It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worrell

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1998

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Worrell

One kind of lunatic sails the Indy 500 of catamran racing. Another dreams it up.
By Brad Wetzler

Daytona Beach, Florida. Day four. The Treasure Island Inn is that sort of spring-breakers' haven where you might observe water balloons being launched from a seventh-story balcony or a naked University of Kansas freshman swinging on a bedsheet vine. But on this steamy May morning, the party is clearly over. A creaky elevator door opens and closes, disgorging a death march of squinty-eyed, sunburned zombies who stagger through the lobby, past the grits-and-grease breakfast buffet, the rumbling ice machines, and the tepid hot tub. They file down to the beach, moving among the sunbathers and oiled-up musclemen. These aren't your typical vacation casualties. Decked out in so much survival gear that they can hardly move, they are actually world-class catamaraners, a rather obscure breed of elite sailor. Ranging in age from 22 to 64, many with patchy beards and burger-fed paunches, these 37 men and one woman are the saddle-sore competitors in something called the Worrell 1000, a 13-day, thousand-mile, two-person race from Fort Lauderdale to Virginia Beach. This morning they're recovering from two days of foul-weather sailing and a few too many Coronas.

Out on the pool deck, watching it all from a safe distance, is a short man in red pants holding a clipboard. He may look more like the hotel's shuffleboard instructor, but Michael Worrell — a 55-year-old Virginia Beach entrepreneur with droopy eyes and a jockey's build — is in fact a legendary cat sailor and the mastermind of this event. Between swigs of his morning coffee, Worrell makes notes about the wind, the boats, and the generally sorry state of his racers. Every few minutes, he trots inside to the lobby, where his assistant updates the official Worrell 1000 Web site with fresh data. (Thank the Lord for the Web site, modern sports promotion's answer to cold and indifferent media!) According to Worrell, it's logged more than 300,000 hits in three days, evidence that he's got a nascent big-time sporting event on his hands — a potential Indy 500, say, but with boats. And beer. And without the paying fans and the television coverage and the million-dollar purse and the storied history. Still, Worrell's pretty darn excited. "You can't convince me that the Wuhhrll is a product people don't want!" he says, his Virginia accent thick as marbles in his mouth.

It's an ambitious dream, to bring long-distance catamaran racing into the national consciousness. Worrell's been chasing after it for 20 years, with his eponymous Tour-de-France-style race, born from a barroom bet in 1974 and run intermittently since 1976. But the Worrell 1000 has never quite risen above its cult status among hard-core catamaraners. For one thing, it's hard to whip fans into a frenzy when the real action is miles offshore, the boats bucking to the day's finish line some 80 nautical miles away. The most excitement that the usually meager crowd can hope for is that at least one poor sap will capsize on his evening approach and dangle helplessly from trapeze wires while being pelted by waves.

In the wider world of extreme ocean sailing, the Worrell 1000 is but a blip on the screen, its meandering southern coastline venue tame next to the howling and frigid Southern Ocean. It does have its challenges, mostly on account of the featherweight boats, which tend to behave like blowing trash in heavy winds. But overall, the seemingly recreational details of the race — the themey motels, the resort-town locales, the wave-jumping catamarans — tend to bleed the Worrell 1000 of any high drama. Even the race's motto is unintentionally underwhelming: "Iron Men, Plastic Boats."

And then, of course, there's the racers' propensity for late-night boozing (occasionally requiring the attention of local police), which doesn't project quite the extreme image that Michael Worrell is after. Just last night Martin Thompson and Gregory Barber — an up-and-coming young team sailing Australia II — pulled off their drysuits at the door of the Windjammer Bar and stayed out until 6 a.m. And they've spent the better part of this morning instructing their road crew to load up on fireworks for later.

Nonetheless, the smattering of die-hard fans of the 1998 Worrell 1000 have been treated to a thrilling show thus far. The first leg, 92 miles north from Fort Lauderdale to Jensen Beach, brought smooth sailing and sunny skies. On day two, however, severe thunderstorms and waterspouts pummeled the fleet during the 69-mile run up the coast to Cocoa Beach. Chief among the casualties: neophyte sailor Shane Nestle, who was blown off his boat and spent four hours bobbing in the surf before sputtering ashore amid a flock of startled sunbathers. And just yesterday, crewman Jason Sneed of Chick's Beach took a bolt of lightning in the arm; Chick's Beach managed to win that day's leg, though, thanks to the skipper, 43-year-old American Randy Smyth, a two-time silver medalist in Olympic catamaran racing who weathered the day's squall in championship form.

