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The Silent Partner: Zan Drejes Interview


  • The Silent Partner: Zan Drejes Interview

    When not actually making the boats go really fast on the open ocean, or delivering a boat across a large
    body of water, Zan specializes in getting the most performance possible out of a given vessel!

    There are many names associated with great offshore sailing events, and most of those reflect the owner, the skipper, the navigator or the designer of the boat, but few times are the names of the hardworking guys or gals behind the scene. Case in point, you would be hard pressed to find another West Coast sailor with the resume, miles or experience of Santa Cruz’s Zan Drejes. Zan has probably forgotten about more blue water miles than the average sailor will ever sail in his or her lifetime. From his humble beginnings in a recovered El Toro to crewing aboard many of the elite programs on the planet, Zan IS the go to guy for excellence in offshore sailing, yet remains off the public radar. We were able to track Zan down while he was doing some prep work on Alex Mehran’s Open 50, which just set a blistering pace in the BAMA Double Handed Farallones.

    “We used to take the el Toro to go out to Angel Island and camp out, and would each tell our moms we were going to the other persons house. Part of our ritual would be to sail to downtown Sausalito to steal candy as our provisions. We never planed ahead enough to bring food or anything! We would always tie up at the Sausalito YC, and there always this guy checking us out. Eventually he came down to talk to us, as we were tying up our hillbilly boat and he tells us “Hey!! you can’t tie up here any more, this is for yacht club members only…!!” That really threw us for a loop as there aren’t a whole lot of places to tie up in Sausalito. But it turned out the guy really liked us, and even offered us a membership for something ridiculous like $2.50 cents a month.” That guy? Turns out it was Gordie Nash.

    Zan and friend signed up and were soon bonifide members of the Sausalito YC Jr Program. “Gordie was a great instructor, he would take all us kids out into Hurricane Gulch there in Sausalito, and it was a lot of fun”

    The kids from the StFYC junior program showed up on summer after their kids were getting beat up on the City Front seeking a mellower place to practice. They were also looking for kids to join their program and Zan and the others signed on. Lasers were just arriving on the scene, with Don Trask as the Laser Guru and Hays McClellan from the St FYC were really working to get the Laser program going. “Hays had a 54’ Ford flatbed with 3 on the tree, and a 6 boat trailer which he loaned to the Juniors” recall Zan” He also added a gas card and told us to hit every regatta we could on the West Coast. That’s when the serious racing got started, for me anyway.

    In the that bunch Steve Jepson, John Bertran, Craig Healy ( RYC), Paul Cayard, & Kenny Keefe. “We used to sail up the City Front constantly and we all became quite good on the laser. Aside from crewing on Steve’s father Folkboat, the crew avoided leadmines. That was until the Santa Cruz Ultra Lights came on to the scene. “ We pretty much swore on a blood oath that we would never sail on a boat with lead in it” Zan Recalls “ that was until we saw these keelboats that plane. We thought if it planed, well that might be okay”

    Zan would then apprentice under Peter Sutter of Sutter Sails, along with learning bundles about sailmaking, Peter aided Zan in cutting his ocean sailing teeth on his new Wylie designed “Wild Spirit” whilst cruising along the Pacific. “ Pete taught me a lot of seamanship stuff” Say Zan, “ I then ended up doing a lot of deliveries with Robert Flowerman, Pete and Robert taught me a lot about sailing in the ocean, some of which I listened to”

    "The first time I went to the top of a rig at night, in the moonlight, surfing down a big swell in the middle of the ocean...I knew that's were I wanted to be... just about able to touch the bottom of the tradewind clouds, looking out at the ocean sparkling in the moonlight, no sound but the spray hissing off the bow...magic!"

