Ocean Astronaut

“The smiling, stubble-faced 35-year-old owner and co-skipper of the lime-green and chrome MOD70 trimaran Phaedo3 is still trembling with adrenaline hours after he and a small crew of crazies blitzed across the English Channel in 4 hours and 29 minutes. While crossing the 138-mile space between Cowes, England, and Dinard, France, they maintained a 28.7-knot average, pegging the speedo at 40.9 knots. It’s another passage record for Lloyd Thornburg, and the third his squad bags in one week.

Thornburg is a little different than your average "yacht owner." Credit Rachel Jaspersen/Team Phaedo
Thornburg is a little different than your average “yacht owner.”

“‘This is the scariest thing I’ve done,’ says Thornburg, the jovial American skipper. ‘I fly, skydive and drive fast cars, but all those other things are scary for a minute or a few minutes at a time. This boat shows you what you’re capable of after being miserable, and tired, and soaked in fear for 30 hours.’

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“The possibility of waking up upside down in the dark, freezing-cold water plays on his mind. The constant noise and exposure wear him down. ‘But that’s the beauty of it,’ he says. ‘It’s like a mental detox that breaks life down to its simplest and most beautiful elements. Pushing these boats to their limits offshore might be as close as anyone can get to what it feels like to be in space. You can’t get farther away from civilization. It’s a harsh environment, and the speed is like nothing else on Earth.'”

Call of the Wild

Thornburg grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the son of a successful mutual fund manager. It wasn’t until he was sent to Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Massachusetts, and started reading about Joshua Slocum and Robin Lee Graham, that his mind started to open to the excitement and freedom of offshore sailing. “Reading these adventure stories was my escape,” he says. “Nobody in my family was particularly into boating, but I identified with those offshore sailors because they were outsiders.”

While he grew up on a dirt road in New Mexico with sweeping views of the Southwest, he says he found the landscape and insular nature of boarding school to be claustrophobic. “I’d never even heard of J. Crew and felt like an outsider,” he says, “but as soon as I found those stories, I thought sailing around the world was one of the coolest things anyone could possibly do.”

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In time he learned to sail on a Soling in California, and lived aboard a Bristol Channel Cutter in Annapolis, Maryland, while attending graduate school. The cutter was small, and he kept his outings to the confines of Chesapeake Bay. Later, with a small inheritance from his grandparents, he eventually purchased a stout steel 37-footer and joined the Caribbean 1500 cruising rally. Once in the Caribbean, Thornburg spent a season island-hopping, alone. “I wasn’t planning on singlehanding,” he says, “but I had a falling-out with the friend I was going to sail with.”

He sailed alone to Grenada: “It was fun, for a while, and I absolutely inhaled books. I read War and Peace in, like, four days.” His isolation, however, eventually got to him, as did the realization that he wanted to sail around the world with other people, and to go faster than he could with his overweight, undercanvased cutter. He found what he was looking for during a demo sail on the first-generation Gunboat 48 catamaran Cream.

He commissioned his first Phaedo, a bright orange Gunboat 66 almost immediately after that test. With it he intended to sail around the world, but after entering a few races, he discovered racing with a team of top sailors was far more fun than cruising. Soon, with the help of Cam Lewis and other multihull experts, Thornburg developed a core team and started winning. His orange Phaedo opened up the New York YC Transatlantic Race to multihulls in 2011, and it was winning the 2013 Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu until it dismasted. During the long motor back to Los Angeles, Thornburg says, much of the talk was about going after sailing’s marquee records.

He spent the next two years working with a team of builders to rebuild Phaedo and turn it into one of the world’s fastest cruising catamarans. But two years is a long time to go without an adrenaline fix, so when emails from Phaedo crewmember Brian Thompson, a world-record-holding professional multihull sailor, introduced Thornburg to a wickedly fast turnkey multihull on the market, his attention shifted.

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“Buying the MOD all happened very, very fast,” he says. “We started looking at the racing calendar during Christmas 2014. We knew we had unfinished business to attend to at the 2015 Transpac, but then we started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to race in the Transpac and the Transatlantic Race in the same year?’”

