I read the final word on the porch of Steve’s and my house in West Africa, a six-line blurb in the sports section of the International Herald Tribune, the Monday after the start: The U.S. Women’s Challenge, the only American entry in the Whitbread Round the World Race, had withdrawn for lack of a sponsor.
So simple. So final. No hint of the thousands of hours (mostly woman-hours) that had filled the past two years, the vast emotional and financial investment; no mention of the mountains that had been moved so that a fit-for-the-Whitbread boat had made it to England, still searching for funds to take her over the starting line.
Nance Frank had called from Southampton the previous Thursday to say she was on the verge of securing funds for at least the first leg. Excited and optimistic, I had stared firming up plans to join the boat in Uruguay. I hadn’t invested a fraction of what Nance had, or any number of other women committed to the project, but still I was stunned when it came so suddenly to an end.
I had learned about the Women’s Challenge in May while Steve was studying at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, D.C. I’d spent as much of the next two months as I could in Annapolis sailing and working on the boat, while also orchestrating a move to the Ivory Coast. I had asked myself some big questions. It’s one thing to say “I’d love to race the Whitbread” and another to face actually doing it—to consider the cold, the discomfort, the strain a long separation would place on a relationship, the periods of boredom or paralyzing fear—and come up with a “yes.”
And I knew, at least to some extent, what Nance was going through in her search for sponsorship and in her relentless preparations. I’d spent a frustrating year and a half trying to find a sponsor for the Plymouth-to-Newport C-STAR before finally realigning my sights; if I couldn’t do the granddaddy of singlehanded races, I would shoot for a race more financially manageable and closer to home. I chartered a 40-foot ultralight for the San-Francisco-to-Kauai Singlehanded Transpac, only to have the insurance fall through seven weeks before the race. I then maxed out the credit cards on a used Santa Cruz 27, outfitted her for singlehanding, and proceeded to do precisely what I swore I’d never do, crossing the starting line physically and mentally exhausted on a boat I barely knew. What followed was a miserable, ecstatic, sleep-deprived, white-knuckled 14 days 5 hours 2 minutes on the seething surface of the planet, which I wouldn't have missed for anything. I broke the women’s record for the race by two days, mostly because ours was the windiest year in Singlehanded Transpac history.
And it gets me to thinking: What is it about this sport? What is it that had Nance Frank giving years of her life, knowing all along that she might never achieve her goal? I could say no other sport could inspire such passion, but of course that isn’t true. Sailing is a lot like other sports. It’s physical and technical, it usually demands teamwork, its accomplishments offer incredible highs. Other activities owe much of their attraction to the wonders of the natural world—the pristine beauty of six feet of powder, the peacefulness of a trout stream—but with sailing the forces of nature are not only inspiring but also the key to success or failure, the key to movement. But not the only key: there’s also the boat, that incredibly complex and logical piece of machinery developed over thousands of years, flung into the unpredictability of the elements. A boat that might tug at your heartstrings or drive you crazy, but inevitably starts to seem like a living being. So maybe it’s this: The merging of the beauty and power of nature with the skill and resilience of sailors and the technical and aesthetic miracle of a boat.
Our women’s crew was sailing one day out of Annapolis on ex-Inespal, the tremendous Ribadeau-Dumas-designed 57-foot aluminum sloop that was never renamed, because it never secured a sponsor. One of those summer frontal squalls came through; we didn’t have room to run with it, and we were having trouble with the leech cord on the good Kevlar main, so we dropped the mainsail and charged along with just the headsail. I remember standing on the boom—having climbed up there to pull down the luff on the main—with one arm flung across the sail to help keep it from flailing and the other hand on a shroud, giddy with all the wildness. From that height I saw the boat in a slightly new way, the splendid balance and power of her as she bucked through the waves. I saw the spray flying, and the surface of the waves textured like velvet from the pounding rain, and my tanned, fit teammates fighting for footing on the water-washed deck, soaked to the skin in their red-white-and-blue U.S. Women’s Challenge T-shirts (“If we had photographers on board today, they’d get some pretty racy photos,” I yell down, and Dana and Elizabeth grin up at me). It was a moment of the most intense and utter happiness.
I look back on things now and wonder if that one moment made it all worthwhile, all the planning, the soul-searching, the disappointment that at odd moments still washes over me. Even as I write, the Whitbread sailors are rushing ahead of wakes that eventually will circle the world; that, I say, would have made it all worthwhile. But maybe the elusive chemistry of our sport lies in the fact that two utterly different experiences can have equal justification: a grueling 33,000-mile race with its countless moods and challenges, and a single, etched moment in a Chesapeake squall.