Looking back, the first time I met Matt Pistay was perfect. We were at the Angry Beaver, a hockey dive bar tucked unassumingly in the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle. Normally either a low-key watering hole for locals or a rowdy sports bar of jersey wearing fans during hockey season, on this particular Thursday at least a hundred local sailors took it over.
True to form, the jubilant atmosphere was as intoxicating as the drinks the sailors inhaled. It wasn’t long before the place was just as nuts as a Stanley Cup night.
Why had sailors invaded this hockey bar on a random evening? To celebrate at the invite of Matt Pistay, skipper of the winning team of Race to Alaska 2019. The team name? Team Angry Beaver–Skiff Foundation in honor of this very dive bar.
“Alright, alright, time to say something,” said Bob Pistay, Matt’s proud father and former sailmaker and yacht broker, summoning the six Beavers to a small stage in front of a projector. The crowd laughed and cheered as the mic was passed around. When it was his turn, Matt looked to The People and spoke.
“My favorite story is that the race started here in this very bar,” he began to cheers and hoots. “We met about six weeks before the race from PT (Port Townsend) to Victoria (Leg #1 of R2AK) because we didn’t have a team name at the time.”
The “we” was the crew: Matt Pistay (skipper), Gavin Bracket, Brent Campbell, Alan Johnson, Mats Elf, and Simon Miles. The combined accomplishments of this squad of local sailing talents include Melges 24 and 32 national championship wins, scoring places on the Optimist National USA and Swedish teams, a Swiftsure Yacht Race win on a Farr 30, and more. Clearly, this was not the usual pack of guys catching a game on TV. Their race machine? A Schock 40 named Velvet Hammer (formerly known as Secret Squirrel).
“So, after a few pitchers we’re having a good time, throwing out some weird names that didn’t stick, after a time we were almost done and ready to press the submit button.”
Thus, Team Angry Beaver was born. The Skiff Sailing Foundation part of the name is also steeped with significance. A 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting high performance sailing, their endorsement certainly gave the Beavers clout. The last R2AK team to partner with the Skiff Sailing Foundation was Team Jungle Kitty – The Skiff Sailing Foundation in 2016. Jungle Kitty, a crowd favorite monohull in a fleet of multihulls, took second. As per R2AK tradition, the team was awarded a set of steak knives.
In many ways, Angry Beaver – The Skiff Sailing Foundation is a name that perfectly presents this ace team: one half coveted high-tier sailing endorsement, one half hockey dive bar. In this case, the fun half is well earned.
“Turns out, the (Angry Beaver) owner had no idea that we took their (bar) name until we finished in Ketchikan,” continued Pistay to the laughing sailors. “And then they said they’d throw us a big party with beer and everything, so this is that party.”
Pistay glossed over the harrowing high winds that defined the fifth annual R2AK experience. In stark contrast to 2018’s extremely low-wind year, 2019 was high octane. Many teams reported facing gusts of up to 50 knots in the Hecate Strait. The Beavers completed the race in a timely 4 days, 3 hours, and 56 minutes.
They were followed by Team Pear Shaped Racing on their formidable Chris Cochrane 10.6m custom trimaran, Dragon, which finished in 4 days, 6 hours, and 23 minutes. If one had to pick a favorite to take gold this year, most probably had their money on Dragon.
In a testament to how slow the conditions were last year, we can look to Team Sail Like A Girl’s times as a control study. The winners of 2018, they completed the race with a commanding 6 days, 13 hours, and 17 minutes. This year, they took fourth with a much faster 4 days, 14 hours, and 23 minutes. It’s the same boat with largely the same crew, but with different conditions.
Pistay wrapped up his story, the fun and jokes put on the back burner for some genuine appreciation.
“We’re here with all of our good close friends from this Seattle sailing community, like you guys, coming to support us… it’s not only us winning, it’s everyone in this room winning together because we are a close community and we share the win with everybody!”
The wave of awwws and claps ended Matt’s rundown of the R2AK win. For most stories, such an idyllic scene cues the end credits. Here is when the protagonist hangs up his or her hat, a job well done, and a chapter of relaxation can begin. Not so with Matt Pistay. His best summer ever was just getting started.
or Pistay, R2AK—a life achievement for many—was just a warm-up. The buoyant vibe of the Angry Beaver celebration a pleasant memory, he dove into preparation for his next sailing endeavor: crewing on team Sail Hamachi in Transpac 2019.
