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Wind in His Sail, Zest in His Heart, Yachtsman Aims at Winning

November 27, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

On the stern was where A. Victor Stern stood, although 23 years ago he didn't know it from the bow. With an ear to the wind and an eye on the compass, this short, slightly bent-over man of the sea directed the boat he loved as if it were a symphony.

Stern was the picture of a yachtsman--the real role he jokingly said he was destined for--as he raced his old white-and-beige catamaran, the Imi Loa, in the Speedsailing Grand Prix from Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island and back recently.

To the other sailors, he was as recognizable as a lighthouse. When a competing boat materialized from a ghostly image, "Good morning, Victor" would carry through the fog from its captain.

Stern, a longtime Long Beach resident, would return the greeting--and then to business, this being no pleasure cruise. His reputation, developed soon after he took up the sport and began winning ocean races in the mid-1960s, is one of an intense competitor.

"He takes it extremely seriously," said Bill Odlum, one of the six crew members. "He sails to win races, not just be out there."

At 63, Stern seemed only mildly weathered from sailing enough ocean miles to circle the globe twice. He wore a shirt striped in green and purple, and blue jogging pants. Where he had hair, it grew in curly tufts. His red nose held sunglasses and hooked into an unkempt mustache.

Even if you didn't know that he once plotted defenses against missiles and made bagels, his manner suggested that he had spent time at symposiums and in delicatessens.

But he was as seaworthy as Imi Loa, the boat he calls a mistress.

"I know exactly where I'm going," said Stern, who had prepared for the race by testing the course the day before and noting compass points. Although he knew that the 43-foot, 5-ton Imi Loa would not be able to keep up with the new, ultra-light boats, he believed his knowledge could assure a respectable showing.

"I understand the aerodynamics of sailing," said Stern, who earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley and went on to a 28-year career at Hughes Aircraft. "A lot of people don't really have an idea of what's going on physically."

'Ready About!'

And so he gripped the tiller and directed boat and crew toward the federal breakwater, zigzagging to take best advantage of the wind.

"Ready about!" he shouted, as they ended a starboard tack.

The crew got ready.

"The helm is over!" Stern called, meaning that he had started to turn the boat.

"Cut!" he ordered.

In a few frenzied seconds, the sheet, or rope, attached to one of the sails was released, whipping wildly off the winch. The sail swung to the other side of the boat. The sheet was hauled back in and wound around the winch.

"Let's bring the main in just a hair," Stern said, looking up at the mainsail whose tip was five stories above the water.

The boat traveled west along the breakwater for three miles, then Stern guided it through the channel into the open, fogless ocean, an undulating blue carpet it would ride straight to Catalina. Stern handed over the helm to a crewman and announced that it was time for lunch, which he would fix.

"He's a teacher," crew member Alan Burg had said of Stern back at the dock in the Long Beach Marina. "He has brought so many aboard his boat and taught them to sail."

Stern's interest in sailing was born when he read a magazine story about catamarans. He had to have one, and had Imi Loa built in 1963. After a year of learning, he started to race, making the boat live up to its Hawaiian translation of far wanderer.

"The whole idea of competition got to me," Stern said, who has raced six times to Hawaii. He became so involved in the sport that he formed the Ocean Racing Catamaran Assn.

Whereas before he had to squeeze his yachting in between two careers, now it is all clear sailing.

When he was 55, he decided it was financially desirable for him to retire from his Hughes job of designing concepts for defensive systems against ballistic missiles. He moved to San Francisco and went into the bagel business, although his only experience with bagels had been eating them. For the past eight years, he has gotten up at 2:30 each morning to run The Bagelry.

Now he will leave that venture and return to his Long Beach home and the prospect of becoming the "gentleman yachtsman I was intended to be."

Imi Loa, after passing whales, approached Ship Rock, the race's turnaround point at Catalina. Stern reclaimed the helm, and crew members, who had been dozing on the sunny bow, awoke. At Stern's command to raise the spinnaker--a huge, lightweight triangular sail used to propel the boat downwind--they scurried to their stations. Through the cabin windows, the view was of fast-moving legs in blue jeans.

This was a hectic moment, reminiscent of a pit stop at an auto race. Sheets flew, pulleys creaked, and equipment was grappled with until the spinnaker billowed in towering blue, gold and red majesty.

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