Sailing long distances on the Pacific Ocean, Michael Caplan says, is “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
Sacramento resident Michael Caplan loves to sail the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Hawaii. His voyages have involved encounters with flying fish, squid and whales. / Photo courtesy
The boredom, Caplan said, includes spending hours on watch in some of the remotest spots on the globe, complete with hallucinations and some conversation with yourself, seeing one’s life compartmentalized into only periods of light and periods of darkness, and repeated meals of the same tired pasta dishes and preserved canned banality.
At the other end of the seagoing spectrum are the otherworldly, sailors-only occurrences and interactions that the landlocked will never experience: eyeball-to-eyeball meetings with whales, endless seascapes seemingly meant solely for the viewing pleasure of those lucky few on board to view them at that particular moment and latitude, and occasional moments of mortal terror.
Caplan, a Sacramento realtor and a member of the Rotary Club of Arden-Arcade, recently completed his sixth Pacific Cup, a yacht race that takes competitors 2,070 miles from San Francisco to the Kaneohe Yacht Club on the windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. Fifty-six boats participated in the 2010 event, the race’s sixteenth running.
The Pacific Cup, Caplan explained, is a race primarily for amateur crews, unlike the Trans-Pacific Race, which is held in odd-numbered years and draws professional racers.
“In the Trans-Pac, the more money you have, the better your chances to win,” he said. “The Pacific Cup is an amateur race, run usually with older boats and amateur crews, and there is an enormous recidivist rate. It really gets in your blood.”
A “water-oriented” upbringing in paradise
Sailing got into Caplan’s blood early; his family moved to Hawaii from Sacramento when he was just four.
“My whole recreational perspective was water-oriented. I learned to surf before I learned to swim,” he recalled. “I started sailing
when I was 12; one of my teenage jobs was sailing in Hawaii. The ocean became my comfort zone.”
Caplan returned to the mainland for college and resettled in Sacramento. As soon as he felt he had the discretionary time he needed to be able to do so, he resumed sailing, first on San Francisco Bay, then on the Pacific Ocean. He entered his first Pacific Cup in 1990 and competed in the 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008, and 2010 races. Over the years, Caplan has helped oversee and supervise the race in a variety of roles, including once serving as race commodore, a post he recalls as being “a great deal of fun and very time-consuming.”
How the race was run
A veteran Pacific Ocean sailor, Caplan knows well the sea and its capriciousness. During one race, his boat went from upright to capsized in the blink of an eye.
“One moment, it was five-foot seas and a 25-knot breeze, and then around 3 a.m., a squall hit us. The winds went from 25 miles per hour to 55, and we went from upright and controlled to on our ear with the boat on its side,” he said. “We went from tranquility to utter chaos in seconds.”
Handling the challenges of the rapidly-changing seascape is the true test of a sailor’s abilities, Caplan maintains.
“Usually during a race, there’s a middle ground,” he said. “You’re on the edge, and anything can happen at any time, but you’re managing it well. You’re completely focused on this 30- to 50-foot long piece of flotation.”
This year’s race, Caplan said, was marked by poor sailing conditions, and the conditions influence how fast each race is run. During this summer’s race, Caplan and his shipmates aboard the Whistler V took 16 days to complete the nearly 2,100-mile course; the boat he was on during the 2004 race finished in just 11 days.
“The conditions really were about as bad as you could imagine this year,” Caplan said. “The weather was either calm or unfavorable. Our boat performed pretty poorly, and this race was just slow; even the fastest boats performed below capacity.”
All hands on deck (and in the galley)
Participating in six Pacific Cup races has given Caplan insight into how to assemble a crew for a race. The main trait he looks for in prospective crew members is reliability.
When sailing across the ocean, Caplan supplements the crew's meal provisions by fishing. During this year's race, he caught four mahi-mahi. / Photo courtesy
“Each person on that boat depends totally on every other person and their ability to perform,” said Caplan. “And it’s true what they say, a quiet boat is the most efficient boat.”
Caplan also looks for people who are experienced ocean sailors, and possessing additional desirable skills like the ability to cook or prior medical training or experience, helps one’s resumé. For the record, family ties hold no sway when Caplan is gathering his crew.
“My son-in-law is the only member of my family that I deem reliable enough for this,” he said. “I hope that just he and I can go sailing one of these days.”
For safety’s sake, each boat in the Pacific Cup is required to carry certain amounts of potable water, provisions, anchors, feet of chain, and the like. Expecting the trip from San Francisco to Hawaii to take between 12 and 14 days, Caplan prefers to take provisions for 16 to 18 days, just to be safe. Caplan also supplements the provisions by fishing from the boat; during this year’s Pacific Cup, he caught and prepared four mahi-mahi. Even with the occasional fresh catch, meals and accommodations aboard the boat grow tiresome quickly, Caplan admits.
“There is no shower, no comfortable way to sleep, so you basically race all day, eat, crash, and wait until you’re called for your next watch,” he said. “As far as food, we have each crew member bring in his or her favorite dish frozen, and we eat those first. Then we get into the fortified protein shakes, pasta, Vienna sausages, Spam, that sort of thing.”
The things you see at sea
Asked about his most memorable moments and sights on a boat, Caplan recalls seeing living “Rembrandt paintings” stretch out before him at sunset, scenes so beautiful that exhausted crew members would interrupt their hard-earned naps to take them in.
Caplan says that sailing long distances across the Pacific Ocean involves "hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." Here, he relaxes during one of the quieter moments on board. / Photo courtesy
He remembers feeling like his “whole soul had been sucked up into the Milky Way” one night under the stars. He tells of flying fish and flying squid inexplicably landing with a plop on the deck of the boat and of birds lighting on one of the ropes or rails and hitchhiking for days. Perhaps most stirring are the encounters with whales.
“They make eye contact with you, and you’re looking at them and they’re looking back at you, and you can’t help but wonder, ‘What the hell is this animal thinking?’”
Unfortunately, Caplan also has seen how human thoughtlessness is impacting the oceans.
“I’ve observed a lot of trash in the open ocean: ropes, parts of fishing nets, and of course plastic bottles and other plastic things,” he said. “It’s really discouraging and disheartening. The nets and ropes are the most disheartening objects, since they can trap fish, dolphins, and turtles.”
Caplan credits his Hawaiian upbringing for his fondness for the ocean and its inhabitants.
“The ocean has always been dear to me; chalk it up to being raised on an island in the middle of the Pacific,” he said. “Spending time ‘out there’ just strengthens the commitment to preserving our natural resources. I think that most of us that sail feel similarly.”