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There She Sails

Sports: Nine women, including three from Orange County, make up the team--one of two all-female crews in a field of 41--that will race the 50-foot Bay Wolf to Hawaii in the biennial Transpac.

June 25, 1997|CATHY WERBLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among them are a nurse, a flight attendant, a journalist and a homemaker. They are originally from East, West and in-between. Their ages vary by decades. Their personal journeys to the 50-foot sailboat at the end of the dock include all of the elements of a compelling summer novel.

Sailing is their passion and their strength, they say. Sailing is their life.

The nine women from Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties are as different as they are the same. When they climb aboard the vessel Bay Wolf, they will be working together to reach the demanding and grueling goal upon which each has set her sights: winning the biennial Transpac Challenge.

With the pop of a starter's pistol July 2, the members of the Women's Sailing Team will begin their 2,216-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean. The voyage--it will take about two weeks--starts at Point Fermin near San Pedro and ends in Honolulu.

Sponsored by the Transpacific Yacht Club, Transpac is one of sailing's most prestigious races. This year, 41 teams are entered. The race has been run every other year since 1906 except during the two world wars.

It has historically been a race dominated by males. In this, the 39th race, two of the crews are all-female (the other is out of San Francisco). There have been other all-female crews: one each in 1979, 1993 and 1995. This year, there will also be women on other boats, "but just a handful," says Dan Nowlan, a race organizer who is a veteran of two Transpacs.

The Southern California all-female crew was put together by Linda Elias, who has sailed in three Transpac races and logged thousands of offshore miles.

She credits sailing and Transpac for saving her life. Two years ago, as she sat in a hospital, Elias vowed that she would cross the Pacific one more time.

Her fight against ovarian cancer meant six surgeries, chemotherapy, painful complications and infections. Emotional support during her medical battle came mostly from her female sailing buddies. Elias said she knew then that her Transpac crew would be all female.

"I realized that many of the excellent women I sail with wouldn't have an opportunity to sail in the race in any capacity other than as cooks. Women have to work 20% harder to get on a boat, then they constantly have to prove their abilities," she says.

Elias, 46, took into account personalities, strengths, experience and attitudes when deciding on the eight sailors she would invite to join her crew.

She asked expert navigator and computer analyst Betty Sue Sherman to co-skipper.

"Your life could depend on who you take," says team member Camille Daniels, also a Transpac veteran. "It's like spending the week in the bathroom with 10 of your closest friends."

Team member Molly McCloud of Huntington Beach, 19, is a veteran of the open seas and has completed an 8,000 mile, 40-day sail from England to South Africa. She is the youngest on any Transpac team this season.

When Betsy Crowfoot, a writer in the Newport Beach office of a weekly sailing magazine and a veteran of two Transpac races, received the call last year from Elias inviting her to join the Transpac crew, says she felt like a child hearing from a sports hero.

"I was on top of the world," she says, but her elation was tempered by knowing the depth of commitment saying yes would mean. "It isn't just the two weeks we're gone; it's the months ahead of time."

Crowfoot, 38, of Tustin says the time and energy needed for the planning sessions, practice schedules and efforts to raise the $50,000 needed for the challenge has strained her 16-year marriage and left her feeling guilty for time missed with her daughter Coco, 5.

Some crew members are married to world-class sailors. But that didn't necessarily mean the husbands were delighted with the wives' decisions to sail Transpac.

"We've been following our husbands around for 18 to 20 years, and when they heard we were going, their first response was that they wanted first-class [airline] tickets to Hawaii," Elias said.

"That has been a major issue--the flak we're getting from our significant others," she says. "But then we hear from other people how proud our husbands are of us. It has been a much bigger issue than we thought it would be."

But not big enough to put them off course.

"Part of the motivation of this is being out," Crowfoot says. "We push papers, answer phones for most of our lives. We live an intellectual, not a physical, existence. This is a completely physical experience. It's very sensual. The sun on our bodies and wind in our hair and the feeling of the boat. The dolphins, moonrises and sunsets. Each person is motivated by what's going on in her head."

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