In January 2015, team manager Rachel Jaspersen, Thompson and a surveyor traveled to Lorient, France, shoveled snow off the MOD70’s deck, and wrapped the boat in its distinctive chrome livery before the sale was even final. The timeline was tight: Thornburg wanted to compete in the Caribbean 600 in Antigua a month later.

“My third time on the helm was during the Caribbean 600,” he says, “and my first time seeing the boat in person was just before the start. That’s why I’m grateful for the team. I trust them. I’m learning from the best.” Granted, Phaedo3 was flush with pro-sailing talent, but bagging the Caribbean 600 course record was just the start of more to come.

Racing to the Edge

Thornburg is extremely proud of the Caribbean 600, the Antigua-to-Newport and other records Phaedo3 set in 2015, but what the whole team really, really wanted was the Transatlantic Race record. Two days of calms after the start squashed any hopes this year, but the team did record the fastest elapsed time (7 days, 2 hours) in the race, and perhaps more important, Thornburg got his first real experience peering over the edge. Once the wind filled, the team had four consecutive days averaging more than 600 miles a day, hit speeds in the 40s, and covered 652 miles in one 24-hour run.

What’s it really like onboard sailing at 35 knots on Phaedo3?

“I wasn’t really conscious of being afraid,” Thornburg says, “but I did notice that when we were driving really hard, I had moments of being cold yet looking down at where my hand had been on the tiller, and noticing it’s just covered in sweat. Even my palm is just sweating in spite of being cold and wet. My subconscious must have been afraid, yet there I was, strangely calm.

“Another thing I learned is we’re all a lot crazier than I thought,” he adds with a smile. “I knew the boat was very physical, but the cumulative strain of going so fast for so long took a lot more effort than I imagined.” He also understands that he didn’t just buy a boat; he’s punched his ticket to the rarefied world at the highest echelon of offshore racing. He understands that being able to afford the right boat and the right team — which any owner will tell you is a decision based on passion rather than practical financial principles — is a critical ingredient for success, but he’s all in. The Transatlantic Race is simply fuel to his fire.

On the heels of the Transatlantic, despite working so hard to rebuild Phaedo, Thornburg discovered that the Gunboat 66 didn’t deliver the same intensity in the 2015 Transpac. Still, the team finished and won on corrected time.
“It’s a funny thing, taking a nonracing boat racing,” he says. “There’s something about being on a raceboat that just puts everybody in a racing mentality, whereas racing your awesome bachelor pad [makes it] a little harder to have that same level of focus. It’s hard to push as hard [on the Gunboat 66] because the trimmers can’t see the mainsail, and you can’t feel the wind or really see what’s going on at the helm. On the other hand, I didn’t have to put on any foul-weather gear or sunscreen all the way across.”

Royal Result

Soon after the mai tais wear off, Thornburg is on a plane to Cowes for the start of the Rolex Fastnet Race, a 600-mile ocean-racing classic. Phaedo3 leads the 300-boat-strong fleet out of Cowes with much larger trimarans in its wake, including the 131-foot Sprindrift 2, the 80-foot Prince de Bretagne, and the more experienced team aboard the MOD70 Musandam-Oman Sail. Phaedo3 finishes second overall, narrowly missing line honors to Spindrift 2. It’s not the result Thornburg wanted, but it’s a credible addition to an amazing first season.

The crew remains on standby in Cowes because they feel that, in the right conditions, they can break the 595-mile-long Fastnet Race course record held by Banque Populaire V. They get those conditions in the middle of a night in early September, and reduce the record time to 27 hours, 42 minutes, 26 seconds.

They finish under darkness. It’s blowing hard, but they don’t get off the boat. Instead they have a five-minute planning session, cant the mast to one side, and set a course for La Rochelle, intent on breaking the record from Plymouth held by Steve Fossett’s PlayStation. In a sprint described by Thornburg as “pure magic,” they shave two hours from Fossett’s record and add it to their tally.

For Thornburg, having the means to underwrite such boats and crews capable of breaking world records isn’t important compared to the mystical experience of pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. It’s impossible to put a price on going to the edge, sailing — driving — these amazing machines through survival conditions with a team of like-minded individuals. Yet like the adventurers whose stories inspired him to take to the sea in the first place, his mind is wide-open, and what stretches before him is freedom.

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