    Zan expanded his horizons in 81, 1st venturing to Sydney Harbor to sail on the 18s in the Skiff Worlds with The Baylis Brothers in pre sprit asymmetrical days, “It was an incredible experience with the symmetrical spinnakers says, gybing these 20’ foot poles” Shortly thereafter the Mini Transat beckoned and he found himself in Europe:

    After junior college, Zan moved to Santa Cruz and started sailing there. “ Somehow I ended up on Merlin and got to do a couple races on her before she sold” He recalls, afterwards Zan started working for Bill Lee Yachts. During that period The Moniz family from Hawaii, fresh off a Transpac on A SC 50 came to Santa Cruz to order on of their own, and on of the guys in the shop said “ Why not make a Santa Cruz 70?” That was where that whole thing started, the Moniz Family finances the building of the plug or mold, after which 25 boats or more came out of that mold.” The boats name was Blondie which race the 85 transpac with Bill Lee and Don Snyder, we had the same navigator as Merlin did for the 77’ Transpac but just came up a bit short.

    Zan supplement his income in those early years while attending college, and working for Bill Lee Yachts, by moonlighting as a garbage man, a job fellow Santa Cruzan Dave Wahle utilized for extra cash. Dave said “ Of the guys I got jobs at the sanitation district, Zan was always the most dependable and reliable, but the other trash guys couldn’t get used to the name “ Zan”, so they called him Alex.

    Zan on the Prosail 40 Circuit:

    "Some of the most fun and exiting sailing I got to do was on the "prosail 40" circuit in the US. Sailing with cam Lewis and Tom Blackaller, the boats were fast and the rules were made up by the race promoter, who had been banished from NASCAR racing for 3 years for some undisclosed crime against NASCAR but still has 3 million bucks worth of Salem cigarettes money..."

    His rules were:

    "You can hit the marks you just can't sink em, can even hit the other boats, you just can't sink em.,. So it was pretty much a hilarious free for all at high speed with $50 grand prize money at the end of each regatta, Tom absolutely loved it, he was laughing the whole time, after just returning from a disappointing Americas Cup in Perth. This was like the opposite of a 12 meters and he was loving every minute of it...The boats, designed by Gino Morelli, were powerful simple and light, yet good in heavy conditions."

    "Tom's old boat “ Tomcat” was what Jack Halterman and I would eventually set the Doublehanded Farallones record on...all I can say is god bless BAMA for letting us do the race...the most fun race I've ever done in under 4 hours. I think the average speed around the course was @17kts. On the way out we had to slow way down as the cat was getting airborne and trying to flip off the top of every big wave it launched off... On the way back we were a ball of spray so intense it was difficult to breath or talk there was so much water flying at us."

    (Zan and Jack set the record in 1992 aboard Tom Cat, which they borrowed on a whim from Paul Simonson, who had acquired the boat after Tom’s Passing. The record remains today. 3hr 30m 34s!)

    Zan compares the 1992 trip with this years adventure on Truth, Alex Mehrans Open 50 which Zan is extremely familiar with, being the project manager for the boat while under the ownership of Philippe Kahn’s Pegasus Program:

    The race out on “Truth” was incredible, the stars came into alignment and the weather gods gave us a strong southerly for a possible shot at the monohull record. A 40kt gust came through about 30 min before the start, which pretty much cleared the starting area of any boats that were considering not going out in the ocean that day... It also was a good reminder to show respect to the little piece of ocean were about to go into, a gnarly lee shore in a southerly, with no refuge, any mechanical problems and you may not make it back into SF bay...Alex said:" let's just take it easy today" and that sounded pretty good to me. Lurking in the back of my mind was the monohull record, but it was looking too windy to think of anything other than safe return. As it turned out the weather moderated and we had a great race, not quite a reach out as the wind headed to @240m just before the start...but still a barn burner back in over the potato patch with 30kt puffs out of the south, we had a boat made for the conditions, but wound up @15 min shy of the record, which I haven't gotten over yet. Still one of most fun races of a lifetime!

    (The record for the DH Farallones remains the one set in 1992 by Paul Simonson and Stan Honey aboard Mongoose. 5hr 39m 47s)

    Paul Simonson who bought hull number 7 out of the Coop, “Mongoose” provided Zan with his 1st real permanent crew position, working the lengthy Santa Cruz 70 circuit, which included 3 Mexican races, the Cal Cup, Transpac and the odd Big Boat Series.” That’s were I really put in a lot of miles and got to know the other guys running boats, and was introduced to the Disney crew”

