incidents and, unlike the 1905 race, no icebergs were spotted.
Out in the open Atlantic, on 29 May, Mari-Cha IV regained the lead as the crew on Maximus had to deal with their share of technical issues on board. Thankfully, after this, conditions became more stable, and once Maximus was back up and running, the two racing yachts match raced at high speed towards the English Channel in 25 knot southwesterlies. Mari-Cha IV crossed the line due south of the Lizard at 10:05:23 hours UTC on 1 June, making her time for the 2,925 nautical mile course from Ambrose Light 9 days, 15 hours, 55 minutes and 23 seconds, which was 2 days, 12 hours, 5 minutes and 56 seconds faster than Atlantic's time in 1905.
'The feeling on board was electric but also emotional as, even though we have crossed the Atlantic faster on board this great boat, this has definitely been the toughest test yet for Mari-Cha IV and her crew,' recounted owner, MILLER. 'It has been a difficult, hard fought crossing all the way, but now I am pleased to say, a most satisfying one.'
Finding fair conditions in the English Channel, Mari-Cha IV went on to cross the finish line of the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge off the Needles Fairway Buoy at the western end of the Isle of Wight at 19:18:37 UTC that evening, setting a new race record time of 10 days, 1 hour, 8 minutes and 37 seconds.
Maximus passed the Lizard 3 hours, 13 minutes and 32 seconds after her bigger rival and was 5 hours, 16 minutes and 31 seconds behind at the Needles finish line. However, her consolation prize was a Grand Prix Division win on corrected time under IRC handicap. Astern, Chris GONGRIEPE's 140 foot (46.3m) Windrose of Amsterdam, the yacht in the race perhaps most like the original Atlantic, had taken over the on-the-water lead in the Performance Cruising Division. On 29 May, she recorded her highest-ever day's run of 346 miles, under full sail and Code Zero. 'It was a hectic race, there was a lot of wind, usually between 25 and 30 knots,' recounted her Dutch owner, GONGRIEPE after they had finished at 08:24:12 UTC on 3 June. 'We blew up three sails, but we had a sailmaker on board to repair them.'
One of the closest competitions in the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge was between Tiara and Drumbeat. Following Stad Amsterdam's retirement, these two giant yachts became the largest boats left racing. Typically used for luxury cruising, the two boats took different courses across the Atlantic, but their competition culminated in a match race up the Channel, with the two boats neck-and-neck at the Lizard. In the end, it was Mark LLOYD's Drumbeat that won, also taking handicap honours in the Performance Cruising Division, with the best handicap performance in the entire fleet.
The hardest race was for the three Classic Division yachts Sumurun, Nordwind and Mariella. Their race was lengthened considerably when they encountered headwinds in the Atlantic, followed by the frustrating calms in the English Channel. Eventually, after 22 days, 3 hours and 58 minutes at sea, it was A. Robert TOWBIN's Sumurun that took line honours in the class and also the corrected time win by just 2 hours and 18 minutes over Hans ALBRECHT's Nordwind.
Despite the length of the race and the arduous nature of the competition, the Rolex Transatlantic Challenge was considered a great success, and plans are afoot between the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron to host another race across the Atlantic within the next five years.