The remainder of the race promises even more drama: Worrell's been tracking a Texas-size low-pressure system over Kansas that's headed for the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras, 600 miles north of today's Daytona start. He paces the pool deck anxiously, surveying the bleary sailors as they straggle from the hotel. "Every drama has its villain," he says, his voice rising and quivering like that of a preacher calling for salvation. "And ours is that system in Kansas. God help the sailors if we all shall meet in Hatteras!"

Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Day Five.

It's 10 a.m., and the boats are lined up, pontoons nosing the lapping surf, preparing to launch from the Jacksonville Beach Comfort Inn. After 301 nautical miles and four days of racing, Randy Smyth's Chick's Beach holds a tenuous three-minute lead over top American rival Key Sailing II. Like jittery astronauts, Smyth and Sneed run through a final checklist for the longest leg of the race, today's 121-mile sail to Tybee Island, Georgia.

Duct tape? Check.

Sunscreen? Check.

Peanut-butter sandwich? Check.

A few cub reporters from the local paper have arrived to capture the moment, and a bathing-suit-clad high school chorus on tour from Illinois is warbling through The Star-Spangled Banner. Then the starting horn sounds, and the sailors hurl themselves onto their boats and vanish into the spray.

Half an hour later, a convoy of Worrell 1000 support-crew vehicles speeds onto the northbound lanes of I-95, zooming past the shotgun shacks that dot the swampy landscape. This is the shadow Worrell 1000, a Cannonball Run with one nightly goal: to score the best beachfront rooms possible. Today's drive to Tybee Island is only 165 miles, but throw in stops for boat parts and the occasional go-cart ride, not to mention slow credit card verification at the HoJo's lunch counter, and the two races are neck and neck.

Fortunately, the road crews know how to put competition into perspective. Inside Australia I's official race headquarters — a Ford Econoline van sporting a tight butts drive me nuts bumper sticker — a shirtless man with a graying beard is dangerously close to losing his chin hairs to the blades of an electric blender. He's the Aussie's boat mechanic. Official duty at present: firing up a round of margaritas. "It's time to adopt the motto of our local sponsor, Zero Subs of Virginia Beach," Australia coach Don Algie shouts, lifting his plastic glass in a toast: "'We are hot and on a roll!'"

By night, however, the road crews have different priorities: swapping out frayed mainstay wires, epoxying over hull cracks, and sanding down daggerboards. And while their medical expertise ranks somewhere between inept and nonexistent, they seem eerily attuned to their sailors' needs — if only in a coarse, tough-love kind of way. "Fluids! I need fluids!" they can be heard screaming as the sailors make shore. "Get me the cooler!" They swaddle the racers in towels and, if necessary, fireman-carry them to their rooms, where they patch wounds with duct tape and force-feed them pizza and sport shakes. Sometimes they issue Solonic decrees: "Everybody in the hot tub at eight!" And occasionally, when a weary sailor locks himself in his room, they'll get a key from the desk clerk and use some psychological warfare to get him back on the boat.

Battered spirits and boat injuries notwithstanding, most of their charges are top-shelf sailors, veterans of the national catamaran race circuit who trailer their boats to triangle regattas and distance races 12 months a year. The Worrell 1000, with its absurd length and occasionally life-threatening conditions, is by far the most grueling. Its one rule, as detailed on the official Worrell 1000 beer huggie: Keep the Continent on Your Left and Go as Fast as You Can.

"For some of these guys, this race is the biggest thing in their lives," says former Worrell racer Rick White. "In December, they're home sanding daggerboards and dreaming about Cape Hatteras. And Michael Worrell is the guy who makes this fantasy possible." The sailors view Worrell with a mixture of awe and bemusement — an idiot savant of sorts who dreamed up this profound event but often seems unable to control it.

Tybee Island, Georgia. Later that day.

