Billionaire’s Trans-At dream is cut short

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Richard Branson is not the type to give up without a fight. But after a storm tore a huge hole in the mainsail of Virgin Money, his 99-foot maxiyacht and damaged the spinnaker, he had to concede the odds were against him beating the trans-Atlantic speed record for a monohull, according to a report in Sail-World.com.

The trip seemed doomed from the start. Branson had to slip lines from New York Harbor at 2 a.m. last Wednesday with his crew as well as his son, Sam, 23, and daughter, Holly, 26, about four hours earlier than planned because of a storm rolling into the area. By midday Friday, when the mainsail proved impossible to fix, the crew was forced to turn tail toward Bermuda.

“We’ve just experienced a night from hell when Virgin Money was struck by a massive wave from behind, washing one of our life rafts overboard,” says Branson in the report. “Luckily all of the crew were harnessed in and no one was swept overboard, which is all that matters at the end of the day.”

Branson says they faced huge storm systems, with gale-force winds between 7 and 9 (27 to 47 knots) on the Beaufort scale and swells up to 40 feet. The crew was slated to arrive in Bermuda at about 5 p.m. last Friday. The current speed record still stands at six days, 17 hours, 39 minutes and 52 seconds, set by Mari Cha IV, skippered by Mike Sanderson in 2003.

“It is obviously disappointing that we had a failure in the mainsail that has really forced us to pull out and not be able to break the record,” says Ben Ainslie, Branson’s partner on the trip who is a three-time Olympic gold medalist. “It has certainly been an amazing experience sailing on the boat.”

Ever the optimist, Branson says they will be ready to sail within the next few weeks with another record attempt later this year or in the spring, according to the report.

— Elizabeth Ellis