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

LEWIS STANDS IN the back of Dicky Saltonstall's banana-yellow speedboat, hanging on with one hand as we pound down the St. Lawrence River past the towering ramparts of Quebec City. It's a sunny Sunday morning in July, and there are hundreds of boats out, including a mammoth car ferry so packed with spectators that it tilts alarmingly to one side. Out in the main channel a half-dozen 60-foot trimarans have just crossed the starting line in the Transat 2000, a 3,000-mile race from Quebec City to Saint-Malo, France. The event is a big deal in France, where the start and finish are televised live and the winning skipper is feted like a Super Bowl MVP.

The wind is blowing fresh out of the east, funneling up the river, and the tide is ebbing hard, setting up a steep chop. Despite the 200-horsepower outboard motor, Saltonstall is hard-pressed to keep up with the trimarans, which are cranking downriver at close to 20 knots. I'm impressed; I've never seen sail-powered vessels move anywhere near this fast. But Lewis just gives his dismissive snort.

"A lot of these guys, they really don't know how to sail," he says, pointing out a couple of slow-moving 50-foot sloops and a trimaran, Bayer en France, that comes to a virtual stop every time it tacks. "They've got a hydraulic sheet on the main," he says. "Hard to let it out fast enough, and hard to get it back in. So unless they let the traveler go at just the right moment, they stall on every tack."

It seems a small thing, a brief stumble at the start of a marathon. But incredibly, nine days later, all six of the trimarans cross the finish line in France within an hour and a half of one another. Bayer winds up finishing third, 27 minutes behind the winner. It's hard not to remember Lewis's critique and wonder if a few bad tacks on the St. Lawrence cost them the race.

The day before, however, it had been the crew of Bayer en France that was doing the questioning. Lewis had climbed aboard to talk to a couple of its crew about sailing with him in The Race. Both Jacques Vincent, an old crewmate of Lewis's from Commodore Explorer, and Julien Cressant, a rigging specialist and America's Cup veteran, were interested, but skeptical. Would his boat be on the water in time? Who was doing the weather routing—the all-important meteorological interpretation that would allow the yacht to surf its way around Antarctica on the curling edges of weather fronts? Who was making the sails? And who else was on the crew?

Lewis tried to reassure the Frenchmen. "Ah, the boat'll be in the water more or less on time," he said, referring to the September 20 launch date. "I mean, if they're behind on something they haven't told me about it." (The launch date has since slipped to mid-October.) It was the same story for everything else. He had a team in New Hampshire "pretty much" signed up to do the weather, and his old friend Smyth had said he would oversee the sailmaking. There was a lot of conditional phrasing, and whenever some old friend strolled by or some "gi-normous" new yacht cruised past, Lewis would make the most of the distraction. Vincent and Cressant scanned his face, no doubt wondering what sort of skipper he'd make. Lewis is famed in French sailing circles not just for his sailing ability, but also for his nonstop talking. ("The guy has a sort of happy logorrhea," Peyron once wrote. "Sometimes you have to take his batteries out.") That day in Quebec City, however, he was maddeningly terse, at least about The Race.

Then again, it was hard not to be vague. Take the crew list, for instance. Lewis needed two navigators, two watch captains, and two more primary helmsmen, plus some big, strong lugs to grind the deck winches, and versatile guys who could handle the bow and the mast. Two of the crew had to be EMTs; other people would specialize in sails and rigging, composite repair, electronics, steering gear, and so on. But there's a risk to filling places too early: What if a sponsor comes along who, for publicity reasons, wants to handpick a couple of crew members?

In the end, it comes down to money—and more money. Five months before the start of the race, Lewis had raised only about half of what he thought he needed. Despite the economy of choosing a boat for which the molds already existed, its price tag was $4.5 million. And then there were the operating expenses: yard fees for maintenance and the inevitable repairs, crew salaries, a promotional campaign, liability and hull insurance...all in all, around $6 million.

Thanks to "inherited funds" and his own investments, Lewis doesn't have to work. But neither is he wealthy enough to write himself a $6 million check. To fund his dream, he joined forces with an old sailing partner, Larry Rosenfeld, 48, a software entrepreneur from Marblehead, Massachusetts, currently "on sabbatical." (In December 1998 Rosenfeld sold his software company, Concentra, to the database giant Oracle for $43 million.) Three years ago, the two founded Team Adventure, a nonprofit educational foundation that aims to connect their racing boat to elementary and junior high schools via the Internet—and encourage tax-exempt donations. (To date, there hasn't been a lot of progress on the classroom end of things).

Lewis and Rosenfeld began their money-raising campaign with a mass mailing to 550 "individuals of high net worth." Then, in October 1998, Lewis arranged to sail a bunch of Silicon Valley types around San Francisco Bay on Explorer, which Peyron lent him for the occasion. "It seemed like a good fit," recalls Richard Spindler, the publisher of Latitude 38, a California–based sailing magazine, who went along that day. "But most of these guys are into the America's Cup. They can take their mega-yachts down to Auckland and park them alongside the racecourse and hang out with all the other rich guys. For them, something like The Race is just too scary. You can get killed on one of these big cats."

Lewis's cowboy helmsmanship didn't help his cause. "At one point, he saw a bunch of boats racing over by Pier 39 and he took us roaring right into the middle of the fleet, running over a couple of course markers in the process," recalls another invitee. "'Hey, we're racing here,' somebody yelled. 'Doesn't look like it to me,' Cam goes. It was pretty arrogant. Everybody on board just wanted to cut a hole in the trampoline and crawl through."

"Cam is a free spirit," adds Spindler. "He's charismatic and fun-loving, not a corporate kiss-ass like a lot of these professional sailors. It's good for him and it's bad for him."

Not until November 1999 did Team Adventure find an angel: Andy McKelvey, a longtime powerboater and the founder and CEO of TMP Worldwide, the parent company of Monster.com, a job search site. On the very eve of Gilles Ollier's deadline, McKelvey came through with the $2 million needed to commission the boat.

The McKelvey story is an article of faith for Team Adventure. "No matter how hard we try," Rosenfeld says, "nothing is going to happen until the last minute. That's just the way it is."


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