Outer Waters: Gunboat Captain

Exploration, efficiency, and riding open-ocean swell aboard Vela.

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Vela is a 48-foot carbon catamaran. She’s a performance gunboat from Morrelli & Melvin and more stripped down than some of the other catamarans of that size. She’s really light, and generates nice and easy speed. One of her benefits is she can have less sail area up and still average 10 knots. In 5 knots of wind we can do 5 or 6 knots of boat speed, especially in lighter wind areas, where the lightweight advantages of the boat show themselves. 

She also has benefits when the wind is heavier. Because she’s lightweight, the boat surfs twice as far on every wave. We’ll get onto a wave out to sea, and then the boat just gets on top of a swell and feels like it’s planing, and it gets going so fast and does twice the distance. On our way to Fiji, we had a couple days where we’d get into a wave and we’d be sitting at 17 knots for a few minutes, just connecting one wave into the next, into the next, into the next. 

Sailing for me has opened up a whole new aspect of learning about the ocean. What you can learn is endless. And that feeling of accomplishment, when you can sail from one place to another on your own, when you’re responsible for everything, creates a lot of pressure, but it also creates this relief when you arrive. 

So much of surfing takes place inshore, and when you get offshore the ocean is pretty different—the way it acts, and the way it reacts to winds and storm systems. Every time we go offshore I notice the  difference. You can see all the long- range swells in the water, especially  when you get down around the Doldrums. You’ll start to see maybe a southern hemisphere swell and a northern hemisphere swell, or two or three of them, and they’re all crossing through each other. There will be these really glassy moments, but the swells are still running and moving through each other seamlessly in the middle of the ocean, flowing and crossing and going in opposite directions. It creates this really bizarre-looking sea state. 

I’ve been open-ocean sailing for a few years. I’ve found that once you get into sailing in the open ocean, you just keep wanting to go farther. On my last trip, we sailed from Oahu to Fiji, about 3,000 miles. We stopped in the Phoenix Islands—about 1,000 miles from Fiji and 2,000 miles from Hawaii—during the first leg because we had some rudder issues and needed to make repairs. 

We arrived late in the afternoon on day nine of sailing, and seeing land after more than a week at sea drives home that you’re in the middle of nowhere. There are ruins left over from World War II on the island, and the lagoon was dredged, but the coral and the environment have been  mostly untouched for decades and the comeback is incredible. We saw so much sea life and diversity—coral stacks that  were 15 feet high by 25 feet across and half an inch thick. Just being somewhere like that was one of my favorite parts of the trip because it’s so remote.

 Once the rudder was repaired, we had another five days or so until we arrived in Fiji. Almost as soon as we started sailing, we experienced another pretty bad break. One of our rudder pins snapped in half, but the nice thing about a catamaran is you have two blades, so we were able to keep sailing. We also hit this big patch of light wind, so we didn’t have a lot of stress on the boat, and the conditions just extended that last leg a little bit longer. 

We entered Fiji and spent a week on Denarau doing repairs, fixing some of the little things that inevitably happen on a big passage. I think no matter what kind of boat you have or what you’re doing, things are always going to happen on a passage. Three thousand miles of sailing and twisting and pressure on the boat—stuff’s bound to break. 

After that, we sailed out to Tavarua and spent some time in the area just taking it easy. We based our decisions around the swell and the weather. We checked out a few other areas, just exploring a little, but Cloudbreak was kind of our home base. I’ve always been there for such short trips, for events or for a swell, so to get to spend a lot more time with the wave and see all the days in between was really interesting. 

Jib adjustments. Photo by Erik Knutson/Parallel Sea.

I’ve done that here in Hawaii my whole life: watching different swells come and go. You can learn a lot by watching a swell come and then watching it pass and then watching what happens in between—and how the reef reacts to all those changes. I noticed that we had so many of these 6-foot days that weren’t really on the charts. They’d just arrive as a surprise. We’d wake up and it was pumping. I’ve learned a lot with this boat. When I started sailing, I always wanted to just go fast. Now, I’m not interested in only being fast. I’m learning to be more efficient. 