    Zan wound up on Pyewacket for the 1992 Trans Atlantic Race called the Route of Discovery from Spain 4,500 miles to Miami, loosely retracing Columbus’s 1492 voyage. While in port in Palo De La Frontera, the Pyewacket crew were surrounded by the behemoths of the Whitbread circuit. “The top of our rig only went up to the 3rd spreader of their mizzens masts” recalls Zan “ As the only ultralight in the race and really the only one most of the other crews had seen, we felt like we had something to prove” The light airs at the beginning of the race made for a really slow first few days, but then the fleet was launched through the Canary Islands as a big weather system passed through and Pyewacket jumped out in front.” We were ahead of one of the big Whitbread Ketches, I think it was Merritt,” says Zan” and they were reporting falsely that they were in front, because they didn’t want to look bad in front of there sponsors” As the week progressed, the seas became extremely confused and the breeze back off allowing the Whitbread boats to regain the lead. Pyewacket began clawing back when the wind filled , but were shacked yet again when the rudder snapped and they were forced to divert to the Grand Turk Islands. “It was a great adventure” recalls Zan “and that the beginning of my sailing with Disney on and off for 20 years or so.

    After finishing the Pyewacket Max tour in Sardina, Zan forwarded his resume to Philippe Kahn’s Pegasus Program and signed on in 2001 and worked with the program for several. “A lot of work” sighs Zan “ Philippe is extremely ambitious, and it requires and extreme amount of effort to keep up with everything, which is kinda fun…definitely never a dull moment” Zan primarily has attended to the Pegasus big boat program, with the RP 77, the Waikiki 70 and the Open 50 projects

    When Bill Erkelins needed a go to guy for the Sayonara project in 1995, Zan was his 1st Choice. “He was my 1st mate, when it all got started” says Bill” which was kind of odd because he had way more experience and know far more about sailing than I will ever know. I was in well over my head and Zan was huge in keep the program going.” Zan sailed with Sayonara for a full year but with a young family at home, could not keep up with the rigorous touring schedule. “Zan the Man” is on the top of A list says Bill, and when we there’s a project we need help with, he’s the 1st call we make. I can’t think of a more competent sailor, he’s dependable and easy guy to work with, plus all the vendors like him, which make things even better.

    Zan was aboard in the 98 Hobart when all hell broke loose…”I don’t know any of us really knew the extent of the ferocity of th the storm until all the maydays started coming in and by that time we were in survival mode, But if you have confidence in your boat ( and crew) its not that scary”

    Currently Zan is currently managing the Open 50 for Alex Mehran as he prepares for the Singlehanded Transpac and “Loe Real”, the Orma 60 Trimaran which was indeed used originally in the Water World film. It was one of two build for the movie by VPLP from the mold used for Laurent Bourgnon’s record Route Du Rhum run in 1990. “En Lo” the boats owner from Texas, is what Zan calls a tough old guy, he has a couple of titanium knees, one of his lungs is gone, but he loves that boat. Zan along the En Lo were 1st to finish in the recent SD to Vallarta Race and will be competing in th Ensenada Race.

    Truth blasting home from the Dh Farallones with Zan and Alex

    “I feel blessed to have gone from Tom Sawyer'ing around San Francisco bay as a kid in an el toro, to winning 3 maxi-boat world championships in Sardinia, 2 Sydney hobart races, sailing 18' skiffs, mini-transat boats, formula40 catamarans...sailing with Larry Ellison, Roy Disney, Philippe Kahn, Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, and so many incredible sailors,and people who i have shared incredible adventures with and who have been my teacher, and who, for the most part are all wonderful lifelong friends."

    Zan has also begin working with Tom Wylie on a 70’ ocean racer which promises to provide a less expensive, simpler to handle ocean racer. Still in the concept stages, the design would allow for a crew of 4 persons to engage in level playing field sailing, without an arms race budget. According to Tom Wylie, the price range would be equal to or less than a high end Farr 40 , limited to 3 jibs, 3 kites and a main. Construction would imply longevity in laminates allowing hulls 10 years of age to still compete against newer hulls all of which will be pulled from a single plug to specifications establish by the cooperative ownership of the initial primary investors in the class. The hardware, standing rigging, and engines would utilizing off the shelf available, class specified components to further keep wallet wars from erupting. We will have more on the boat itself in the near future….
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