David Askew has logged an awful lot of miles as an offshore sailor – traversing the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean oceans.
Considering that experience, Askew has often wondered if he could handle an around the world race. Those thoughts were dispelled during the Annapolis resident’s latest offshore passage – the almost 3,000-nautical mile Transatlantic Race.\
“It confirmed my hunch that I’m not cut out to do a Volvo Ocean Race. I could probably do one leg, but not the whole thing,” Askew said with a laugh.
Due to light air for significant portions of the crossing, it took Wizard 10 days, 9 hours, 1 minute and 42 seconds to complete the Transatlantic Race. Askew joked that he ate enough freeze-dried food during the passage to last a lifetime.
“It probably ranks as the hardest race I’ve ever done, just because of the length. It was very grueling,” admitted Askew, adding that Wizard had packed enough food for an 11-day voyage.
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Of course, the challenge is what made the result more rewarding as Wizard was overall winner of the 2019 Transatlantic Race with a corrected time of 16 days, 21 hours, 54 minutes and 58 seconds.
This was just the latest accomplishment for the Wizard program, which is led by brothers David and Peter Askew. Since taking ownership of the Volvo 70-footer, the Askews have claimed class honors in the Sydney-Hobart Race, secured line honors in the Pineapple Cup (Fort Lauderdale to Montego Bay) and posted overall victories in both the Caribbean 600 and the 2018 Newport-to-Bermuda Race.
“We’re on quite a roll, that’s for sure,” David Askew acknowledged. “I think winning overall in a race like the Transatlantic may be the most difficult because we were racing against a much bigger boat and a lot of smaller boats. Based of the vagaries of weather, a lot is out of your control.”
Wizard made all the right moves at all the critical moments of the crossing – entering the Gulf Stream at the ideal location, taking advantage of a low pressure system that delivered the strongest winds of the race then navigating a high pressure system that made for slow going toward the end.
“This race had several distinct components and we were able to execute better on all the challenges we encountered out there,” Askew said. “We were always going at 95 percent of performance no matter what conditions we were dealt.”
Success starts with having a solid platform and the Askew brothers have one of the best in recent sailboat racing history in this 70-footer, which was the 2011-2012 Volvo Ocean Race winner while known as Groupama 4 and skippered by Franck Cammas.
Part two of the equation involves putting together a strong crew and the Askew brothers got that right as well with two-time Volvo Ocean Race skipper Charlie Enright serving as program manager. Enright enlisted an accomplished team of professional sailors, including past Volvo Ocean Race winners Richard Clarke, Rob Greenhalgh and Phil Harmer.
Annapolis native Jonathan von Schwarz was one of the few crew members without a Volvo on the resume, but he was key part of the Comanche program that set a slew of records certified by the World Sailing Speed Council. In fact, the St. Mary’s High graduate was aboard Comanche when the 100-foot maxi earned line honors and overall victory in the 2015 Transatlantic Race.
“We had an incredible crew that worked very well together,” said Askew, explaining that Wizard employed four-man watches that rotated every two hours. “One of the crew had done 10 Atlantic crossings. Overall, the experience we had aboard was as good as it gets.”
While the Askew brothers were the lone amateurs aboard and were sailing across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, they both pulled their weight as members of a watch – steering, grinding and trimming.
Wizard went into the race focused on SHK Scallawag, a 100-foot maxi owned by Lee Seng Huang of Hong Kong. Navigator Will Oxley gave the Volvo 70 an early advantage by correctly choosing the location to enter the Gulf Stream.
After starting at Castle Hill Light on Narragansett Bay in Newport, Rhode Island, the entire 14-boat fleet sailed a southeasterly course in order to honor the Point Alpha ice exclusion zone. Not being able to take the Great Circle Route or an otherwise more direct track resulted in extra mileage.
“A lot of distance was sailed. A race that is supposed to be 2,900 nautical miles turned into much longer, but that’s how it goes. It wasn’t unexpected with the conservative ice gate,” Enright said.
Oxley wisely did not totally trust the weather and current information he obtained prior to the start of the race, and sure enough an updated check revealed a significant change.
“Will noticed the stream had moved considerably from what the original files showed. He was able to use more recent infrared satellite imagery to determine where exactly the Gulf Stream was and it had shifted almost 30 miles.”
Crossing the Gulf Stream at a more advantageous location than SHK Scallawag enabled Wizard to build an 80-nautical mile lead on its rival.
“Will did a great job of getting us set up properly for the stream. We got ahead of Scallawag by just picking a better lane through than they did,” Askew said.
SHK Scallawag eventually caught and passed Wizard after emerging from the Gulf Stream. However, a low-pressure system brought sustained heavy air and that is when Wizard regained the lead. SHK Scallawag ran into trouble in the big breeze, having to sail conservatively because the crew was unable to reef the mainsail due to a mechanical issue.
Meanwhile, Wizard sailed for three days in more than 25 knots of breeze and reeled off considerable mileage while close reaching under the J0 asymmetrical spinnaker and No. 4 jib. In fact, Wizard covered 492 miles in a 24-hour period and eventually built a 100-mile advantage over SHK Scallawag.
“We were blasting along at high speeds for almost 80 hours and apparently Scallawag was underpowered for a lot of that time,” Askew said.
Another key factor was that Wizard suffered no breakdowns or equipment failure during that period of heavy air sailing. David Askew credited boat captain Chris Maxted for having Wizard extremely well prepared for the passage.
Wizard encountered a high-pressure system while on a westerly approach to the English Channel. Oxley came through again, choosing a course that enabled the Volvo 70 to punch through the light air with minimal pain.
SHK Scallawag finally overtook Wizard approximately 50 miles shy of the Isles of Scilly. The 100-footer wound up crossing the Royal Yacht Squadron finish line off Cowes, Isle of Wight just shy of seven hours ahead of Wizard. That was a major victory for the Volvo 70 as it was owed almost 2 ½ days by SHK Scallawag.
“We were shooting to finish within two days of Scallawag, so naturally we were quite thrilled to be right on their tail like that,” Askew said. “It was unexpected and quite an accomplishment. We really pushed this 70-foot boat really hard with only 12 crew members.”
Having posted overall victory in both the Caribbean 600 and the Transatlantic Race, Wizard is well positioned to capture the North Atlantic Ocean Racing Series. Participants must complete four of five designated point-to-point distance races with the best three results counting.
Wizard is scheduled to compete in the renowned Fastnet Race later this month and the Middle Sea Race in October. A strong result in either of those events will likely secure the championship.
“We’re looking pretty good. It’s ours to lose at this point,” Askew said.