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

FOR A GUY WHO HAS trouble raising money, Lewis lives well. His home, on 46 acres of lakefront property in Lincolnville, Maine, is about five miles from the old lobster port of Camden. There's a comfortable ranch house with an Explorer, an Expedition, and a Vanagon in the driveway and an iceboat, mountain bikes, and a red Austin-Healey Sprite convertible (Molly's 30th birthday present) in the garage. Perched on a giant boulder up the hill is a high-ceilinged barn that serves as Team Adventure HQ. The rest of the toys are down by the water: a Super Cub seaplane, a Hobie Power Skiff, a Laser, an Optimist, a rowing shell, two kayaks, a canoe, water skis and wakeboards, and a trampoline.

Considering Lewis's accomplishments as a sailor, the phrase "gentleman of leisure" might be unfair, but a product of Northeastern privilege he undeniably is. His father's mother was a Saltonstall, a well-known name in Massachusetts politics and finance. His great uncle Leverett was a four-term Republican senator who served as governor of Massachusetts.

The second of four children, Cam grew up in Sherborn, 16 miles outside Boston. A number of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived nearby, on land originally purchased by his great-grandfather Richard Saltonstall, a Boston financier. In the summer, the clan would decamp to the island of Vinalhaven, in Maine, a 20-minute speedboat ride from Camden. The great house that once belonged to Lewis's grandmother is now shared by Lewis, his siblings, and their cousins. It hasn't changed much since they were tykes. "Vinalhaven is dry soil," explains one summer rusticator. "It's a bunch of old Bostonian farts."

At Vinalhaven, Lewis remembers learning to steer stout North Haven dinghies at the age of four by grasping the tiller and watching the finger of his father, George, a Boston money manager and avid weekend sailor, as it wagged back and forth, right or left. "Cam's father was a pretty imposing figure," recalls one family friend. "He was the commodore of the yacht club—everyone called him The Commodore—but all the kids were scared to sail with him."

In 1970, when Lewis was 12, his parents divorced, and Lewis quickly learned to live with the parent who gave him the most freedom. But when Cam was 17, he came home one night to find an ambulance and several police cars in the driveway and his 11-year-old sister, Lynnie, sobbing hysterically. His mother, Laura, had overdosed on Valium, the drug her doctors had prescribed for her bouts of depression. Lewis doesn't like to talk about the suicide, but in his memoir he writes that her death "left me with an overwhelming sense of how short and precious our journey on this planet is. I wish to do and see as much as I can. While I can."

For the next ten years, Lewis did so by racing sailcraft, winning those four world championships in two ultracompetitive small-boat classes, the Finn dinghy and the two-man 505. In the process, he gained the approval of his father. Still, it wasn't until 1986, when Lewis met Bruno Peyron, that he glimpsed a different and potentially more rewarding side of sailing.

Peyron, the son of a French tanker captain, had sailed across the Pond from France for the 100th birthday of the Statue of Liberty. With its 6,000-square-foot spinnaker emblazoned with a likeness of the statue, his 75-foot catamaran, Atlantique Liberté, created a stir as he wove it in and out of the tall ship traffic in New York Harbor. Impressed, Lewis invited Peyron and his crew to crash on his floor in Newport, Rhode Island. They stayed for months—and stuck Lewis with a large mooring fee when they finally pulled out—but Peyron repaid the kindness by inviting Lewis to sail with him on the multihull circuit in Europe and, in late 1992, on the Commodore Explorer. That trip became one of the more remarkable sagas in the history of seafaring—and in many ways a model for Lewis's own approach to The Race.

"Bruno was sort of in the same position we are," says Lewis. "He had enough money to get the boat in the water, but not enough to campaign it." But he did have luck: Peyron and his crew overcame two near flips, waves that put a three-foot crack in the starboard hull, and hurricane-force winds that nearly drove them onto a lee shore near Cape Horn.

With less than a week to go, screaming along in the mid-Atlantic, Commodore Explorer ran into two sperm whales lounging at the surface. Both angered whales gave futile chase. In Lewis's singular phrasing, the impact was like "hitting a deer, running over a raccoon, and a railroad spike, in a pickup, and blowing a tire, all at the same time." Commodore Explorer crossed the finish line a scant 17 hours and 45 minutes ahead of the 80-day deadline, but that was good enough. Fifty thousand people turned out to welcome the crew when they put in to Peyron's home port of La Baule, France. A month later, Lewis and his longtime girlfriend, Molly Fitch, were married in Rhode Island. He spent all of the $10,000 Peyron paid him on her ring.

Seven years have gone by since then and the euphoria of the Jules Verne run seems to have slipped away. Or at least it has for Molly. According to her husband (she declined comment), Molly, aware that five of Lewis's friends have died in sailing accidents, is not convinced that racing around the world again is the right thing for the father of their two young boys, seven-year-old Max and four-year-old Beau, to be doing.

"I have to reassure her every day," Lewis says. "She says, 'You've done it once, why do you need to do it again?' But to me, that's why I want to do it again. I know what's involved. I know the risks. I certainly don't have a death wish."


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