Hamachi may be a familiar name to some local sailors out there. Owned by Seattle sailors Shawn Dougherty and Jason Andrews, the 1999 vintage J/125 is active on the local sailing scene. The duo brought together the best for their Transpac 2019 run, including Frederic Laffitte as strategist, his son Lucas Laffitte as bowman, and David Rogers as navigator. Matt Pistay’s official position, as per the team’s bio on 2019.transpacyc.com, was “Cat 3 Cooler Jockey.”
Many eyes were on Frederic Laffitte, known as “The Godfather” among his crew. A true master of the sea with countless sea hours under his belt, he is also the president of PYI Inc., a Lynnwood, Washington, manufacturer and distributor of high-quality marine parts. When the Godfather speaks, you listen.
In a twist for Pistay, he’d be up against another Velvet Hammer, this one a J/125 like Hamachi that shared the same name as his R2AK ride. Velvet Hammer would be just one of many tricky opponents, including two additonal J/125 teams for a total of four, to take on in Transpac 2019.
For context, the Transpac Race is one of the world’s great yacht races and goes back to 1906. Starting at Dana Point, California, and ending off Diamond Head, Hawaii, the race is famous for fast downwind sailing and the long open water course, an imposing 2,225 nautical miles. This is a true sailor’s affair, a definitive endorsement of skill.
“I’ve done a Transpac,” may be the single best concise answer for a skeptical captain asking, “Do you have sailing experience?” In the movie Jaws, fictional oceanographer Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) even pulls this card to impress the sea salty fisherman and shark hunter Quint (played by Robert Shaw). “I’ve crewed three Transpacs,” says Hooper with justifiable pride, confidant in his sea skills.
How did this team of six do, Cat 3 Cooler Jockey and all? They took the whole thing, both their division and overall.
As I write this, Pistay and company sleep halfway across the Pacific, news of their victory recently declared after several nail-biting hours of uncertainty. Many other boats weren’t too far behind, and corrected time is what matters most for podium wins. Now officially first place, Transpac #50 was won by Sail Hamachi on July 21 at 02:21 hours. Their winning corrected time is 8 days, 52 minutes, and 37 seconds.
Winning both category and overall first isn’t the only cause for celebration here. What makes the win even more rewarding is the big, competitive field—the largest in the entire event’s history with a whopping 90 entrants. For perspective, the previous record was in 1979 with 80 entrants. The fact that the crew are Transpac newbies is frankly amazing.
How did Hamachi pull it all together? More in-depth racing analysis is sure to come in the following days after Northwest Yachting goes to press for this August issue, but early theories abound. Co-owner Jason Andrews had some initial thoughts on July 23 between post-race errands.
“Our goal was simply to give it all we had by focusing on safety, fun, and winning — in that order. We had hoped to make a strong showing in our class, but finishing in first place overall definitely surpassed all our expectations.”
“It really came down to this extraordinary group of Pacific Northwest sailors and the great chemistry we had as a team,” added co-owner Shawn Dougherty. “Each member contributed complementary skills, and everyone came together with the common desire to compete at the highest level, while having fun at the same time.”
Both of these wins are the kinds of achievements diehard sailors dream about. Who can guess what’s next for Matt Pistay, exhausted from his Hawaiian finish at the time of this writing?
While braggadocio may be standard fare in this competitive sailing world of Type A personalities, I have a hunch little has changed in his “this is a win for us all” community philosophy he expressed in that celebratory speech at the Angry Beaver bar in his hometown.
The refreshing attitude is part of what makes Matt Pistay’s best summer ever a worthy story. At our best, the Pacific Northwest’s sailing and larger maritime culture is inherently bound by a sense of community and unity. When our own sailors keep that perfect Cascadian blend of serious performance with the beer’s-on-me attitude as they go forth and conquer, we can all salute with pride.
The summer is not just Matt Pistay’s best anymore. It’s all of ours. Now get off your computer and get out on the water!