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Father, son to embark on race across ocean

48-foot sailboat’s crew sets off tomorrow

Dirk Johnson and his 16-year-old son, Dirk Jr., of Middletown, R.I., will set off tomorrow as part of the crew of a 48-foot sailboat in a race across the Atlantic Ocean. Dirk Sr. is the navigator, and his son, the youngest crew member, will do menial tasks. Dirk Johnson and his 16-year-old son, Dirk Jr., of Middletown, R.I., will set off tomorrow as part of the crew of a 48-foot sailboat in a race across the Atlantic Ocean. Dirk Sr. is the navigator, and his son, the youngest crew member, will do menial tasks. (Peter Daitch/Associated Press)
By Erika Niedowski
Associated Press / June 25, 2011

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PROVIDENCE — Sixteen-year-old Dirk Johnson Jr. is feeling a few nerves as he prepares to set out tomorrow on a sailboat for a race across the Atlantic Ocean.

But it is not the prospect of gale-force winds or stormy weather battering the 48-foot vessel or anything else unexpected that could take place on a journey of nearly 3,000 nautical miles that is weighing on him.

“Try being with the same people for 21 days in a contained space,’’ said Dirk, of Middletown. “It’s going to be tough.’’

Tougher still, perhaps, because one of those people is his father.

The father-son duo is part of the crew of the boat Carina, one of nearly 30 vessels participating in the Transatlantic Race 2011, which begins in Newport Harbor and ends in South Cornwall in Britain. Carina will start in the first of three groups; the second takes off Wednesday; and the third July 3.

The largest vessel in the race is the 289-foot Maltese Falcon, which is described as one of the largest privately owned sailboats in the world. It is nearly the length of four tennis courts and will have a crew of about 22. Among the smallest boats participating is the 40-foot Dragon, which has a crew of two.

Carina’s full crew has several other father-son pairs.

Dirk Johnson Sr., 50, works as a yacht broker and grew up sailing on a boat passed down by his great-grandfather. He knows what to expect, sort of.

He took part in the Transatlantic Race in 2005, but on a much larger boat. That crossing, on a 117-foot vessel, took 14 days. Barring the unforeseen, this one is expected to take about a week longer.

He serves as the boat’s navigator, so he has been poring over all manner of charts and checking weather patterns. The boat has sophisticated satellite communications equipment and will be able to connect to the Internet, just like the larger boats.

“We may be small, but we’re powerful,’’ he said.

As Carina’s youngest crew member, Dirk Jr. will fill the role of the nipper. That means he will perform the less enviable tasks, including washing dishes, packing the spinnakers, getting food for people on deck, and making repairs in the middle of the night.

“I’ve had worse nipper jobs,’’ he said.

This year’s Transatlantic Race, part of the Atlantic Ocean Racing Series, will be the 29th since 1866, when the first was held. Several members of the New York Yacht Club, which is still a cohost of the event, wagered $30,000 each that year and set out to cross the ocean. There was tragedy, though: Six crew members from one boat died in a storm. Since then, all but one of the races has been from east to west. The exception was in 1870, when the boats traveled to New York from Cork, Ireland.

The Johnsons and their fellow crew members have spent the last few months preparing for the race by testing out everything from new sails to navigational equipment to their compatibility as a team. They have taken part in a race from Annapolis, Md., to Newport, which was about 470 miles, and the Block Island Race, which was about 180.

George David, owner and captain of Rambler 100 and co-chairman of the Transatlantic Race, said in a prerace panel discussion in April that “my hat is off’’ to anyone competing in a 40-footer, because they “could be a rough ride for a long time.’’

“You do need to anticipate that bad things will happen, because things will break, things will happen on this race,’’ David added. “It’s a lot about preparation. It’s a lot about organization, teamwork, skill sets of the people. This is going to be just plain hard work. Very, very tough conditions.’’

Each boat has a tracking device so race organizers, family members, and sailing enthusiasts will be able to follow their progress.

As for the Johnsons, they say they get along well, except when they do not.

“We don’t always get along, but we can definitely be a tag team when we need to be,’’ said Dirk Jr.

“Hopefully,’’ he added with a laugh, “we’re on different watches.’’