I had the true honor of being able to spend an afternoon talking with Whitall Stokes the other day. I had been wanting to interview him for a while, and I am so grateful for his time, because when we were finally able to make it happen, it was a long and inspiring conversation!
I first found out about Whitall when I was stalking the videos of people who have done the Singlehanded Transpac. His was one of the first that came up in my search. He did the race on his former boat, a Tartan 10, in 2012. I remember watching his video and thinking how effortless he made everything look. Well, now, after getting to know him a little, I understand why this is….years of offshore experience and a calm demeanor.
Shortly after watching Whitall’s video, I was surprised and delighted to find out that he is actually local, and not only that, but is a long time member of PSSA. I got to meet him in person at one of my first meetings, and have been impressed by his quietly commanding presence ever since. If you talk to any of the other members of PSSA, they will tell you how much they respect and admire Whitall. I can see why, because not only is he a very experienced sailor and racer, but he is incredibly supportive, humble and approachable about it all. Whitall’s energy reminds me of one of the tenets of Soo Bahk Do (a martial art I practiced for many years): “Pyong Ahn”. Pyong Anh means “peaceful confidence”, and even knowing Whitall the little that I do, I can see that he embodies this energy. Pyong ahn balances the power of confidence with the softness of humility. When you meet Whitall, you can immediately see this, although he seems to put the quiet part out a little more obviously than the other…..don’t let this fool you though, because he is a complete badass!
Whitall was first exposed to sailing by his father when he was a child. In learning a bit about his father’s sailing history, I can see that Whitall comes by his badassery honestly. It seems that he has taken it to a new level in his own life, culminating with his first Atlantic crossing with his father at age 13. His father was also an avid singlehanded sailor, and did his first solo Atlantic crossing on a Cal 30 just because he got “a kick out of it”. That soon turned into many other crossings on different boats, including 3 OSTAR races.
Besides adventures and club racing with his father, Whitall raced dinghies in college, and says that he learned much from all of those experiences. Fast forward to years later, when he started racing with PSSA to push himself in a new way. Since he joined PSSA in 2009, he has completed The Dan Byrne race series (a series of single (or double) handed races that starts with relatively short races and builds to longer races through out the season) three years in a row, and during that time also completed two singlehanded Guadalupe Island races (a 582nm race from Marina Del Rey to Guadalupe island and back to Catalina Island). You can check out his blog from that time here. He says that he came to PSSA knowing how to sail and handle a boat, but really learning how to prepare a boat for offshore sailing was “the part that was the real education”.
He especially credits Eric Lambert with being a great teacher to him in this regard. As a result of Whitall’s preparation in over three years of PSSA racing, he decided to race in the Singlehanded Transpac “at the last minute” (which for him translates into about a year). When I asked him what advice he would give someone like me who is new to singlehanded offshore sailing and racing, and is about to do the SHTP myself, he said: “get out there and see if you enjoy being out there”. I thought this was poignant advice, and different from other advice I have gotten. It was powerful for me because he addressed a crucial element for me in anything that I set out to do. Do I love doing it? I appreciated this so much. As Whitall recounted his stories and experiences, it became obvious that we share a desire to find and appreciate the magic in these experiences, despite all of the challenging practical issues at hand. I am not implying that he (or I for that matter) doesn’t love the thrill of competition or the excitement of racing, but it seems beautiful to me that amidst all of that intensity he can and does pause to take in the majesty of nature and the blessing of being able to partake in such a wonderful adventure. He spoke of this appreciation by saying such things as how rewarding it is to “take in the beauty around you with something as simple as how the light changes on the water”. He says that even in the most extreme weather, he can find and see this beauty and it gives him pause to “witness the beauty and wonder of nature”, and “see things that no one sees”. I was completely moved by his thoughts on this, and it bolstered my courage to get farther out there in the ocean and see what this is all about!
I of course, had to ask Whitall why he likes to sail alone. His main reason besides experiencing the beauty and magic that I just spoke of, was that it provides a big break for him from land-based responsibilities. He is a husband, a father and a business owner, and he says that getting out on the sea brings him back to a place where he is only responsible for himself, and where he has the freedom and space to think about other things. He says that sailing is like a meditation for him, in that it enables him to clear his mind and think only of what is in front of him…the weather, the sails, the navigation, and the boat itself. For example, when he is racing and thinking of nothing but how he can make the boat go faster, he feels present in that and is consequently inspired and challenged in the best of ways. When I asked him to elaborate on this, he said “I love the flow of the water past the keel and the rudder, and the interaction of the hull and the waves….its the ultimate physics problem of balancing forces. I like working on that problem”. He also said almost in the same breath that he gets a “kick out of it”. I reminded him that his Dad had said the same thing, which he didn’t put together at first, and of course I thought was a very cool synchronicity!
Whitall’s scariest moment at sea occurred on his first crossing with his dad across the Atlantic to England. It was 3 am on April 27, 1976. He was sleeping down below, and woke to the sound of a flogging yankee (I hadn’t heard this term since the days of sailing wooden boats with my own Dad). He donned his foul weather gear and went on deck to suss out the situation. On his way up, he saw no sign of his father. Once he got on deck, there was still no sign. He looked and looked but couldn’t see or find him. He said that in that moment he was “terrified” (mind you, this would be terrifying at any age, but he was 13!) and had all kinds of thoughts racing through is head, but mainly, “what do I do now”? He finally caught sight of his father on the foredeck wrestling with the sail. He was somehow blending into the sails in the night due to his light colored foul weather gear. Whitall says that he felt a “rush of relief” and calls this a “crucible moment” for him because after that, he was never terrified at sea again (only a “little scared here and there”).
When I asked him about his most magical moment at sea, he seemed to have a hard time choosing, but a favorite story of mine that he shared was about one race. It was the Begg Rock race in which at some point the Coast Guard issued a warning for all mariners in the area to “seek safe harbor” because a storm with 55+ knots of wind was moving in in the next few days. He continued for some reason he could not really explain, and ended up sticking it out. His description of approaching Begg Rock with smooth seas and light air coaxing him along had me right there with him. His Tartan 10 (who loved light air), was gliding along beautifully and he recalls sitting on the bow with his toes in the water taking it all in. As he rounded the rock, he painted a beautiful picture of the waves that were crashing there dramatically…..he says he will never forget that sight or feeling. I don’t think I will either, just from hearing about it!.
When Whitall speaks, every word seems to be thoughtfully chosen and full of meaning. I found myself hanging on each word and story and I felt I was being lured out on my own adventures with his passion and experience as some kind of a beacon of courage and inspiration for me. As I have said many times before, I am so incredibly grateful for all of the sailing mentors in my life. That certainly includes Whitall now, as I feel our meeting was the start of a wonderful friendship forged in our mutual drive to mine magic and of course a love for sailing and the sea. Thank you Whitall!