Somewhere in the Atlantic, less than one hundred miles off the North Carolina coast, I’m throwing up last night’s dinner onto the deck of our boat. “Have one of those sodas, the ginger will help your stomach,” Mike says.
Our boat is heeled and our bow is smashing into oncoming waves, spraying water over our heads. There’s motion sickness medicine below deck, in the side pocket of my duffel bag. But when you’re seasick, the last thing you want to do is move — I decide that the pain of getting up and hurling is worse than taking a chance on those pills, so I remain put. Sea sickness isn’t determined by your fitness; it’s eased over time with experience on the water. Already two hours into the race and I’m feeling it. It’s like a crash course for first timers.
I tell Mike and Tristan I’ve never been offshore before. “This is a good way to get your feet wet,” Tristan says with a smile.
We’re on a Class40 boat called Toothface II, named after the Newbury Comics logo. Sailing the boat is the company’s CEO, 60-year-old Mike Dreese, and Tristan Mouligne, a 36-year-old financial advisor from Boston. They’re racing in the Atlantic Cup — there are ten boats (each with a crew of two) flying next to Toothface on the ocean, sailing nonstop from Charleston to Brooklyn.
There’s a lot of talent aboard Toothface: Mike has the navigation skills, and Tristan has the sailing instinct, hardwired since childhood. When Tristan was eighteen, he sailed solo from Newport to Bermuda and placed first in the race. It was his first time racing offshore. Mike, the oldest sailor in the competition, has seen it all. Last year he survived eighteen foot waves during the transatlantic race — a storm so crazy that another team broke their mast and had to retire in the Azores en route to England. So it would make sense that a little wetness doesn’t bother them.
Tristan, toward the beginning of the first leg.
A day before the start of the race, a few onboard reporters sit in a Charleston hotel room watching the weather forecast on T.V. There’s a tropical storm scheduled to hit shore the next morning. On the screen, the colored, swirly animation of the storm’s path shows lines targeting Charleston like the Death Star’s beam. They all agree that these conditions will be nuts, and this race is gonna be one hell of a ride.
“I hate sailing in the rain,” Tristan confesses minutes before we leave the dock. It’s race day: the skies are grey, the clouds dark and ready to dump on us.
It’s hard to compare the start of a sailing race to anything on land. You can’t stop the boat and go again — it’s go, the whole time. And this start is tricky: getting out of Charleston and into the ocean is like coming out of a narrow chute while jockeying for position with nine other boats. The deck of Toothface is a mess of line so tangled you’d think they would snag on an ankle or a clip, yet each one finds its way to zip away neatly when pulled. It’s loud: ropes whip and flail, waves smack the hull of the boat, and you’ll hear the sound of the sail changing over during a tack, a liquid pop that jolts the boat forward. All of this is going on and then a horn sounds and you’re off, wondering what just happened.
Mike and Tristan are at the helm constantly, guiding Toothface as it charges up the Atlantic. One person is usually on watch while the other rests. They switch like this in two or three hour rotations for the whole race.
“The most important thing about racing is: if you wanna come back from way behind, first you gotta get way behind,” Mike tells Tristan.
After screaming north with the Gulf Stream, Toothface hit some speed bumps and lost a lot of wind in the fog banks off the coast of Delaware. Mike’s humorous advice is true, and it keeps their spirits up as they drift along.
“We’re going approximately one point two knots. This is the kind of thing they don’t include in the brochure,” Mike says.
A view of the cabin.
There are a few other things the brochures won’t tell you: the cabin reeks of damp clothes and feet, solid sleep is hard to come by, and everything gets wet and stays wet. Toothface’s accommodations are certainly not luxurious. If anyone knows this to be true, it’s Tristan — he just got back from his honeymoon, sailing in the British Virgin Islands for a week. He spends a lot of his free time on boats.
“If we make it to New York tomorrow morning, I’m definitely taking a train to Newport that night for the race.” He keeps his boat in Rhode Island, where there’s a weekly racing series every Tuesday. He can’t get enough of it. Same with Mike, who caught the bug a decade ago sailing Farr40’s with his friends. This is the first time Mike and Tristan are sailing together in a race.
All great duos in sports are hailed for their seamless cooperation. If they’re truly great, it seems as if their brains are connected; they’re tuned in to the same frequency. Take LeBron and Kyrie, or Steph and Klay for example. Their different personalities and styles fuse on the court, which, like the ocean, demands attention to detail and the ability to stay cool under insane amounts of stress. Simply put, it’s teamwork, sure. Sailing is no different. Pro ball players are in the zone for 48 minutes, if that — that’s a full four quarters.
Try four days. Sailing a forty-foot boat through an ocean that could care less about your race, that could swallow you whole in a second, takes more than teamwork — it takes a kind of unison, cooperation that can’t falter. There’s no time for arguments or heated exchange. There aren’t even any time outs.
They’re locked in, ears perked, 24/7.
Even when they’re sleeping. True, when they’re off watch, they get some shut eye. There’s an array of bean bags, sleeping bags, pads and bunks for sleeping, although most of the time they just plop onto whatever is easily available. But a sailor has to stay alert and ready to go, in case of an emergency maneuver that requires all hands on deck. That’s why Tristan and Mike always sleep in their spray gear, at least partially. At one point, Mike tries to wake up Tristan — it’s time to tack. After a few calls, he awakes. “HEY!” Tristan yells, still halfway in his dream. “Wow. I was dreaming,” he says, snapping back to his normal voice, which is like a news anchor’s. Sleep deprivation is common, especially on a boat like this.
When off watch, they also fuel up on food. Most meals aboard Toothface are freeze dried, the kind backpackers take on trips. Lasagna with meat sauce, breakfast skillet, and beef stroganoff are among the menu. And snacks in between meals are crucial. All sailors have their go-to’s: Mike likes Hot Tamales, Tristan prefers Haribo gummy bears. Rob Windsor — a rival sailor and friend of Mike and Tristan’s, who happens to be a few miles ahead of us — prefers chain smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes. It’s the small things that keep a sailor grounded.
Mike with the Toothface logo on the spinnaker.
As we inch toward New York waters, in some Bermuda-Triangle-like haze we hear a foghorn in front of us, but with no boat in sight. The horn sounds again and this time it’s closer. And then again. “Where the hell is that coming from?” Mike says.
A voice on the radio pops on: “Toothface two, Toothface two, come in.”
It’s a U.S. Navy warship. The ship is undetectable on Toothface’s computer system, which has no problem identifying anything from small fishing boats to huge freighters. Tristan and the ship’s communications talk directions and navigation, so they don’t run into each other. We can barely see the ship with our own eyes. “I can see their bow wave,” Tristan points out. If you squint, through the haze you can see white water fluttering along the horizon, but then it’s gone after a few seconds. There’s no telling how big the ship is. The warship’s ghostlike operation is a headache for Tristan. “I would understand why they’d do that in the Persian Gulf, but right outside New York?”
We reach New York at sunset. In the distance, the financial district buildings look like huge blue crystals rising from the water. We pass the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline welcomes us to land.
Somewhere off the coast of New Jersey, there was little to no wind — we were drifting along at one or so knots. Tristan was sitting on deck. After the chaos of the first day, I had some questions for him: why does he choose to throw himself into the havoc of the ocean, to have sleep deprivation, to eat runny freeze-dried meals — to sail — in his free time, rather than lay on the beach or the couch for that matter? With no need to follow-up, he said:
“It’s because I love it, simple as that.”