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February 18, 2005
Tom Hill, the president of Hill Construction in Puerto Rico, estimates he's been sailing for about 40 years. During that time, he's competed in just about every regatta in the United States and the Caribbean. Two weeks ago, at the helm of Titan 12, a 75-foot Trans Pac Reichel/Pugh boat custom-built for him last year, Hill had his perfect moment.
The veteran skipper and his 18-man crew raced Titan 12 to a Titanic new record Feb. 7 in the Pineapple Cup Montego Bay Race, a regatta that covers 811 miles from the Port Everglades inlet off Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., across the Gulf stream, through the Bahama Islands, past Cuba and on to the finish at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Hill shattered the course record set by Zephyrus V in 2003 by nearly 13 hours.
"It was the most enjoyable race I've ever had in my life," said Hill of the experience.
Titan 12 finished the race in two days, 10 hours, 24 minutes and 42 seconds, breaking the previous record by 12 hours, 41 minutes and 15 seconds. Eight other boats also broke the course record, but no one by so great a margin.
"Everybody on the crew said, well, what's next? We might as well quit sailing because this was perfect. This was something you take to your grave."
Titan 12's tactician Peter Isler, an America's Cup veteran, said the wind blew hard out of the north, at 22-30 knots for the first 200 miles.
The Wind Gods blessed us," said Isler, a three-time veteran of the race. "I had been studying the wind for a week ahead, and the breeze was better than the best I had hoped for. When we passed Eleuthera, I knew that we were already a half hour ahead of the record."
Hill said the conditions were ideal for the race and he knew the Trans Pac, all carbon-fiber and made for races like this one, would break the course record before the race even started.
"We knew we were going to rip it apart," said Hill. "You almost never get those conditions. It's like being a skier and getting 16 inches of snow in one night. The wind was blowing from the northwest at 350 degrees, which meant we could go very fast in a very straight line from point A to point B. During the first 100 plus miles we reached 17 knots and as we went across the Gulf stream and through the hole in the wall' in the Bahamas, we put the spinnaker up and we hit 22-23 knots."
Hill, 69, said no one on the crew could believe the ride.
"It's such a great feeling, sailing like that. I've never been on a boat 600 miles down with the spinnaker up in crystal clear water," said Hill.
Two years into his first forays at distance racing with the Trans Pac, Hill said he's hooked.
"I bought a boat like this because I always loved to sail, not just race," said Hill. "When you go around the buoys it's just about the race. You don't get to see the stuff around you because you're concentrating too hard on getting around the buoys. But when you're racing, after a while you can relax because you can stop worrying that stuff is going to break and enjoy the view.
"My crew has three America's Cup veterans and they've sailed faster upwind, but those people were going out of their minds," said Hill. "When you have a blast of wind blowing at 22 knots and you start surfing like that at night, all they kept saying was that there was no place in the world that they'd rather be than here right now. The stars were so bright and they were almost touching the water. I couldn't believe how bright it was and it was night."
Hill credited Isler for orchestrating a special work schedule that allowed the team to get so far ahead of the competition.
"Usually on the shift you have nine guys up and nine guys off, but Peter had the idea of rotating the crew so you had continuity," said Hill. "It was complicated, the schedule was color-coded, but as we kept changing sails and changing gear we had almost a three-on, three-off shift. We did that after the first 150 miles, which was so complicated that we needed everybody on the rail because we need the weight outside," said Hill.
Hill admitted he even enjoyed the third leg of the race, despite the big waves that were coming over the boat and getting everybody wet. The weather was the favoring factor with the 25 knots of wind out of the north on the first day, and riding the front all the way to Montego Bay.
Isler said the boat carried its spinnaker for almost 600 miles.
"Tom Hill is over the moon. You can retire from racing after this one," Isler said. "It is the best we'll ever have."
Hill, however, has no plans to park the boat. Next up is St. Maarten's Heineken Regatta, followed by the BVI Spring Regatta, the Rolex Regatta, Antigua Racing Week and Block Island (Rhode Island). Hill said he won't race at either the Bared Regatta or the Culebra International, both scheduled for a week apart in March in Puerto Rico.
"There won't be any boats in our class or of our caliber," Hill said. "We just finished Key West and its another 800 miles to St. Maarten so we wouldn't be able to fit it in our schedule."
Regarding the ongoing dispute over whose rules to race by, PHRF (Performance Handicap Racing Formula) or CSA (Caribbean Sailing Association), Hill said he was sorry to see the sailing community so divided.
"A lot of people are upset. I have no idea who they [Bared] have for entrants or who is in Culebra," said Hill. "To be honest, I don't know what's going on because I haven't been involved in it. I used to go to meetings but I don't anymore. I just know there's not enough room in Puerto Rico for two yacht clubs, there's barely room for one. So in Puerto Rico, I don't know where that is going to go."
Hill admitted his dislike for PHRF.
"CSA is a measurement rule, not an arbitrary thing," said Hill. "It's not about getting into some smoke-filled room and giving them this rating, like the PHRF is."
Gabrielle Paese is a sports reporter in San Juan. She was the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.