Archive for Monday, January 1, 2007

Wellsville native/KU grad crosses Atlantic

January 1, 2007


Shane Haas spent a month at sea.

He battled winds up to 95 knots and faced 40-foot seas.

He faced the elements typical of the Atlantic Ocean in winter and spent one grueling 18-day stretch without so much as seeing dry land.

But the biggest challenge of his first trans-Atlantic voyage?

Getting up off his keister to fetch a pail of water.

"Every time you wanted to do anything, the boat was at an angle, chopping through the waves," Haas recalled. "The winds were howling. It was physically demanding just to get up and walk across the cabin to get up and refill your water bottle. It was so much easier to get in your bunk and just sit there."

Haas, a Wellsville native and Kansas University graduate, recently completed his first trans-Atlantic trip. He left his Boston home Nov. 9 and concluded his journey with a friend, Walid Abuhaidar, Dec. 9.

Originally, the two were going to sail to Valencia, Spain, but stopped instead in Gibraltar.

The duo covered more than 3,000 nautical miles, all aboard a 38-foot racing sailboat - and all, more or less, on a whim.


Haas, 31, earned bachelors and masters degrees from KU in mathematics and electrical engineering, moved to Boston, then earned his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT in 2003.

He hit Boston with two goals: to learn to ice skate and to learn to sail.

The former he accomplished playing intramural hockey at MIT.

The latter he achieved sailing around Boston Harbor.

Through sailing, he met Abuhaidar - owner of the adventure company Gryphon Adventure - and, over the summer, the two sat down to discuss what their final trip of the season would be.

"We said, 'Hey, let's do a trans-Atlantic,'" Haas recalled. "We turned out to be a pretty good team."

Abuhaidar had planned to sell his company's Gryphon sailboat. He thought he had a buyer, but the sale fell through, so he decided to give it one last voyage.

"We thought a trans-Atlantic would make one last challenge for the Gryphon," Haas said. "This was by far the biggest challenge for me. Walid had done a few offshore races. But he had never done anything like this before. I'd never done anything like this before."

The two pondered final ports. They considered France and Ireland.

"It'd be nice to step off the boat and have a nice Guiness," Haas said. "Then we decided Spain would be good. Valencia would be a nice place to go. The America's Cup is there next year, so there should be some demand for an American racing boat. But as we were leaving Morocco, the boat-broker called and suggested Gibraltar. Since it's a British territory, it's English-speaking, so he thought it would be a great place to leave t he boat. So we did. We left it under the Rock."

Getting there

The Gryphon encountered rough seas just a few days after setting sail.

Off Sable Island - a narrow little Canadian sandbar off the coast of Nova Scotia - Haas and Abuhaidar hit their first storm.

They faced 40-knot (about 46-mph) headwinds and 20- to 25-foot seas.

"That's the only time I was really concerned," Haas said. "Down below, trying to sleep at night, it was very concerning, hearing the creak of the mast. Every wave rolled over the boat and felt like it would tip it. Things were flying off the shelves."

One particularly big wave tore Abuhaidar's bunk cloth. He crashed to the floor in the middle of the cabin, and the sailors decided they had to act.

"We knew we had to do something, so we hove-to," Haas said. "That means we back-winded our front sail, causing us to go backward for a day. We were floating backward for a whole day."

Before long, the seas calmed and the high-pressure system slid beneath the Gryphon.

The system's clockwise spin resulted in a tailwind that sped the boat on its way.

"We were making great progress," Haas said. "We thought we'd be a week or two ahead of time."

Not so fast

Unfortunately for the sailors, their high-pressure system encountered a low-pressure system in late November, not far from the small island of Madeira, just off the coast of Africa near the Canary Islands.

"We came out on top of a low-pressure system that spins counter-clockwise," Haas said. "We were between two spirals of wind. Then another low-pressure system came on top of that."

The result was a storm that produced winds that hit 95 knots - about 109 mph, the equivalent of a category 2 or 3 hurricane. The seas had risen to 40 feet.

What, Haas worry?

"It was just walls of water, but at that point I felt pretty comfortable," he said, "because of what we'd already been through."

The Gryphon and its crew weathered the storm, but their progress had halted. They felt they were in no danger, but they weren't getting anywhere, either.

"We were talking to our weather service, and they said we'd be in the front for a week," Haas said. "We were essentially dead in the water. We couldn't make any way. The winds were too strong. So we just sat down and started reading heavy-weather sailing books to see if there was anything we could do to keep the back from whipping out from underneath us."

Haas and Abuhaidar brought along a small library of sailing books to help if they got in over their heads.

One of the books provided a solution: a "drogue system" that the sailors fashioned out of anchor gear that stabilized the boat and allowed them to hightail it to Madeira.

Land, ho

The Gryphon made port at Madeira, ending a stretch of 18 straight days at sea.

Haas was thrilled to walk on dry land again.

"I still remember the feel of concrete beneath my feet," he said. "As we walked to immigration, we had to hold onto the rail to keep our feel. We looked like we'd been into the rum one too many times."

Sleeping on dry land provided another challenge.

"I got use to holding onto the bunk while I was sleeping to keep from falling out," Haas said. "When I slept in a flat bed in a motel in Madeira, it felt like I was constantly falling out of bed. Even now, I still have a little sense of vertigo watching TV at an angle or talking to someone with my head at an angle. I'm still not completely recovered."

Not all of Haas' memories are of nasty winds and high seas.

Sailing through the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, the Gryphon sailed through a dolphin feeding frenzy, followed shortly by two gigantic whales.

Haas also fondly recalls gorgeous sunsets and star-filled skies.

"It was a good time to think back and relax and ponder life," he said. "I caught up on some reading and just sat and reflected. I found it very therapeutic to watch sunset after brilliant sunset, to see stars in the sky without any pollution, especially shooting stars. The sky was so clear you could see satellites in the sky."

The Gryphon made its final port, Gibraltar, on Dec. 9. Shortly after, Abuhaidar and Haas - who works for a hedge fund and soon will change jobs and move to New York - flew back to Boston with heads full of memories - and an eye to future adventures.

"I'd love to do an around the world," Haas said. "With a couple of changes, I'd love to do an around the world, stopping in different ports of call, especially in the Pacific islands. I'd love to travel more around South America. When I do another trans-Atlantic, it'll be during May, a warmer month more southerly route."

You'll notice, by the way, that Haas said "when," not "if."

"I did," he said with a laugh, "didn't I?"


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