While Richard Branson stood on the deck posing for photographs with his two children ahead of his latest endeavor, the crew of the Virgin Money, a 99-foot maxi yacht, was already hard at work. It was just after 2 a.m. on Wednesday and a volley of British, American and Australian accents went back and forth along the boat, making the final adjustments for what the crew hoped would be a record-breaking sail across the Atlantic.
Although the trip had been in the works for two years, Branson and his crew of America’s Cup and Olympic sailors received the all-clear from their weather experts in the wee hours of Tuesday morning.
That meant scrambling the crew to New York from Britain. And when the departure time was moved up from 6 a.m. to around 2 a.m. to slip past an onrushing storm, some members were denied a chance to catch some sleep at a hotel. They went straight from airports to the North Cove Marina in Battery Park City to set off on a six-day journey that is scheduled to take them to Lizard Point, the most southwesterly point of Britain.
“We’re going to be in some pretty ferocious weather,” said Branson, the billionaire British businessman and chairman of the Virgin Group of companies. “And those are the kinds of wind we need for the record attempt.”
The mark stands at 6 days 17 hours 39 minutes 52 seconds and has belonged to the Mari Cha IV since Mike Sanderson skippered it in 2003. The previous record had stood for more than a century. There have been only a handful of attempts in the last five years, but Sanderson has returned to skipper the latest one.
The clock on the record attempt started running at approximately 4 a.m., when the Virgin Money passed the Ambrose Lighthouse, meaning it will have to complete the journey by 9:39.52 p.m. on Oct. 28 to break the record. But Ben Ainslie, an Olympic medalist who took gold in the Finn category in China this summer, said he believed the crew might have a shot at completing the run in less than six days.
“The boat’s more than capable of breaking the record,” he said. “It just comes down to making sure we don’t break the boat — backing off at the right times and bringing the boat back in one piece.”
Ainslie is one of a large contingent of the 24-person crew borrowed from Team Origin, Britain’s America’s Cup challenger team. They were available for this project only because the America’s Cup is mired in a dispute that has temporarily put it on hold. “That means that we’ve managed to get the absolute best crew we could possibly want,” Branson said.
Branson has been intimately acquainted with the Atlantic waters for more than two decades, since he broke the trans-Atlantic record for speedboats in 1986. That came a year after his first attempt ended with the Virgin Atlantic Challenger’s sinking 200 miles from England. It was the first of the many world-record pursuits that have punctuated his career.
Most of the Virgin Money’s crew is used to the carefully selected racecourses that dot the world’s most exotic locations. This adventure is due to take the crew members through some of the most difficult conditions they will ever encounter. And while the small crowd on the dock Wednesday morning joked and smiled, Sanderson explained that the 40-foot waves and massive storms on the way were no laughing matter.
“This afternoon is going to be pretty wet and wild,” he said.
As of Wednesday evening, the crew’s Web site, uk.virginmoney.com/challenge, reported rough conditions, but no major problems.
The crew also includes Branson’s 26-year-old daughter, Holly, who will serve as the boat’s medic, and his 23-year-old son, Sam, who quipped that they signed on “before we knew it was going to be the roughest seas people have traveled into in the history of sailing.”
“It’s going to be pretty unpleasant,” Richard Branson added. “I suspect most people will be thoroughly, thoroughly ill throughout most of the journey.”
The boat, however, is designed to withstand most things the Atlantic can throw at it while still reaching speeds that exceed 30 knots. With its state-of-the-art carbon fiber hull and a canting keel more than five meters long, the project director Alex Tai called the vessel the “fastest monohull in the water at the moment,” even though it is 30 feet shorter than the Mari Cha IV.
That said, the crew will spend much of its time reefing, meaning it will reduce the area of the sails to avoid catching the full wrath of the high winds. It will be critical, Tai said, on the first and third days when heavy storms are anticipated.
It will leave no downtime as the crew operates on a “hot bunk” system — when one member goes to bed, it will still be warm from its previous occupant. The schedule calls for three hours of duty followed by three hours of standby time, with no one sleeping more than three or four hours at a stretch.
“You take the rest when you can get it,” Ainslie said. “There are quite a few cans of Red Bull on board as well.”
6 months ago