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.

   
 

 
 
 

THE BREEZE HAD BEEN BUILDING all day. By the end of the afternoon, it was flat-out honking at 25 knots plus, and Penobscot Bay, halfway up the coast of Maine, had become a sheet of windblown spume. As Cameron Lewis and Eric Cusin neared the first windward mark on Lewis's 26-foot Dragonfly class trimaran and the two prepared to set their spinnaker—the billowing, parachute-shaped sail that can add gobs of downwind speed—Cusin noticed that only one other crew was following suit. His first thought was one of intense pride; not everyone can handle a spinnaker in heavy air. Then he began to worry.

For the past couple of years, 15-year-old Cusin had worked as a summertime au pair for Lewis and his wife, Molly. The deal was that he would help look after their two young boys on weekdays and sail with Cam—a four-time world champion in small boats and a legendary multihull ocean racer—on weekends. But it wasn't until that windy day during the annual Camden-to-Rockland race that Cusin fully appreciated what he'd signed on for.

A few minutes into the first downwind leg, a big gust hit the fleet. The other crew with a spinnaker up momentarily lost control of the sail. As it ballooned, their mast suddenly buckled and crashed into the water. Cusin looked at his skipper, eyes wide. With a large lead and the rest of the field too cowed to put up spinnakers and give chase, he assumed Lewis would soon be dropping theirs as well. Nope. Lewis kept playing the huge sail, whooping gleefully as the trimaran shot across the bay. "The speed was insane," Cusin recalls. "We had the leeward hull completely submerged. I was pretty worried. It really looked like it was going to tear right off the boat. Finally I said something about it to Cam. He's like, 'Well, if it goes, just jibe over onto the other hull.'"

Looking back, Cusin laughs at Lewis's nonchalance. One of the hulls flies off? No problem. We'll just finish the race, then go back and pick up the pieces. Remind Lewis of the moment, however, and he tilts his head to one side, shakes it, then exhales through his nose in a bemused, slightly exasperated manner.

"Well, yeah," he says. "We were racing."


   
   
 

 

 
 
 
 

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.


   
   
 

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."


   
   
 
 
 
 

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."


   
   
 

AT AMBROSE LIGHT, which marks the entrance to the New York Harbor channel, the wind is blowing out of the east at 12 to 14 knots and the seas are running a mellow two to three feet. Under motor power in these conditions, Team Adventure's sister ship Club Med can do ten knots; on a beam reach—sailing directly across the wind—she can easily do 30.

Club Med's skipper, the 43-year-old New Zealander Grant Dalton, has raced in five around-the-world races—albeit on monohulls—and has won two of them. Watching his handpicked crew in action, expertly tacking the boat, it's hard to believe Team Adventure will stand a chance against his well-funded campaign. But a week later, three days out of New York and bound for England, Club Med cracks up. They're surfing along in 25 to 30 knots of breeze, in "a fairly rough but not dangerous" sea, when the port crash box—a protective false bow for absorbing accidental impacts—simply falls off. No one can say why: They don't seem to have hit anything solid. Three days later the boat limps into Newport, a few mattresses stuffed into the broken-off tip of the hull to keep the water out. A day after that she's hoisted aboard a freighter and shipped back to France, where the Ollier yard will rebuild her.

By ocean-racing standards, it's not a particularly serious incident. Certainly it's nowhere near as disastrous as when a 45-foot-long section of one bow of Pete Goss's Team Philips broke off during sea trials in March. Nor is it as frightening as the one that befell PlayStation, Steve Fossett's boat, last December, when the mainsail got stuck in a building gale and the boat nearly pitchpoled.

For Team Adventure, these setbacks have been both curse and blessing. "Goss got the Queen to christen his boat. He had half a million people visit his construction site," Lewis notes, "so when the bow of his boat broke off, he got a huge amount of PR. But that's really been a disservice to the rest of us, trying to get sponsorship, because there's this idea that these boats are dangerous and that makes people reluctant to sign up." On the other hand, whatever changes Ollier makes to Club Med can be incorporated into Team Adventure. "In a way," Lewis says, "they did a lot of boat testing for us."

What the failures underscore, though, is the experimental nature of the new maxi-cats and the risks of designing boats for speed. For Lewis, of course, that's precisely the appeal. Unlike the America's Cup, where "you've got these slow dinosaur monohulls match racing," Lewis prefers "adventure sailing": ocean racing, challenging records, exploring the high latitudes. No doubt, these pursuits require a different kind of skipper—maybe even an easygoing guy from Maine.

Listening to Lewis talk, I'm reminded of the conversation he had with Jacques Vincent the day before the Quebec–Saint Malo 2000 race. The two of them had been discussing preparations, and Vincent, frustrated by Lewis's vagueness, had dug out a notebook and begun to make a precise list of things they'd need for The Race. Lewis tipped his head back and smiled, gently mocking his old friend for his meticulousness.

"Hey, Jackie," he said. "Don't worry. We're going sailing."

Vincent looked at him for an extra second and nodded. "OK, Cam," he said.

Correspondent Rob Buchanan wrote about the life and death of Guy Waterman in the June issue.


 
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