NEWPORT BEACH — Oh, but for a strong north wind to nudge old Ragtime, a skinny, plywood boat painted rebel black and gunning for the young yachts in classic white with their turbo and tall sails and sleek carbon fiber. Just look at her! insists Ragtime's new owner, 37-year-old Scott Zimmer of Newport Beach. See, she just needs to catch the right line of wind . . .
On Friday, Ragtime--one of the world's fastest racing yachts in the '70s--will come out of the mothballs to sail in the 50th annual Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race, the largest of its kind in the world. The 125-mile race, which is sponsored by the Newport Ocean Sailing Assn., begins at noon. Nearly 600 boats are expected to compete, one of the biggest fields in recent years, said Ralph Rodheim, a spokesman for the sailing association.
The 34-year-old Ragtime will be one of the oldest ultralight boats in this weekend's race. Old-timers still talk about the time she edged out the 73-foot champion, Windward Passage, in a prestigious yacht race 24 years ago--"A rowboat," one newspaper sniffed, "beat the Queen Mary."
This weekend, Ragtime will compete for the first time since 1991. Privately, some say Ragtime is too old to catch the new, lighter yachts, even though her last owner poured $1.4 million into rebuilding the 65-foot single-masted sloop.
"Everyone's rooting for Ragtime," said Laguna Beach sailor Debbie Davis. "It's really a tangible thing. It's in the air." Said Zimmer, her skipper: "Maybe we'll pull a rabbit out of the hat with this old boat. If we did, you would never hear the end of it."
Ragtime, which won the Ensenada race twice in the '70s, will sail with a 10-member crew. This week, crew members and volunteers worked to strip her bare so she's as light as possible. Ragtime was built in New Zealand in 1963. Her first owner, Tom Clarke, named her Infidel and painted her black. In the late 1960s, Clarke sold her, and the new owner renamed her Ragtime. Since then, Ragtime has changed hands several times.
Previous owners have tinkered with her, but her basic design has stayed the same. Ragtime has a low-profile hull and flat bottom; she zips across the water like a surfboard. With a big downwind, she can zoom through the water at more than 30 knots (34.5 mph). Part of her speed comes from her lean design--she is 9 1/2 feet wide at the water line and weighs 25,000 pounds.
At first, skeptics predicted that the sliver of a boat would break up in brutal ocean races, but a funny thing happened.
Ragtime finished first in every race she sailed, and in the early '70s, she came to the world's attention.
In 1973, Ragtime upset the favorite, Windward Passage, in her debut at the prestigious Transpac race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. Ragtime won by 4 minutes, 31 seconds in a record-breaking finish.
Ragtime's win kicked off the era of ultralight racing "sleds," experts said. Her design became a forerunner for the younger, lighter sleds that she will try to beat to Ensenada this weekend in a warmup for the 2,225-mile Transpac race in July.
Sailors want to see how Ragtime rides to Ensenada before they bet on Transpac.
"It's a nostalgia thing," said Andy Sibert, a 50-year sailor who will compete in the Ensenada race. "[Ragtime] was a very good boat in its day, and everyone want to see if [she] could still do it."
In the last few years, Ragtime dropped out of sight because her previous owner, Pat Farrah, a founder of Home Depot stores, had moved from Long Beach to Atlanta.
Zimmer, who grew up sailing in Newport Beach, had always thought Ragtime was beautiful.
Late last year, he was surprised when a yacht broker told him Ragtime was for sale.
"When was the last time you saw Ragtime?" the broker asked him. He couldn't remember.
Zimmer drove to San Diego to look at the boat. Halfway down the dock, he knew. He had to have her.
He declined to disclose what he paid.
"More fun than all of this [racing] is to be able to buy a piece of history," Zimmer said.
Zimmer, who owns a giant-balloon advertising company, can't stop smiling when he talks about Ragtime. In one conversation, he compares her to Secretariat, Tiger Woods and the Spirit of St. Louis.
Say she gets a good downwind this weekend.
Look for her "in the front," Zimmer said. "Right up there in the front, where we will be."