For Worrell, who's set up shop here at the Ocean Plaza Beach Resort, the road trip north with his girlfriend and his 15-year-old daughter is both an epic, military-style campaign and a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Growing up in blue-collar Virginia Beach, Worrell was a teenage lifeguard before he and his brother, Chris, opened a bar amid the saltwater taffy stands and flip-flop vendors on the Virginia Beach boardwalk. Life took a radical tack in 1968, though, when a man named Hobie Alter invented an inexpensive, fiberglass catamaran that could be piloted through crashing surf, right off the beach. Yachting was suddenly accessible to the great unwashed — including Worrell, who then pushing 25 with a failed marriage behind him was all too susceptible to any new fever.

"My Hobie Cat didn't come with instructions," Worrell says, "so I rode it standing up, like a surfboard. I was addicted." In September 1974, over a game of pool, the topic turned to high-seas adventure: What was a cat sailor's ultimate stunt? Worrell, looking to seal his reputation as the Evel Kneivel of the multihull, looked up from his cue: "Florida," he said. "I could take my Hobie around Hatteras and all the way to the Keys."

Two weeks later, he and friend Steve McGarrett were clawing their way along the Outer Banks through raging squalls. They weathered countless capsizes and long days in a no-tell motel waiting for Worrell's brother to wire them more money. Finally, 20 days after leaving Virginia Beach, they limped ashore in Fort Lauderdale.

By the next summer, Worrell had convinced himself that a Virginia-to-Florida race could rank up there with the most famous events in sport: Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, the CBA All-Star game. What did it matter that only five boats participated in 1976, or that he had to move the starting line to Fort Lauderdale to take advantage of prevailing winds? Or that debts were threatening to swamp his dream? So certain was Worrell of success that in 1979 he sold his stake in his bar, by then a booming nightspot called Worrell Bros, to his brother. "People said I was stupid," he says. "But that's what I did."

By the mid-80s the race had earned a small but loyal core of a dozen or so teams and a slow-growing reputation for epic surf and big winds. But it had also swallowed $500,000 in loans. There were the minor setbacks as well, like Worrell's arrest in 1985 for passing a $4,000 rubber check, and the time in 1986 when his promotional Jeep was overtaken by a wave and washed out to sea. In 1987, nearly broke, he sold the race.

"It was a blessing in disguise," Worrell says. Suddenly unfettered by the minutiae of catamaran racing, he was able to focus on another dream: to become the king of fast-food steamed shrimp. "I designed a special cooking process," he says, "and a special box to keep them hot, but not soggy." Worrell revamped a Golden Skillet in Virginia Beach and drew up plans to open franchises around the country. "For about two days, I was worth something like $16 million — on paper, that is," he says. Alas, when shrimp prices soared in 1994, Worrell's paper fortune evaporated. He filed for bankruptcy, boarded up Worrell's Steamed Shrimp, and set about rethinking things.

Then, as if by the act of some unknowable hand of fate, Worrell's original dream became available to him once again. The Worrell 1000's owners had abandoned the financially troubled race in 1989. After a few minor negotiations, Worrell reclaimed it as his, and in May 1997 the new and ... well, the new Worrell 1000 was launched.

Hatteras, North Carolina. Day Ten.

It's been a week of clear skies and hard winds, and the 18 remaining boats, with Chick's Beach in the lead, have reached the Outer Banks in record time. But now, on a stormy evening outside the General Mitchell Motel, Worrell's deepest fantasies — and worst nightmares — are coming true. The low-pressure system he's been touting has stalled over the Atlantic, the Coast Guard has issued a small-craft advisory, and judging from the reports coming in over Worrell's walkie-talkie, the sailors are getting battered in 30-knot winds as they make their way from Cape Lookout.

"Boat in distress! Boat in distress!" Chesapeake Bay Cats has radioed for help; they're breaking up and drifting toward the deadly Frying Pan Shoals. Nuclear's sails are hopelessly shredded, and ten-foot waves have swept the crew of Rudee's Restaurant overboard. It's getting dark, and it's hard to tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins.

