Open 60 Ocean Planet – #104

I was at a boatshow a few years ago. The show had a racing boat “coffee grinder” set up so that studly young sailors like myself could amble up and prove our winch grinding worth (over 60 seconds with, surprise!, increasing resistance). The boatshow ran its course and as one giant deck ape after another posted their score I watched my standing drop until I was somewhere in the middle of the women’s division but that’s not my point! Bob was hanging out with some little guy (everyone looks little next to Bob), named Bruce Schwab from an organization called Ocean Planet. I met him, he didn’t say much but he seemed like a good guy. I later noticed Bruce’s name posted above all the big guys at the top of the grinder competition. A sleeper.

Three years later … my friend Hank runs a service out east that finds boats for crew and vice versa – I got one of OPO’s emails that mentioned space available on Bruce Schwab’s latest adventure, a cruise from the east coast to the Caribbean and on. Bruce, it turns out, is the only American to have finished the Vendee Globe – a singlehanded sailing race, non-stop, around the world. The boat is one of the super fast Open 60’s designed for the event. I couldn’t afford it but I wanted in on the adventure. We worked out a trade, my labor in exchange for a crew spot on the short Maine to RI jog.

Two days later I was in chilly, drizzly (though fall beautiful) Maine on the deck of Ocean Planet getting a briefing from Jason from Argo Rigging – SF. He was heading back to CA and was trying to explain to me about the work that still needed to be done before departure. I felt like I was on an alien spacecraft. Almost nothing looked familiar. Where were the rigging and spreaders? How did the (all carbon) mast get turned sideways? Where were the tracks and cars? Why was the top of the keel poking through the deck? This was truly a different kind of boat.

I do enjoy learning new stuff … especially about boats. OP has a carbon mast that sits on a bearing on the floor of the boat, forward of the keel. There is another bearing that it runs through at the deck. The two bearings not only support the mast while sailing but they allow the mast to rotate. My instinct was that the whole idea was not a good one. Bruce assured me that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages and that the boat and rig had survived two wide-open full-race circumnavigations.

The glossy black, carbon mast was round, large at the base and tapered as it climbed into the clouds. Connected at the base of the mast, the oddly shaped boom (box shaped with spreaders, don’t ask) had two carbon poles rigged from it upward and forward where they attached to the mast. What were they for? They were the vang, inverted of course.

The rigging was unconventional as well. There were no stays. There were three headsail furling drums. Two laying on deck and one lashed to the long bowsprit ready to have a spinnaker or gennaker attached and pulled out over the water. Each headsail was furled around a built-in PBO stay which helped keep forward tension on the mast. With the giant, nearly square main up, the rig got some aft tension from the main sheet. Additional aft tension was provided by port and starboard running backs – backstays that could be hauled forward for jibes and tacks.

The only thing I recognized on deck were the lines and winches. The winches were standard self-furlers but the lines just looked familiar because Bruce had stripped the covers off of Dacron line and slipped them over super high strength, low stretch spectra cores. Sheets were not lead through blocks on tracks but through rings that were infinitely adjustable by other lines. Where there were blocks they were lashed by spectra line to holes in the deck, all to save on weight. Did I mention that most of the deck fittings including all of the stantions were made of some odd colored, no rust metal – titanium of course.

Below, the center of the cabin was dominated by the nav station. When racing, Bruce sits in a car racing seat in front of his control panel which holds all of the boat’s gauges and the boat laptop which was used for navigation and weather. Looking up through small circular sealed ports Bruce can see the rig. Between the companionway and the control center was the “galley”. It was a carbon built, waist high console just big enough to hold a small sink and a fully gimbaled one burner “stove”. Inside the console were the valves that controlled the 700 gallon ballast tanks that were glassed into each side of the hull making the wide boat a little narrower inside. Ballast tanks enable Bruce to keep more sail up (than is reasonable for most people). When our boats heel over we reef. Bruce just pumps more water to the high side.

We worked on the boat for a week. Bruce had a crew member that was joining him on the first couple legs. Julie was from San Francisco and had recently completed some sailing courses. Of course there were other people helping out: local Steve Dodge who was retired and spending his time volunteering for various charities and Will an all around boat repair and upgrade guy that would be joining us on that first leg to RI.

Up at dawn (what?) Julie, Bruce and I would grab a bite and head from Bruce’s house down to the boat. It was amazing driving through the blazing colors of Maine in the fall listening to Bruce to tell stories about his races and his fellow racing legends. Ocean Planet’s base is Robinhood Marine Center, a full service marina and boatyard and just a great group of people. We worked on the boat for a week. I learned the ins and outs of operating OP, how to splice modern line and how to haul a boat with a 15 foot keel. The answer is that they don’t. The yard has to crane the boom off and then lift the keel up through its keel box and block it up. With the keel up the 55 ton Travellift can get her ashore. We did partially haul OP to do some keel work while I was there but left the keel down (dipping into the water at high tide).

Departure day: I’m all bundled up in gear I haven’t had to bust out in years. I’m making my way out to the boat, playing on the dock, sliding on the frost. An old local dude walks by with a light jacket, looks at me and says, “You know it’s time to leave when there’s ice on dock”. In my book seems like you’ve missed your window at that point.

We skated out of town on a calm morning. Will, Julie and I took turns cranking to get the mailsail up. I eyed Bruce back at the helm smiling and wondered how he did this alone over and over again. We had a screaming fast overnighter from mid Maine to Newport RI. In 10-15 knots of wind we seamed to average 12. I learned the whole thing about heading up into the wind to catch it and then letting the boatspeed bring our apparent wind around so that we could use it on a run. Crazy right? Bruce also mentioned that good offshore racers are paranoid and lazy. Paranoid because gear failure can’t sneak up on him/her and lazy because they think things through first so they don’t have to do things twice (thereby revealing the secret to my unlikely success).

We pulled into famous Newport on a beautiful afternoon. So much warmer than Maine somehow. Bruce and Julie took off to overnight at a friend’s house. I spent my last night alone onboard. I had a yummy freeze dried dinner-in-a-bag lit by the purple glow of LED cabin lights sitting at my command center before retiring to a comfortable pipe berth. I drifted off to sleep in an empty pipe berth with the vision of me and OP surfing through the southern ocean, blowing by another French boat.

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