It was a good idea, Lanee Butler thought. She would jump on her sailboard and join the 47th Newport-Ensenada International Yacht Race to promote her Olympic campaign.
A noble idea. She would donate some of the proceeds to the Surfrider Foundation for cleaner oceans.
If Lanee had known then what she knows now. . . .
“It wasn’t what I expected,” she said. “I expected--gosh, I don’t know. It was much harder than I’d ever dreamed of, and not only for me but for the guys in my support boat.”
Still, it turned out all right. She did it. All 125 miles. All 29 1/2 hours.
“I wasn’t quite sure how long it was going to take me, but when I got to San Diego about 8 o’clock that night I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great, I’ve already sailed halfway and I’ll be in Ensenada in the morning.’ By the time I got to Tijuana, about 11 o’clock, the wind just died and it took me about seven hours to go two miles.”
By that time her hands were raw from holding onto the boom, her legs and back were in agony.
“My arms were just like Jell-O,” she said. “I was in a lot of pain.”
Then there were the sharks.
Lanee (pronounced LAY-nee) Butler is 23, a native of Dana Point and the only woman ever to represent the United States in sailboarding in the Olympics. Barcelona in 1992 was the first Olympics including such an event. Butler placed fifth. She wants to go again--to Atlanta in ’96. That’s how all this started.
She found some sponsors and solicited pledges for miles sailed to finance her campaign through the nonprofit California International Sailing Assn. She sold T-shirts to pay for the gas for her escort boat.
“I don’t think I got too many people pledging because a lot of people were really negative, saying I’d never be able to do it,” said Butler, 5 feet 4 and 125 pounds. “And, I’m a girl.”
Nor were the skeptics impressed by the sight of Butler’s escort vessel: a 20-foot open runabout with an outboard motor manned by her Australian boyfriend, Adrian Finglas, and friends Jason Vaught of Dana Point and Bernard Dunayevich of San Francisco. It was a craft in which no prudent mariner would take to the high seas.
“Even when I was sailing out of the harbor, some of the guys (on the race boats) were laughing (and saying), ‘Oh, you’re not going to be able to stand up the whole way,’ ” she said. “It only made me more determined to prove I could do it.”
There were some cheers with the jeers, and some concern from well-wishers who reminded her of the recent death of a woman in a rare shark attack near San Diego.
“Everybody kept asking me if I was worried about (sharks), which, of course, was in the back of my mind (and) the last thing I wanted to hear.”
The race started at noon April 22. As Butler sailed, her mother and sister drove down I-5. They tried to stay in contact via cellular phone, but lost contact around Tijuana, leaving anxious hours at both ends.
Butler could not officially enter the race. There is no sailboard class, and the rules permit only boats a minimum of 24 feet overall or 20 feet at the waterline. Butler’s Olympic-class Mistral One-Design board is 12 feet long.
She didn’t want to cause any trouble, so leaving the bay, instead of turning right up the beach toward the starting line, she turned left and simply kept going. It was a sunny, breezy day, and when the sun went down, a bright moon rose to light the way. Butler had only positive thoughts.
But then clouds blotted out the moon. Some of the race boats passed her silently and darkly--some as close as 20 feet. Did they even see her?
“It was scary,” she said. “You start imagining things. I would sail over schools and schools of fish, and at night they become phosphorescent, so I could see everything in the water. Instead of looking at the waves, you’re looking right through them because the fish glow. When you can see what’s underneath you, that’s when it’s scary.
“I pictured maybe 50 sharks around me. I remembered the movie ‘Jaws’ where you see the shark looking up at the girl. I pictured what I looked like underneath the water to a shark. It gets a little scary even when you’re sailing next to dolphins because you don’t know what they’re going to do. We saw dolphins, some seals, a lot of fish, manta rays.
“I’m sure there were sharks, but I didn’t see any fins. I imagined a bunch, but I don’t know if I actually saw any. You’re out there in someone else’s water, so you just never know.”
Although she was never more than 10 miles from shore, it was so dark she might as well have been in the middle of the Pacific. Her muscles protested with every bob of the board, and her ears strained for the sound of a coastal freighter about to run her down.
Worse, she was unable to lean back, relax and use her harness to support the sail for more than about five hours because she was sailing downwind, with the sail too far out or the wind too light.
“It’s like working at a job where you have to stand all the time,” she said. “I figured I’d be hooked in the whole way. After the 10th hour, after dark, is when I was really getting challenged. I was sailing around in, like, no wind. It’s hard to keep going.”
Four times she got off the board and into the boat, for a total of about an hour and 15 minutes. Occasionally, she tried to keep up her energy by nibbling energy bars and sipping a carbohydrate drink from a pack on her back. She ate a peanut butter sandwich at the halfway point and later gulped down a cola “just for the caffeine.”
She had second thoughts about someday perhaps sailing in the Whitbread Round-the-World Race.
“You get a taste of how tough mentally you have to be,” she said.
“The hardest miles . . . we had a Loran (navigation) counter on the boat that was counting the distance backward. From the 40th mile to the 30th mile was the toughest time because it took me forever.”
At daybreak, as the goal seemed within reach, she was made aware of one purpose of her effort.
“I had noticed that off the coast of California the water looked really clean, but as soon as we got into the Mexican waters it got brown . . . really dirty (from) the factories on the coast. Their standards are different. When I go to Europe and all over the world, the water’s getting worse and worse.”
Near Ensenada, the wind picked up briskly. But Butler was so weak that she wasn’t sure she could handle it, even after switching to a smaller sail.
“It got me there quicker, but I was going dead downwind at about 20 knots and I wasn’t using the harness.
“The first time I fell was inside Ensenada Bay. I ran over seaweed on my (board’s fin). You have to reverse backward and the waves were really big. I’d never got wet until then.”
She sailed through the finish line at 5:20 p.m.--by then not at all an intruder. The race committee was glad to see her, unofficial or not.
“They gave me a horn and clapped and yelled, so it was great,” she said. “A lot of the other boats were great. They’d come by to wave and cheer, and down to the finish that kept me going.”
The next day she was introduced at the awards ceremony.
“Who knows, next year 20 guys may show up, but it’s really dangerous,” she said. “Looking back, I should have been a lot more prepared. I did it just on the spur of the moment.
“If I’d have sat down and really thought about it and listened to what everyone said, I wouldn’t have done it. I was lucky with the conditions we got, and I was lucky that I had the guys on the boat I did. But now when people say, ‘Ah, you won’t be able to do it,’ I can say, ‘I’ve already done it.’ We’ll see if anyone’s crazy enough to do it next year.”
Lanee Butler, perhaps?
“Maybe. You might see me out there again.”