Worrell is trying not to come unhinged. The race, which has always seemed dangerously close to spinning out of control, has in fact done just that. He is worried: worried about the sailors and worried that he's about to miss the greatest opportunity of his career. Here it is, the wildest day in Worrell 1000 history, and the only camera crews in sight belong to a couple of local TV stations. More troubling is the fact that while Worrell usually keeps the Coast Guard apprised of the race's progress, he decided not to tell them that he was sending 16 boats into the squall for fear they'd force him to cancel today's leg.

The sailors may be well equipped for foul weather — each has his own nylon drysuit, EPIRB locator beacon, GPS device, and VHF radio — but there are storms that catamarans aren't designed to weather. This is one of them. Still, as the racers reasoned when they launched from Atlantic Beach this morning, they'd signed up for extreme conditions. Plus, there's a certain comfort in the thought that you can float atop a piece of broken hull for a long time waiting for rescue — that and the fact that to date no one has died in the Worrell 1000.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like any streak will be broken, at least not today. Two boats, Worrell learns via cell phone, have washed up on a tiny island, and fishermen are medicating the crews with spaghetti and scotch. A helicopter from Camp Lejeune is air-dropping Marines near the dismasted Austin. A Coast Guard cutter is motoring toward the foundering Nuclear. "You tell me that people wouldn't watch this kind of excitement," Worrell proclaims breathlessly. "You tell me that this story doesn't have a villain. You're witnessing the most dramatic day in Worrell history!"

Then, as if on cue, somebody yells from the beach, "A boat! A boat! It's yellow, I think!"

A catamaran is flying from wave crest to wave crest on one hull. "It's Randy!" someone cries, as Chick's Beach slides down a Banzai-Pipeline-style breaker and hurtles onto dry sand.

Tomorrow morning at sunrise, the beach will be a graveyard: broken masts and splintered daggerboards, two still-smoking pig carcasses, and half a dozen empty Crown Royal bottles from the road crews' first-aid efforts. But this carnage won't dampen Michael Worrell's spirits: After all, the reigning champion triumphed over the race's most harrowing storm to date, and though only six boats are still intact, the rest are at least partially accounted for, washed up in pieces down the coast.

Virginia Beach, Virginia. Day 12.

Worrell paces the boardwalk in his hometown, working the walkie-talkie and squinting out to sea through the black night sky. Except for a handful of support crew down at the beach, he's alone. A tiny crowd of spectators gathered here after hearing about the race on the morning news, but they waited hours without seeing a single boat and then wandered off, bored. It's after ten o'clock; the sailors were due at about three. Finally one of the crew hollers to Worrell, "Got a call on the radio! Wind's so light some of them have been drifting backwards. It's going to be more like 3 a.m.!"

As finish-line scenarios go, it's not ideal. Worrell's grand plan was to tack on a final, 34-mile sail from Virginia Beach to Norfolk Harbor, where a crane would hoist the boats from the water before a jubilant crowd. With wind like this, the sailors could walk to Norfolk faster.

Worrell knows it: The race is over. Leader Randy Smyth's got an hour between him and the nearest competitor, and nobody's going to catch him, even with the additional 34-mile leg. So Worrell's thinking about how tomorrow he'll announce his decision to declare Smyth the winner here in Virginia Beach. And the fiercest Worrell 1000 in history will go into the record books.

So Worrell says good night to the stragglers on the beach and shuffles over to Worrell Bros, now a multilevel bonanza of seafood, billiards, and beer that's no longer owned by anyone named Worrell. In the flashing blue glow of a neon worrell sign, a bouncer reaches out to collect a cover charge but waves him through when he sees the drooping eyes and the official Worrell 1000 cap.

Once inside, Worrell's attention drifts, pulled by the fading photographs that line the walls: pictures of a young Michael Worrell at the helm of his catamaran, crashing through waves, sailing high on one hull. He leans in to get a better look, reaching across a booth full of sunburned tourists and fried calamari. "A good business is a lot like an automobile," he says loudly, to no one in particular. "If you've got to fight keep it under control, then something's wrong under the hood. A good business can be steered with one finger on the wheel."

The diners smile uncertainly, but Worrell has already turned and is heading for the door. The night air smells of popcorn and saltwater taffy, and as Worrell walks out onto the sand, his red slacks flap in the wind. He's looking for his boats, and he'll wait here, monitoring the radio and scanning the surf, if it takes all night.

Brad Wetzler is a former senior editor of Outside.

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