In the vast openness of the North Atlantic Ocean, a wilderness mostly untouched by humans, the 60-foot yacht Prospector sailed into darkness. Navigating the boat through waves reaching heights of 40 to 60 feet, a task already daunting in daylight, became even more perilous.
“You couldn’t see the waves,” said Paul McDowell, a watch captain aboard Prospector. “It was just like driving a car down a mine shaft. The boat would pick up and surf down these waves at super high speed.”
For nearly two weeks beginning in July, the 15-person crew, based mostly from the Shelter Island Yacht Club, sailed from Newport, R.I., to England in a 3,300-mile journey that took them to parts of the planet few ever see. It was a trip that bonded them and tested their skill at sea in ways none of them had ever experienced.
Sailing in the 2015 Transatlantic Race, a historic competition dating back more than a century, the Prospector crew successfully reached its destination late in the night on July 13. As the results became official, the crew learned they had placed third in their class out of 10 boats, a momentous accomplishment for a group making its first cross-ocean voyage.
“I think it was the experience of a lifetime,” said Larry Landry, the boat’s navigator. “Nobody laughed harder going across the Atlantic than we did.”
The story of how 14 men and one woman, ranging in age from 24 to 67, came together to sail across the ocean begins in the spring of 2013. Mr. Landry, a Shelter Island resident who has owned sailboats since 1982, received a call from Jeff Hughes, a mostly recreational sailor, suggesting they sign up for the Transatlantic Race, which is held every four years.
At first, Mr. Landry, 59, balked at the idea.
“I thought it was the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of,” he said.
But the idea quickly spread to other members of the Shelter Island Yacht Club, including Mr. McDowell, a 55-year-old who splits his time between Shelter Island and New York City. A year later, a group of six men formed the Shelter Island Transatlantic Partners, with Mr. Landry and Mr. McDowell as the managing partners. They were joined by Mr. Hughes, Brendan Brownyard, Jeff Pribor and David Siwicki.
Last August, the group purchased the Carroll Marine Farr 60 that became Prospector, beginning a refurbishing process to prepare the boat for competition that lasted until the moment it set sail from Rhode Island on July 1.
In the months leading up to the Transatlantic Race, the crew raced Prospector in multiple events including the Caribbean 600, learning how to handle the boat and testing the crew.
“All the training in the world, including reasonably tough ocean races, were nothing compared to the Transatlantic Race,” Mr. McDowell said.
Each sailor aboard Prospector had a defined role, at times performing whatever task was necessary. In a completely self-serving environment, the crew members worked in shifts, with as many as six people on deck at a time for four hours. They slept in brief intervals on small cots and shared one bathroom. There were no showers, only the spray of ocean water sweeping over the deck. By the time it neared 600 miles offshore, the boat had sailed out of the range of any potential emergency rescue by helicopter.
Tery Glackin, a Huntington native who lives in Rhode Island, served as the boat’s captain. Mr. Glackin, who sailed professionally from 1994 to 2002, became close with Mr. Landry. The two sailed together on a boat Mr. Landry owned called White Witch.
Andrew Wolf of Greenport, who co-chairs the Shelter Island Yacht Club’s junior sailing program, landed a spot aboard Prospector after sailing with Mr. Landry on White Witch around Shelter Island. Mr. Wolf became the Prospector’s “lead grinder,” something he said is akin to being a football team’s offensive lineman. It’s not the most glamorous position, but it’s a critical one that entails raising and trimming the sails by operating winches.
For Mr. Wolf, who sails locally and doesn’t consider himself a professional, the opportunity to compete in the Transatlantic Race was too good to pass up. A bucket list item, he said.
“I fit the bill to go along,” he said. “It was fantastic.”
The lone woman on board, Colette Storck, took on perhaps the most unenviable job on the boat, spending nearly the entire trip below deck. As the chef, Ms. Storck, a Huntington woman whose family’s lives revolve around sailing (her son Erik competed in the 2012 Olympics), was responsible for feeding the entire crew, preparing meals, mostly of the freeze-dried variety, even as the boat surfed through one wave after another.
The biography for Ms. Storck on the Prospector’s blog summed up her responsibilities thusly like this: “Her job is miserable. Looking after 14 rambunctious, opinionated, smelly guys.”
When the Prospector first launched toward the Atlantic, Mr. Landry, as the navigator, had to set the course. The best option was to initially head south toward a gulf stream.
“It just moves you along like a magic carpet,” Mr. Wolf said.
It was a move that set them behind at first. The gamble of heading farther south than the rest of the boats in the fleet meant the crew could pick up better wind and make up the time surging back east.
“You have to have a forecast, develop a strategy and stick with it,” Mr. Landry said. “If you’re wrong, it’s game over.”
Prospector dropped into ninth place early in the race as most of the boats began sailing east sooner. By the time it completed its initial strategy, the crew had surged into first, Mr. Landry said.
A few mistakes made early in the race ultimately cost Prospector a chance at winning, the biggest being two lost spinnakers — large, three-cornered sails — that “blew up” after staying up for too long. Mr. Landry took the blame for another mistake — changing course at a time when Prospector was about 120 miles ahead of the next-closest boat.
“The mistake I made was I kept sailing out of stronger wind into weaker wind,” he said. “I hesitated and was far too conservative.”
Prospector then fell back into fourth place.
“The part I’m proudest of, was that once we were in fourth and we didn’t have everything we needed, we came up with a strategy that pulled us back and got us back into third,” Mr. Landry said. “We were gaining on those boats the last third of the race. We just ran out of real estate.”
The ocean is only so big.
On a typical day for sailors around the North Fork, a sustained wind of 25 knots might be enough to cancel a race or at least give a sailor pause before hitting the water.
Out in the North Atlantic, winds that speed are the norm.
For the majority of the race, conditions were ideal. Part of the challenge is the need to sail into bad weather.
A calm, sunny day doesn’t translate to speed.
At one point, Prospector sailed too close to a low pressure system, leading the boat into its biggest waves.
“We faced the type of conditions where a mistake could have been catastrophic,” Mr. McDowell said. “There were times I was driving when you’d look behind you and see a wave above you and look down the front of the wave and see waves in front of you still.”
But Prospector was designed to handle the rough conditions and the boat served the crew well.
And when the sea was calm, it revealed a beautiful scene unlike anything they had ever witnessed before.
“As you go across, we saw lots of tremendous wildlife and the ocean itself is beautiful,” Mr. McDowell said.
At night, Mr. Landry said, a light blue glow was created by plankton — microscopic organisms in the water — and the waves breaking. Some crew members even saw dolphins swimming through the area, their fins creating even more light.
“At night it was like a light show,” Mr. Landry said. “It was really very pretty.”
After nearly two weeks at sea — something that prompted Mr. McDowell at one point to write on the crew’s blog, “We smell like goats and that’s an insult to goats” — the crew’s biggest highlight came at the end.
When the boat came sailing toward the finish line at Cowes Castle on the Isle of Wight, a huge cheer erupted from shore.
They pulled up to the dock to find 15 family members waiting.
“It was an instant boost of adrenaline,” Mr. Wolf said.
Glasses of champagne greeted the crew. Cheeseburgers followed.
And, eventually, a well-deserved hot shower.