Last month, Ansel Koehn helped his team — on a TP52 named Smoke — to a second-place finish overall, out of 36 vessels, and second in their division, in the Van Isle 360 yacht race, which circumnavigates Vancouver Island every two years.
Impressive as that may be, it is only the latest chapter in the 22-year-old Cobble Hill resident’s remarkable sailing story, which has already taken him across a good portion of the globe, with many more destinations and races still to come.
For the most part, the Van Isle 360 was “pretty uneventful” for Koehn and the rest of Smoke’s crew.
“That’s always the way you want it,” he said.
The closest thing to an incident was when Koehn had to go up the mast at 10 p.m. as the boat made its way into Victoria, to retrieve a couple of halyards stuck at the top, which is not an ideal situation.
“You preferably try not to do it.”
Koehn had last completed the Van Isle 360 in 2017. Between those two races, he gained valuable experience in some of the world’s best-known yacht races.
In early June 2018, Koehn raced in the Melges 24 World Championships in Victoria, where he was part of a “well-rounded crew” of “high-calibre sailors” that finished fifth overall and first among Canadian entries. Later that month, he left his job making sails at Leitch & McBride in Sidney and set sail from Victoria on Zaff, a J92 (9.2m) for California to take part in the Pacific Cup race from San Francisco to Kane’ohe Bay in Hawaii.
Leaving Victoria marked Koehn’s first time offshore, by his definition, at least.
“Offshore for me is going out of sight of land,” he explained. “It doesn’t feel offshore until you can’t see land, for me. Once you’re out of sight of land, you start to feel really small.”
It’s a noteworthy achievement for a sailor as young as 21 to go offshore, he pointed out.
“Somebody my age coming offshore for the first time in a boat that small is pretty rare.”
The four-and-a-half-day trip to San Francisco ended up being more eventful than the race to Hawaii. Partway down the coast, the Zaff got stuck in a “pretty good gale” for 24 hours. The storm peaked at 1 a.m., with 50-foot breaking waves, and Koehn admits to wondering, “Why am I here?” The arrival into San Francisco answered that question.
“We sailed through the Golden Gate at sunrise on the Fourth of July,” Koehn recalled. “That was pretty sweet.”
The race to Hawaii consisted of 13 days of downwind sailing. Although they knew they were in a race, the crew of the Zaff didn’t bother to check the race tracker the whole trip. When they arrived at the finish line, they were surprised that the media boat was there to film their arrival.
“They told us we had won our division, which was pretty cool. None of us had done offshore races before, and I hadn’t been offshore at all. It was pretty amazing. We were put in a pretty competitive division with a lot of good competition. We weren’t anticipating that at all. Obviously, we were trying our hardest, but we had no idea.”
Originally from Wisconsin, where his dad, Chris, grew up lake sailing, Ansel Koehn started sailing when his family moved to Cobble Hill 12 years ago and his mom signed him up for camps at the Maple Bay Yacht Club. He took part in one or two camps a summer until he maxed out what the club could teach him. He went on to learn more at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club, where he joined the youth race team that travels nationally and internationally to compete. The invitation to join the crew of the Zaff came from the boat’s RVYC-based owner, Phil Wampold, who also happened to be from Wisconsin originally.
Koehn’s skiff racing career peaked with the 2017 29er World Championships in Long Beach, California, and after that, he started to focus on keel boating and preparing for the race to Hawaii a year later.
A J92 typically has a crew of seven for racing, but there were just four on board for the race to Hawaii. That created some challenges, but the Zaff’s crew still managed.
“There’s still the same amount of jobs, but half as many people, almost,” Koehn recalled. “You learn how to simplify things a bit more.”
In Hawaii, Koehn joined the crew of Joyride, a J122 from Seattle, to help deliver it to Sydney, Australia. A crew of four took 15 days to get the boat from Hawaii to Fiji, where they picked up a fifth, and sailed another 10 days to Newcastle, Australia.
Koehn knew he wanted to travel, so when that opportunity arose, he couldn’t resist.
“What better way than to sail?”
Joyride was set to compete in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, one of the biggest offshore races in the world, but already had its crew for the competition sorted out. Koehn set about finding another boat he could join, which wasn’t easy.
“It was almost a full-time job just going around to different yacht clubs, meeting people.”
He ended up on a TP52 from Sydney named Koa, which raced from Sydney to Hobart, Tasmania — a distance of 630 nautical miles (1,170 km) — in two days and 16 hours.
“It’s the fastest sailing I’ve ever done,” Koehn stated.
Koa finished 10th in its division and 19th overall out of more than 80 entries, but for Koehn, the result was secondary to just taking part.
“It was my goal just to do the race, get across the start and finish lines and say I’d done it,” he said. “To say I’ve done the race and placed that high is pretty good.”
He plans to try again in the historic 75th Sydney Hobart race, which starts on Boxing Day.
“This year I’ll try to get on another one and do better.”
Right now, Koehn is preparing for another historic race, the 50th Transpac Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, starting on July 10. His long-term goal is to do the Ocean Race — formerly the Volvo Ocean Race — around the world. It takes place every three years, and the next one is in 2021, but Koehn is aiming for 2024.
“To do that, I have to go to Europe where the whole fleet hangs out,” he explained. “You need to be there, get into the network, get seen. It takes time.”
Koehn learned on the fly how to network as he found crews to join in Hawaii and Australia.
“I’ve never really done talking like that before, but I’ve gotten better at it,” he said. “I’ve always been told I’m outgoing, which helps. You get good at promoting yourself.”
There’s a lot that Koehn likes about sailing, from the sense of adventure to the camaraderie. There’s also the fact that you can’t escape the intangibles, like weather.
“It’s one of the few sports that’s so influenced by Mother Nature. Nature influences a race in a way that doesn’t happen in other sports.”
The combination of mental and physical requirements is another draw for Koehn.
“To me, it’s also the most physically and mentally demanding sport out there,” he said. “Take the mental energy from a chess game and the physical energy from a rugby game, and that’s what you get.”