The timeless message reads like a captain’s log from a seasoned sailor ready to go down with his ship:
“We have sailed approximately 1,800 miles and have 571 miles to go. It was hard on us and the boat. Water was coming over the boat every wave. Everything was wet down below, and we had to bail water out of the boat every four hours.”
But those words did not wash up on the shore in a bottle as part of some ancient SOS. They were emailed to family and friends from a laptop computer onboard Soap Opera, a small Hobic sailboat co-owned by Lake Highlands resident Nigel Brown and Scott Self of Rockwall during their voyage from Long Beach, Calif., to Honolulu.
Named after Self’s company, Pro Soap, which makes industrial hand cleaners, Soap Opera was considered too small to make the trip by the organizers of the 2,300-mile Centennial TransPacific Yacht Club Race. But the credentials of the double-handed crew, along with the detailed plan of attack they submitted with their race application, was enough to convince the governing body of the event to allow the 33-foot-long mono-hull keelboat to compete alongside 80- and 90-foot yachts.
The results of that decision would later shock the sailing community and prove to be an unforgettable experience for Brown and Self.
Brown was first introduced to sailing as a 13-year-old boy in Vancouver, Canada. The year was 1967, and his father had just moved the family to the coast from Calgary to open up a new medical practice. Because the move took place in the spring, his parents decided to wait to enroll him in his new school until the next year, which meant an extra long summer.
Looking for ways to break the monotony, Brown’s parents enrolled him and his sister, Sally, in sailing lessons. Brown took to sailing immediately and soon found that all of his new friends in Vancouver were fellow sailors from that summer class.
Since then, he has completed in several races on various-sized boats and crews, including two across the Pacific Ocean. He moved to Dallas in 1984, and in the five years since he and Self bought Soap Opera, they have been lake sailing, mainly, at Lake Ray Hubbard and Lake Texoma – winning the Hobie 33 North American Championship three years in a row. But it was their yearly ocean race from Galveston to Port Aransas, a 150-mile overnight race along the Gulf coast in salty air and open waters, that gave them a yearning for ocean sailing once again.
“We were packing the boat up and driving it back to Dallas and started talking about other adventures that would be fun to do with the boat,” Brown recalls. “And the talk finally came around to: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to take the boat to Hawaii in the TransPac race?’”
They explored it more as a mental exercise at first. But the more they thought about it, the more it evolved from a hypothetical discussion into a study of the practical details.
Their boat trailers well, so the logistics of getting it to Long Beach and back to California from Hawaii were complicated, but not impossible. Another consideration was determining how many hands to have on the deck. The four-man crew they normally use in the Galveston race wasn’t feasible for a 2,300-mile trip because of the weight of the supplies needed to sustain it.
So Brown and Self decided to crew the boat alone.
Though they knew it would be a challenge, Brown admits that making the ocean passage with a skeleton crew of just himself and his 20-year sailing partner was appealing. At 51, if he was going to take a full month off from work, it wasn’t going to be for something he had done before.
“More than anything, I think that was what intrigued me about the race. And we went into it thinking if we complete this and don’t embarrass ourselves, we really will have achieved something.”
By race day in late summer, the field of 75 boats had been split up into three waves. The first wave consisted of the smaller boats. Four days later, the middle-sized boats launched. Two days after that, the big boats began their journey.
Different sizes and classes of boats have different speed potentials, Brown says, and the staggered start ensures that all of the boats, no matter their size, finish at roughly the same time for the award ceremony. It also means weather conditions are different for each wave of racers.
Soap Opera saw light winds for the first couple of days, which may have actually worked to its advantage in its division, because it was able to out-maneuver the larger boats. They were in second place after the second day and creating quite a buzz in the sailing community.
“I think it kind of made a good story for them. We had the littlest boat. We’re these lake sailors from Texas competing against West Coast experts. And we had bright green sails, so it kind of made us stand out,” Brown says.
Their luck was about to change, though. The bigger boats launched six days later under much better conditions, threatening their overall ranking. But Brown and Self weren’t giving up without a fight – and a little help from Mother Nature. Another passage from the e-mail reads:
“Well my prayers were answered and then some. For the next four days, we were on a jib reach in high winds.”
Brown says their plan had always been to make up any lost time at the start of the race in the trade winds. As he describes it, Soap Opera will “actually skip across the water like a bass boat at full speed.” When they positioned themselves in between some fast-moving waves, they reached speeds of up to 17.5 knots, the fastest they had ever sailed the boat.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve got the boat going, and it’s going fast, and you’ve got it under control, but your mind is very focused. Everything gets very sensitive and your boat’s just smoking along. You’re thinking: If I screw this up, it’s going to be a hell of a mess.”
But, fortunately, that didn’t happen, and 13 days after setting sail from the California coast, they arrived at Honolulu, winning their division with the fastest time and by handicap. They beat every other double-handed crew, and Brown received a navigator’s trophy for picking the division-winning course.
“We were just thrilled to death with how well we did. We won three of the four categories in which we were competing. And if the conditions had been different at the beginning of the race, we might have won overall as well.”
The experience, Brown adds – whether you’re a competitive racer or just sail for recreation – is soothing to the soul.
“You’re out in nature. You’re enjoying the weather, enjoying being in touch with nature, and harnessing nature to move you through the water.”
“It’s very satisfying.”