John Leitzinger: Racing with the wind
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
On a small boat with six other guys, with about two weeks to travel 2,300 nautical miles, you really want to be with agreeable people.
That was John Leitzinger's philosophy when he was looking for teammates to sail with him in the 2006 Vic-Maui International Yacht Race, a trip between Victoria, Canada, and Lahaina, Maui.
Fortunately, he long ago found a good sailing partner in his college friend, Ken Marks. After finishing their education degrees from Washington State University in 1987, the pair moved to Tacoma, where they worked as substitute teachers, lived together, and bought a boat from another Cougar classmate's dad. "It was sort of a goofy, romantic notion: Let's buy a boat and we can go sail around," says John. "Well we bought it for about $1,000, scraped the barnacles off of it, and then started with Wednesday night races."
The two caught the bug for speed and a couple of years later invested in the Ozone, a 30-footer that they kept on a trailer and drove to races up and down the coast. They also partnered up with Cougar classmate Phil Ohl '87, a Tri-Cities engineer, Scott Brown, a 1990 alum who works in sales, and a few non-Coug friends. With team Ozone, they won the Olson 30 National Championship in 2001.
When it was time to go for yet more speed and longer ocean races, they invested in the Kahuna, a 37-footer with four berths. They set their sights on the Vic-Maui, a Northwest tradition that started in 1968 and has since attracted hundreds of crews. It's not an easy route, starting in the chilly, and sometimes rough, waters of the Pacific Northwest and ending in sweltering tropical heat.
The team trained for the 2004 race, but at the last minute John was forced to drop out. A congenital heart defect had turned serious, and his doctor was insistent he undergo an immediate valve replacement. The crew, with WSU alum Eric Nelson at the helm, and Ken and Phil on board, raced without him.
So 2006 was the first year for the team to race with the Kahuna's true skipper. John and his wife, Virginia Rehberg, even planned the birth of their child to fit with the race schedule. It worked. Baby Libby was born three weeks before race day.
The yacht race has the 19 competing boats sailing down the Pacific coast toward San Francisco, then turning west to Hawaii. To man the helm for 24 hours a day, the crew split into two watches, alternating six-hour shifts during daylight and four-hour shifts at night. While one watch was working, the others slept on the four beds below deck, prepared meals, gathered weather data, and planned and replanned the route. Often wind and weather conditions obliged them to scramble on deck to change sails, and more than once the small bark capsized, forcing them to right it.
It wasn't all work, though. There were daily happy hours, poetry readings, and sing-alongs of The Who.
Ken, the gourmet, served up lasagna, beef stroganoff, and enchiladas. He made good use of a tuna they caught, marinating it in red wine, coating it with sesame seeds, and presenting it with a strawberry reduction.
July 12 was their official "Cougar Day," and all four WSU alums wore their crimson gear. It was also the day they had 1,000 miles left to go.
Out there in the open sea trying to capture the winds and get up to speeds of 20 knots, they fretted about where they were in relation to the other boats, and watched their provisions dwindle. They actually wanted their provisions to dwindle, in order to get the boat down to "fighting weight" for the last few hundred miles of the trip. And sure enough, their efforts paid off when, eight days later, just after nine o'clock in the morning, they sailed the Kahuna into port at Lahaina as the new division winners.
"It's a lot of fun," says John, who's looking forward to his next big race. "There's competition. It's an adventure. There's not a lot to see out on the ocean, but it seems that every day things are a little bit different."
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