A Tense Two Weeks in Trans-Atlantic Sailing Race

A 3,542-mile single-handed quadrennial race
Having returned to the island of Madeira, the trans-Atlantic sailor could smile. Courtesy of John Niewenhous

When John Niewenhous, a retired pilot who lives in the Bay Point neighborhood near Sag Harbor, was visited on Dec. 2, some competitors in the Route du Rhum race to Guadeloupe were still heading across the Atlantic for that Caribbean island, having set off a month earlier, with much fanfare, from Saint-Malo, in northwest France.

The 3,542-mile single-handed quadrennial race, “which I was told is the second most popular sporting event in France this year,” drew a fleet of 123 boats, including Niewenhous’s Class40 Loose Fish, a tall-masted, wide-beamed 40-foot monohull with two gigantic 750-liter water ballast tanks.

Hounded by equipment setbacks that worsened as he continued beating upwind, and which persuaded him to turn around after having sailed about a third of the way, the two-time former commodore of the Breakwater Yacht Club was among those who did not finish. 

The around-the-world record-holder had capsized, he said, and another craft had to be abandoned after hitting a cargo boat. “Thirty-five of the 53 Class40s finished. Every boat had a problem.” 

Josh Hall, an English pro with whom the experienced Sag Harbor amateur sailor had crossed the Atlantic on Loose Fish, from Cherbourg to Antigua, a year ago — a training run for Niewenhous, but not for Hall, whose 27th Atlantic crossing it was — told him better weather lay ahead, about a couple of hundred miles farther, but Niewenhous, whose mast was in danger of toppling, had made up his mind by then, about 1,400 miles and 13 days out, to sail back to the island of Madeira, off Morocco.

Hall, who returned Loose Fish to France from Madeira, had competed in four solo around-the-world races, as well, said Niewenhous. “The first time, he was dismasted, the second time he sank and was rescued by a fellow sailor. . . . There are many professional sailors in France and England — it’s a way of life for them. The number of professional sailors in France is probably tenfold what it is in the U.S., though I have no facts to base that on. Over two million people visited Saint-Malo in the weeks and days leading up to the start. . . . It’s a way of life for these professionals, versus a pastime.”

Niewenhous and Hall also sailed in the Royal Ocean Racing Club’s 600-mile race in the Caribbean last February, “a very windy and rough race. Only half the boats finished. We were the only double-handed one to finish. Eighty-four started, only 40 or so finished.”

He and his wife, Audrey, have sailed a lot over the years, throughout the country in JY-15s, in four Bermuda One Design race weeks, and to the Caribbean and around the islands in it, though the Route du Rhum was his second solo long-distance effort, the Bermuda One-Two, from Newport, R.I., in 2005, at the urging of Michael Hennessy of Mystic, Conn., being the first. (Hennessy also competed in the Route du Rhum, finishing 12th after more than 21 days at sea.)

“There’s a solo leg and a double-handed one in the Bermuda One-Two, which I did with Fred Boursier, a Frenchman. I came in third in class — third on the solo leg and second on the double-handed one.”

Asked if there were any comparisons to be made between flying and sailing, the 60-year-old retired pilot said, “Yes, the sail is basically an airfoil that generates lift, just like a wing, and the lift is used to propel the boat — it’s the same principle. There are pilots who sail, but probably more of them are piloting powerboats.”

He was the third eldest in the Class40 monohull class, the biggest one in the race. “The 61-year-old withdrew, the other guy, who’s 60, a South African, finished a few days ago. The youngest guys were 21 or 23. Maybe five or 10 of us in that race didn’t have corporate sponsorships. Most were paid sailors.”

Asked what it was that he loved about sailing, Niewenhous, a member of the Sag Harbor Yacht Club and a member of the Breakwater Yacht Club almost as long as his wife, who was a founding member, said, “I guess it’s the skill that’s required to make a boat go using the wind. It’s a nice feeling. But,” he added, with a smile, “it can be very frustrating. Very light winds can be frustrating, or extremely heavy winds.”

