Go, Speed Racer, Go

Cam Lewis says he knows the risks—and he's ready. Ready to sprint 25,000 miles in one of the fastest wind-driven vessels ever to grace the ocean, and become the first American skipper to set a round-the-world speed sailing record. That is, if he and his boat make it back in one piece.

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine



TALL AND LOOSE-LIMBED, WITH a shock of dark hair and an eerily unlined face, 43-year-old Cameron Carruthers Lewis would not look out of place posing in the pages of the Brooks Brothers catalog or sauntering around at the halftime of the Harvard-Yale game, a cashmere sweater slung over his shoulders. With a comfortable private income, a beautiful former-model wife, two towheaded boys, and a forested estate a few minutes' drive from Penobscot Bay, he is, at least on paper, the ultimate preppie prince. But there's one thing the buttoned-down stereotype can't quite explain: Lewis's inexhaustible appetite for what he calls "hauling the mail." While the rest of the world was growing up and settling down, this privileged, mildly dyslexic schoolboy took an adolescent passion—sailing boats as fast as they could possibly go—and made a career of it.

"Cam doesn't particularly care if stuff breaks," jokes Dicky Saltonstall, 40, an artist and amateur boatbuilder in Rockport, Maine, and Lewis's second cousin. "The only thing he ever cared about was going fast."

By the age of six, when Lewis won his first race, he'd already figured out the magic balance of wind, sail, and helm, and through his teens he rapidly progressed through the ranks of dinghy sailing to the heights of big-boat racing. But with his penchant for speed, it was inevitable that he'd be drawn to multihulls. Though most American sailors have never really warmed to anything bigger than Hobie Cats—those brightly colored beach catamarans popular at resorts—larger multihulls, because they weigh less and have less wetted surface than monohulls, are by far the fastest wind-powered vessels on earth. Perhaps the best illustration: the 1988 America's Cup, in which a 60-foot catamaran skippered by Dennis Conner and crewed by Lewis, among others, handily defeated Michael Fay's behemoth 120-foot monohull, New Zealand. Since then, nearly every significant sailing record held by monohulls has been eclipsed by a multi, often by more than 30 percent.

In 1993, aboard Commodore Explorer, an 86-foot catamaran skippered by French sailor and impresario Bruno Peyron, Lewis had a hand in toppling one of the biggest records of them all: the nonstop around-the-world mark, whacking a full 30 days off Frenchman Titouan Lamazou's 1992 record of 109 days. Lewis's memoir of the voyage, Around the World in Seventy-Nine Days, recounts the five-man crew's pursuit of the Jules Verne trophy, initially an award for the first boat to circle the globe, departing and returning to Île d'Ouessant, France, at the southwestern tip of the English channel, in less than the proverbial 80 days, and now given to round-the-world pace setters. The book reveals something obvious to anyone who spends time with Cam. Lewis the storyteller is as over-the-top as Lewis the sailor. He writes, and talks, in free-associative, ever-more-elaborate torrents. Here, for instance, is his explanation of crossing the trampoline from one hull to the other in high seas: "For those who have access to a waterbed, try to walk on it in sea boots. It's similiar, but to get the real feeling you have to put it in a pickup truck with a crazed teenager driving in New York City on a rainy, winter night at rush hour."

With the excitement that greeted Explorer's return to France, and subsequent round-the-world records put up by New Zealander Peter Blake and Englishman Robin Knox-Johnston (74 days in a 92-foot catamaran) and French skipper and television personality Olivier de Kersauson (71 days in a 90-foot trimaran), Lewis's former skipper Peyron dreamed of bigger boats and faster times. Thus was born The Race of the Millennium, an all-out speed derby in which a half-dozen "maxi-cats" in the 99- to 120-foot range will depart Barcelona this December 31 (see race map, right). The boats are capable of circling the globe in 65 days or less, but only if they stay in one piece. So far, they haven't. Three of the five boats built for The Race have suffered major gear or hull failures during shakedown cruises. "If they all make it all the way around, I'll be amazed," says Herb McCormick, the New York Times yachting correspondent. "Actually, I'll be amazed if any of them makes it without some major problem. It's going to be a bloody war of attrition."

Nevertheless, some of the most colorful names in sailing are readying to do battle, including Steve Fossett, the 56-year-old billionaire sailor-balloonist from Chicago, and Pete Goss, 38, a former commando in the Royal Marines, lionized in the British press for the daring rescue of a fellow yachtsman in the Southern Ocean during the 1997 single-handed Vendée Globe. (For more on Lewis's rivals, see "Handicapping The Race," page 88.) With a tighter schedule and less corporate backing than most of his rivals, Lewis has to be considered a bit of a dark horse. Yet with his small-boat-racing background and previous multihull experience, he's arguably the best pure sailor of the lot. He also has a very fast boat: one of three identical 110-foot catamarans built for The Race by Gilles Ollier, a noted big-cat designer and builder from Vannes, on the coast of Brittany. (For more on boat design, see "Real Cool Cat," page 87.)

"There are two ways to approach The Race," says Peyron. "The first is to try to imagine what could be the best technological solution to sailing around the world ten years from now—that's what [Goss's] Team Philips did. The other way is to try to learn as much as we can from the ten to 15 past years of technological advancements. Cam Lewis has chosen to go the second route." Peyron pauses before adding, "If he's ready on schedule, he should be one of the strongest competitors."

Considering his love of sailing on the edge, Lewis could also be the first one plucked out of the water. Capsizing a multihull is not like rolling over in a monohull, whose keel usually causes it to roll upright again. "It's a program-stopper," Lewis admits. "Once you're upside down, you stay upside down."

"Cam is kinda crazy," says Randy Smyth, a champion catamaran sailor who now runs Lewis's sailmaking program and will be aboard Lewis's boat for The Race. "This race is exactly the kind of thing the guy was made to do. He'll be focused on every wave, sailing that 25,000 miles like he's racing beach cats."

While his rivals won't criticize Lewis's potential as a big-boat captain on the record, some privately question his freewheeling style. Their attitude is that he'll be a threat—if he gets his act together. Winning an around-the-world race, they point out, depends largely on getting ready for it. And on that score, Lewis is trailing the field. As this story went to press, his boat still hadn't been launched, several million dollars remained to be raised, and a title sponsor—and name for his boat—had yet to be secured.

A nonstop circumnavigation is a huge test for any skipper. It's defeated many aspirants and driven a few completely around the bend. (One contestant in the first around-the-world race in 1968, Donald Crowhurst, apparently threw himself overboard.) Lewis seems to be handling the pressure, but the question remains: Is Cam Lewis a leader of men, or just a guy who likes to go fast? A successful Race campaign would validate his entire career, but if he goes to sea unprepared and things go wrong, he risks getting written off as one more vainglorious dilettante—a "dilly," as Lewis would say—in a sport already full of them.


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