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Local solo sailor nabs 2nd place

Joe Harris far exceeded his goal of simply finishing in his Transat debut

Joe Harris far exceeded his goal of simply finishing in his Transat debut

The Transat 2004 is only the beginning for Joe Harris.

The Boston, Mass.-area sailor placed second in the open 50 monohull division, completing the grueling 2,800-miles — his first trans-Atlantic race — in 16 days, 14 hours, 21 minutes and 25 seconds. Harris, 44, is already planning a roster of solo offshore races including the 28,000-mile singlehanded 5 Oceans Race in 2006-07 (formerly known as Around Alone).

A week after Harris crossed the Boston finish line, he was sailing around Boston Harbor with friends and supporters, talking about the race, his boat and his future plans.

Born and raised in Greenwich, Conn., Harris grew up sailing on Long Island Sound. His father was an offshore racer who competed in some 18 Newport-Bermuda Races. His grandfather was a veteran of five trans-Atlantic voyages. After graduating from Brown University in 1981, Harris worked summers as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and winters as a boatbuilder in New England.

He moved to the Boston area about 15 years ago while pursuing an MBA from Babson College and embarked on a career in real estate finance. He is currently chief financial officer of New Boston Fund Inc., a $1.5-billion real estate investment and development company.

Harris has owned and campaigned a series of boats over the last 15 years, competing in every major East Coast regatta and offshore race, including eight Newport-Bermudas, three Marblehead-Halifaxes and two Bermuda One/Two races. He also completed a trans-Atlantic passage from Europe to the Caribbean to New England, as well as numerous deliveries and charters totaling more than 25,000 offshore miles.

Harris last year bought Wells Fargo-American Pioneer, a six-year-old boat with quite a racing pedigree. It originally belonged to Mike Garside and was sailed in the 1998-99 Around Alone, finishing first in the Open 50s. Then Brad Van Liew sailed the boat to victory in the 2002-2003 Around Alone.

Harris describes the boat as an “oceangoing thoroughbred.”

He saw the boat when it was docked in Newport, R.I., after the Around Alone finish last year. He inquired whether it was for sale, and Van Liew said yes. Harris sailed with Van Liew several times to learn how to best handle the boat.

“By the time I did my solo qualifier I felt pretty good,” says Harris.

He had spent a month in England preparing for the race. The weather was uncharacteristically warm and pleasant, he says, until the May 31 race start date.

“It had been beautiful weather for weeks but on the day of the start a front moved in with 25-knot winds,” says Harris.

Harris had a good start and spent his first night crossing Irish seas and dodging shipping traffic. The fleet was plagued by several low-pressure systems, bringing cold air and high winds and seas.

Harris says he was in awe of his fellow competitors. Many of the 37 Transat skippers are sailing legends, like overall winner Michel Desjoyeaux.

“They’re like rock stars,” says Harris.

In the early stages of the race Harris and 50-foot monohull class winner, Maine resident (and former Bostonian) Kip Stone aboard Artforms were in a close battle, trading first place as they stretched ahead of the two other Open 50 competitors, Jacques Bouchacourt aboard Okami and Roger Langevin aboard Branec III.

Though both New England sailors, Harris says he didn’t know Stone before the race. However, after talking they discovered they had raced aboard the same boat about 20 years earlier. Another Boston-area resident, Rich Wilson, competed in the race with his 53-foot trimaran, Great American II.

Both Stone and Harris had chosen a northerly route. On day 10, Harris split from Stone, heading further south.

“The weather models I was analyzing for the southern tip of the Grand Banks showed a chance to capture some nice northerly wind,” says Harris. “I headed south, but when I arrived, the northerlies were nowhere to be seen. I was left wallowing in the mind-numbing stillness of the Atlantic as Artforms and Okami flew towards Boston. I needed to keep reminding myself of the simple goal I established as a first-timer to this race — to finish.”

Harris never caught up to Stone, but he managed to edge ahead of Okami for second place. Frenchman Bouchacourt had chosen a northerly route, which brought him into treacherous iceberg territory.

Harris raced the final hours in darkness at speeds in excess of 16 knots through the busy, coastal shipping lanes. He placed second in his division, and beat five of the larger open 60s. Exhausted, he was satisfied that he finished and was happy to see his wife, Kim, and their two young boys.

Harris lost about 12 pounds during the race. He averaged about 3-1/2 hours of sleep a day, taking 20-minute naps.

“You definitely could recharge the batteries,” says Harris. But, he says, “at times I felt a little fuzzy.” He tried to tackle weather routing and similarly important tasks right after a nap so he was less likely to make mistakes.

While singlehanded sailing is physically grueling, Harris says it was mentally challenging as well. Some of the skippers reported mild hallucinations. Even simple tasks seemed to be more taxing, Harris says.

“When you’re by yourself it seems there are an inordinate number of decisions to make — some serious and others not,” says Harris.

Next year Harris plans to compete in the Bermuda 1-2, Marblehead to Halifax doublehanded race and, in November, he will race in the Transat Jacques Vabre from France to Brazil. In 2006 he hopes to compete in the Newport-Bermuda and the 5 Oceans Race. It will be the third time the boat has been in that race.

“That’s really what I’m pointing towards,” says Harris.

Harris says he may make minor changes while overhauling the boat, such as lightening the rigging, installing a bigger rudder and changing the daggerboard. He hopes his sponsors will stick with the program. In addition to Wells Fargo, major sponsors are Harris’ company, New Boston Fund, and Goulston & Storrs. Other contributing sponsors are Harken, Raymarine, Iridium, Samson Rope, Telenor and Doyle Sailmakers.