Having checked and secured my rigging, the helicopter pilot pointed out the open cockpit, signaled my "go" and headed toward the ocean deck. Below, Earthrace, a 78-foot wave-piercing trimaran, was in open water speeding toward Houston. On our first pass, we crossed 20 feet overhead and I began clicking off photos as quickly as possible.
Within weeks, I would travel aboard with its crew, learning to pilot, sleep in two-hour shifts and function in pitch-black darkness, all in an effort to become a member of the team trying to set a world record of circumnavigating the globe in less than 65 days while using 100 percent biodiesel fuel. Pete Bethune, once an oil exploration engineer, built Earthrace in hopes of bringing his message of the need for a cleaner fuel alternative. By using only renewable fuels, it would indicate that less dependence on fossil fuels is obtainable.
Leaving Tampa International Airport earlier this year, in January, I boarded a twin prop and flew to Destin, where I would begin my five-day training exercise, eventually traveling through the locks of Lake Okeechobee and around to Jacksonville. Upon our arrival, a film crew from the Discovery Channel was already documenting the team's activity.
I would soon learn that Earthrace had broken a piston ring and would need to find a replacement. In the meantime, however, a temporary fix had been made allowing Discovery Channel a chance to finish filming the boat making a water run. Being asked to team up with the film crew and photograph both parties, I grabbed my camera, climbed aboard with Discovery and shot for the next three hours.
By late evening the new piston ring had arrived and we would head out early the next morning. Having just stowed my gear, I was given the menial task of climbing out and cleaning the windshield. Too late, I realized this was my initiation as I clutched at a very small handgrip with one hand and cleaned with the other, completely horrified that I would slip off the deck into the water at any moment. The 3-inch thick glass couldn't stop the hysterical laughter coming from the cockpit.
Over the next several days, I would be taught the different instrumentation, sounds to listen for, map readings and how to steer a straight course. At 10 p.m. on the first night, I would pilot my initial route and be relieved at midnight. The storm hit around 11:15. With every wave impact, I would have to correct course by at least 30 degrees. At 1:30 a.m., Ryan Heron, the documentary film director, took my place. Within moments, a wave hit broadside sending Ryan to the floor, the pilot seat still tightly intact around his body, having snapped from its mount.
I finished my training and the crew was scheduled to set sail in March, beginning in Barbados. I'd catch up with them later in Acapulco to begin my route of nearly 3,000 nautical miles from Acapulco to San Diego, where I planned to fly back home. But they ran into a fishing vessel outside Guatemala, leading to a series of unfortunate events, including the death of one fisherman. Delays forced me to bow out because of other commitments. Later, I learned that the mission ended due to severe damage from ocean storms and little time to make repairs.
Still, the Earthrace team remains committed to their message of a cleaner and greener environment. Follow their journey at www.earthrace.net.
Jim Burkett lives in South Tampa.
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