Another trip to paradise: Longtime Hilton Head sailor makes most of his race across the Pacific

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transpacHilton Head Island resident John Rumsey is understandably proud of the many sailing achievements he’s accomplished in his 64 years on the water.

But he may be proudest of his most recent adventure: an offshore race from California to Hawaii.

The race was called the Transpac, short for Transpacific Yacht Race. It takes place on odd years and covers 2,225 nautical miles from San Pedro (near Los Angeles) to Diamond Head Lighthouse in Honolulu. It’s one of sailing’s premier events, and it draws teams from all over the world.

For Rumsey, it’s old hat.

The 75-year-old had competed in the race 14 times before and has had several first-in-class finishes. It was the special circumstances that made his 15th Transpac so, well ... special. 

Rumsey was asked to join a crew of nine last year after a good friend from Mexico City, Jorge Ripstein, purchased a boat called Patches. The team started preparing for the 2011 Transpac in March, working to meet race and offshore requirements.
But their plans changed in May when Ripstein learned his sister was dying of cancer and could pass during the nine-day race.

Ripstein contacted crew members and told them Patches was withdrawing; his sister died the first week of June. Yet with just three weeks remaining before the start of the big race, Ripstein had a change of heart. He decided to re-enter the 46th annual race to honor his sister.

That left his crew just three weeks to accomplish six weeks’ worth of work before the July 8 start. For Rumsey, it was a demandingrequest. He served as principal helmsman for the journey, as well as remained in charge of arranging travel and food for the crew.

The end result was impressive. Patches was fast. Very fast.

Patches was built in 2006 for racing on the Mediterranean circuit, where speed is much more important than comfort. To cut down on weight, Rumsey stocked the boat with freeze-dried food, trail mix and powdered drink mixes. By adding boiling water, Rumsey provided the crew with entrees such as beef stroganoff, chili, rice, chicken and more.

“Everybody ate out of a mug,” Rumsey said. “Some of the food was pretty good. Some of the selections I didn’t care for too much, flavor-wise. The basic things were good. I had some chicken teriyaki and stuff like that which wasn’t so good. The crew really got to like Tabasco and other hot sauces so the food all pretty much tasted the same, like hot sauce.”

The crew packed just five sleeping bags and had to share five bunks. Not that there was much time to sleep: Each crew member had to get up every three hours or so to stand watch, turn the sails and keep the boat moving. The boat also leaked, thanks to holes in the deck for control lines.

“After the first couple of days you just sort of get used to the general discomfort down below,” Rumsey said. “It’s really a lot of fun to be on the deck and sailing, but down below, you just get in your bunk and try to get as much rest as you can.”

Doing a steady 12 to 15 knots (sometimes up to 25 in squalls), the 52-foot boat covered the distance from California to Hawaii in just eight days, 10 hours and 38 minutes; the trip came to an end at 8:20 p.m. local time on July 15 at the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor in Honolulu.

The time was good enough for fifth place overall against 58 of the world’s best captains. The boat also took home four trophies: First in Class II, First Foreign Yacht Corrected Time, First Yacht Elapsed Time Under 60 Feet and Navigator Trophy First Class II.

Under Transpac tradition, a host is assigned to arrange a welcome party for each boat at the finish line. Patches was greeted by one of the most famous hostesses on the island -- Jeanne Vanna, proprietor of Big Wave Flavor Tomatoes. “A wonderful end to a great trip to paradise,” Rumsey said.