Sailing the ocean, remembering Dad | June 19, 2009 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Living - June 19, 2009

Sailing the ocean, remembering Dad

Twins go for the Coastal Cup 20 years after sailing it with their father

by Dolores Fox Ciardelli and Mike Mahoney

Ocean racer Mike Mahoney said he enjoys the sport most when riding down a 15-foot wave as though his 42-foot sailboat were a surfboard. Although he and his twin brother Pat grew up sailing and racing on the Bay, the ocean is another game altogether.

"In the ocean you have to step up your game," said Mike, a Danville resident. "The danger heightens outside of the Golden Gate, with waves breaking 15-20 feet."

The brothers were scheduled to leave at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning on their 42-foot sloop sailboat named the Irish Lady to sail in the Coastal Cup. This is the West Coast's premiere coastal ocean race and goes from the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco to Santa Catalina; they are competing against 25 other boats.

This race brings the brothers full circle, as it was 20 years ago at the age of 19 that they joined their father, Denis, the 1989 contest, their first multi-day ocean race that included 35 knots of wind and 20-foot seas. It was that race, where they placed third, which set in motion their love for ocean racing.

"Ocean racing is truly a test of not just skill, but endurance," said Mike. "It is like the Baja 1000, except on water. You just never know what she is going to throw at you."

This year's race has special meaning to Pat and Mike as it will be the first multi-day ocean race they've ever done without the security of their father, a national champion sailor who was well trained in navigation while serving his time in the Coast Guard. Just 14 months after Pat, Mike and Denis Mahoney lived out their sailing dream of racing in the 2006 Pacific Cup to Hawaii and finishing third, Denis suddenly passed away.

"We didn't just lose our father, we lost our captain," said Pat.

Losing their father has forced the brothers to fill some big shoes, they say. With the lessons their father has taught them during the last 20 years and some very good advisors, they are ready to be the skippers of the Irish Lady. Skippers take on the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that their crew and boat make it to the finish line safely.

"Although it's not the way they wanted to take over the helm, I know that they are both ready for this responsibility. That's why the five other crew members have stuck with them," said their mother, Anita Mahoney, who has helped them plan for this race.

"She puts together the food and makes sure it's well prepared," Mike said.

Preparations for this Category 2 ocean race are stringent, including emergency steering devices, and life rafts equipped with an emergency locator beacon. The Irish Lady is equipped with the latest computer equipment, even an AIS (Automatic Identification System), which allows them to track all commercial shipping traffic on their computer. They will use this when navigating the shipping channels at night in Southern California as they approach Catalina Island.

"There's a lot of fog in Southern California right now," Mike said. "This allows us to feel safe out in the fog."

The race will take from two-and-a-half to three days.

"We literally sail all the way through the night," Mike explained, which are the hardest times. They will sleep three hours at the most.

"Then the anxiety levels are high," he said. "Clearly at these times there could be an obstruction in the water you don't see. Even though there could be a full moon you could be under a marine layer and driving by instruments."

He remembers vividly the rocky voyage they had down the coast in '89 with their dad. They were at the notorious Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara, about 1 a.m., flying by the oil derricks in the ocean.

"Then the spinnaker blew up when we were coming down off a 15-foot wave," he recalled. "Two guys were sleeping and three were on deck - suddenly it was all hands on deck."

Mike and Pat grew up in Lafayette but much of their time was spent on their grandfather's lagoon in Alameda, where their father was raised. They are Acalanes High School alumni and Pat lives nearby in Walnut Creek. Each summer they go with their families to the Delta for a month at the St. Francis Yacht Club island.

Mike's wife Laura is the land operations crew. They were planning to transmit updates for her to post at, two to four times a day.

Mike and Pat make their living in high tech. The sailing they do is, as their dad always said, "for the shirts and the glory," they say - just like their dad.