To qualify for the Route du Rhum he sailed solo more than 1,400 miles from Antigua to Charleston, S.C., last spring. In July, he said, he sailed Loose Fish solo from Charleston to Portland, Me., and, at the end of August, shipped it back to France.

As for the Route du Rhum, “We had very bad weather. I knew the day after the start that we were going to get hit. For 12 days there were gale conditions, huge seas, big winds, lots of squalls . . . the wind blew and blew, 25 to 35 or 40 knots with gusts to 60. It was unremitting.”

“The first thing I lost,” he said, with a laugh, “were my wind direction instruments, from the top of the mast. Without them — they enable you always to steer at a true wind angle — I just had my compass. The compass steers to a certain heading — the boat doesn’t automatically turn when the wind shifts so as to maintain the same true wind angle. Losing two masthead wind vanes increased the workload, but I kept going.”

“For a time the wind died down and I had more sail up [eight sails are the max on a Class40] with two reefs in the main. In the middle of the night a couple of days later — big winds and squalls always seemed to come in the middle of the night — I was running the motor to charge the batteries when a squall came up. I didn’t hear it — usually you hear the wind kick up and the rain with it, but I was down below. It came up very fast. The wind speed went from 15 or 20 knots to easily over 40. All of a sudden, the boat was sidewise. I wasn’t able to furl the Solent sail, the big jib, and it got destroyed.”

“One of the Solent’s battens was hanging out, and I couldn’t get it down. The flapping batten then punched a hole in the staysail, so two of my sails were out of commission. . . .”

“I was probably 45th out of the 53 Class40s at the start, and I’d worked my way up to maybe 15th by the time I withdrew. The biggest reason I quit was because of the Solent being partially unfurled. It shook around so much that the forestay chafed.”

Holding out a four-foot-length of severely frayed rope, he said, “This attaches to the bow and holds the forestay. If this had let go, I probably would have lost the mast, with thousands of miles to go.”

He was, as aforesaid, 13 days out when he made the decision, six to eight days shy of fetching Guadeloupe. 

It was disappointing, he agreed, “but you weigh the odds. First of all, you don’t want to injure yourself. In addition to everything else, my reefing lines for the mainsail had failed. I had to manually tie the lines, standing up, with the boat rocking and rolling. I was wearing a harness, but a swinging main could have sent me flying. I could have been thrown back and hit my head. The motion of the boat is very violent in big seas — you have to brace yourself all the time. It was all I could do to heat water and pour it on the freeze-dried food. It’s hard doing sail changes with the boat moving around so much. . . .” 

“So, you start to weigh all of these things, and the safer course of action, with two head sails destroyed, and with the mast having the potential to fall because the forestay, which anchors it, was about to give way — I didn’t want to be thousands of miles from the nearest shore without a mast — was to withdraw.”

He was unsure that he’d do a solo ocean race again. Fall generally is a good time to make the crossing, the hurricane season having theoretically passed and with the trade winds blowing from east to west. “But the stream of low-pressure systems that went across the Atlantic messed up the trade winds. I should have been sailing off-wind rather than going upwind all the time.”

“What would I have done differently . . . ? I guess I might have sailed a little more conservatively, but it was a race and I was pushing the boat hard.”

He would, he added, have the manufacturer analyze the two broken check stays, “continuous multi-strand carbon cable stays that run from the stern to about three-quarters the way up the mast. When they failed, I had to drop the staysail — the mast could have been damaged.”

He’d maintained communications with his wife and with Hall all the while, the interviewee said. “The boat has two satellite phones in addition to a tracking device. My wife was wondering why I was going in the direction I was going in.”

“The boat would stop, or go in a different direction,” Audrey Niewenhous said. “He was going zero knots, and he was supposed to be averaging 10 to 15.”

“When the check stays went, I deeply reefed the main,” said her husband. “To take the sails down I had to climb the mast. . . . I had vastly less sail area, but I was still going pretty fast because the wind was blowing so hard. . . .”

Asked again if he’d do it again, he thought a moment. “We’ll see . . . my hands are still a mess, my knees are sore. . . . Yes, I probably will,” he said, laughing.