Telephone poles give nasty surprise to speedy sailors

The trimaran  Lending Club was damaged by a mass of debris, owner John Sangmeister says.

Story highlights

  • Sailor John Sangmeister spends two years preparing for world record try to Hawaii
  • He recruits the best crew he can find
  • But his 73-foot trimaran strikes drifting telephone poles from Japan's 2011 tsunami
  • Damage to the central daggerboard thwarts a record, but boat still finishes first
The sailboat crew chose an ocean-size ambition. They sought to land in Hawaii from Los Angeles with cruise ship-like speed, in less than five days.
What they never expected to encounter was as unimaginable as a sea monster: a massive debris field floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its origin? The catastrophic tsunami that obliterated coastal Japan two years ago.
"We experienced 'Fukushima's Revenge,'" yacht owner John Sangmeister told CNN by satellite phone hours after his boat sustained significant damage after hitting two telephone poles and other objects. Fukushima is the Japanese city known for a nuclear meltdown in the 2011 tsunami.
Despite the setback, Sangmeister and his Tritium Racing crew finished first in the 2,225-nautical-mile race (or 2,560 miles), but they were thwarted in setting a record, despite a highly orchestrated campaign to do so.
The three-hulled sailboat, called a trimaran, was considered a likely contender to set a record because the 73-foot boat is considered among the 10 fastest yachts in the world and was the only one of those 10 competing in the race, according to the team's spokesman.
Exhausted Friday from having received little sleep over five days, the boat's captain, Ryan Breymaier, told CNN he was largely blaming what's become a disturbing reality on the high seas: plumes of drifting junk.
"The fact of the modern world is that this stuff is out there," Breymaier said. "I sailed around the world, and even then I remember commenting on how much trash and man-made debris was out there.
"We ran into six different pieces of tinder," Breymaier continued. "Tree trunks, telephone poles and whatever else caused damage to the underwater surfaces of the boat that keep you going straight and fast."
These impacts hobbled the progress of the vessel Lending Club. The nine sailors aboard improvised repairs to a damaged daggerboard, a vertical board which slides through the central hull and submerges to keep the boat from slanting sideways.
"That immediately started to break apart. There was a big impact on the edge which caused it to split open. We had to stop the boat and figure out how to pull it up through the bearings. It took us a few hours to be able to sail again," Breymaier said.
The crew used small, battery operated tools to fix the centerboard -- which looked like it suffered a very bad shark bite.
"It was just a mess to fix those problems," Breymaier said. "We're talking about 12 hours that we lost to the finishing time because of these issues."
The racing crew set out Saturday to be the first competitors in an annual Transpacific Yacht Race to beat Bruno Peyron's 1997 record of traveling from Los Angeles to Honolulu on an 86-foot catamaran in five days, nine hours, 18 minutes, and 26 seconds.
The Lending Club fell short by more than two hours, posting a time of five days, 11 hours, 52 minutes and 33 seconds.
"I bought this boat to be a challenger for breaking the record," Sangmeister said. "We lengthened the floats, installed a new foil system and put together a new sail program."
For two years, he worked to build a team of world-class sailors -- using his connections in the sport during the recruiting.
Shortly after dawn Friday, the crew was just beginning to take vacation time in Hawaii, after a night of post-race celebrations.
They were undaunted by the menaces afloat in the world's biggest ocean.
"I can definitely see us coming back to try and beat it again -- it's a great race," Breymaier said.