I’ve learned when to take speed and when to pull back, when to be comfortable and when to not be comfortable. And that gives you a bigger range of what you can do with the boat, using it as a tool. When the wind is light and the water’s smooth, maybe you put up all the sail and get the boat moving and really tuned in. Or, when the sea state is messy, maybe it’s not the right day to push: “It’s squalling, so let’s pull some sails down. We’re still going to keep a good average, but let’s just go on the safer side of things.” 

To have that range, I think, is the most incredible part about having a boat like Vela. You observe what the conditions are telling you and what the crew is telling you. If the crew is tired, maybe it’s not the time to push. I’m still definitely learning, and I’ve by no means come anywhere near mastering that, but I have a better idea of the way I want to approach it now, whereas before I just wanted to go fast and was breaking things, and that became less efficient. 

Captain’s quarters. Photo by Brent Bielmann.

The other side of it is learning the manuals and the equipment, which comes naturally with being out on the ocean and being responsible for the boat. There’s a manual for every single part, and when something breaks, you’re in there reading, trying to learn how to fix it. 

The preparation process is another aspect that’s interesting for me in the same way I enjoy those parts related to surfing and competition—getting everything together, being somewhat organized. With surfboards, it’s similar in some ways to the boat, exploring the efficiency and performance of a design and why things work the way they do. 

I think that’s why I have Vela. I probably could have bought a boat that was a bit bigger, more comfortable, slower, cheaper—something where you put the sails up and you just go and you don’t really think about it. But I enjoy the sensitivity of the boat because it forces you to stay really on it. Anything on the higher-performance side of the spectrum is bound to be more sensitive in general. Things are more prone to breaking if you do something wrong. So making sure the lines are run right, everything’s up right, everything’s hauled to the correct tension is a learning process. 

Lauryn Florence, triangulating lineups. Photo by Erik Knutson/Parallel Sea.

I have a good friend, Jacques Vincent, who’s a lifelong sailor. He did the first open-ocean trip with us on Vela, out to the Line Islands, and every time he’s on the boat he still points out something to me: “Nope, this is wrong. This is wrong. Why is this wrong?” And I’m sitting there saying, “Oh, my gosh, I didn’t see these things.” 

I think when you’re really interested in something and you dive into it, whatever it is, you tend to be super curious and ask questions and want to be a part of all types of experiences, and you meet people along the way. I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of really good people in sailing who are willing to share knowledge and to help. Meeting Jacques in the very beginning was crucial because I really admire his approach to sailing. And then someone like Joey Cabell, who has also taught me a lot, is just from such a different era, but he also has very similar values in what he wants to do with sailing and surfing and being a part of the ocean. He has so many stories from sailing between the Hawaiian Islands on his tiny catamaran, sailing to Tahiti, and having a speed record from Hawaii to Tahiti. He still owns the boat he did most of that stuff on. He’s 80-something, and he’s out there pushing and sailing it at 25 knots. I hope I can be like that. 

I imagine for everyone it’s different. For me, I’m definitely not super confident in it yet. I’m still learning a lot, so I get pretty nervous and want to make sure every – thing’s done right. Except I think at a certain point you realize you’re never going to be 100 percent ready. At some point you just have to go and then figure it out. 

Once you’re out there, your world shrinks down to that little area, and if something happens that you didn’t anticipate or something breaks, you figure it out because you have to. There’s the focus on what you’re doing. There’s no cell service. There’s no internet. You’re not distracted by daily life. You’re just sitting there dealing with what you’re dealing with in the moment.

It’s a lot harder than flying somewhere and getting into a car and driving to a wave. There’s a lot more to think about. It’s also pretty rad when you have all your boards and all your food with you and you can say, “Let’s go see what’s around the next corner.”

[Feature Image Caption: Vela, on the hook in the South Pacific. Photo by Erik Knutson/Parallel Sea]