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COLUMN ONE

Transpac Tale: Alone Together on Swift Wood

A 'jig' joins the crew of Ragtime for a blue-water race to Hawaii. The stereotypes of yachting fall by the way as nine men test a classic sloop, and themselves, for eight days under sail.

August 02, 1997|JOHN BALZAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We can pick the right combination of sails according to the wind. Ragtime carries 16 for this race, including six giant, balloon-like spinnakers of various dimensions and weights, some for heavy air and others for light zephyrs.

We can leave behind unnecessary cargo. We bring only one tube of toothpaste to share, one can of deodorant. We daub our cuts and scrapes from the same little bottle of peroxide. We are limited to four T-shirts, two pairs of shorts, a sweater and foul-weather gear.

Each of us is permitted a personal toothbrush. But someone seems to have forgotten, and right now I see mine in the mouth of an off-watch colleague. Oh well, I am wearing another's jacket, which looked a lot like mine in the dark.

As is custom, the boat's owner has provided us with identical crew T-shirts, nylon jackets and ball caps. Some aboard mark theirs with initials. Others regard this as possessiveness and wear whatever is closest at hand.

To balance the boat, we keep our weight on the high side--the side from which the wind is coming, the weather side. We sleep in our clothes, ready to be summoned on deck. The entire trip, I never remove my contact lenses. We share pillows, soggy sheets and bunks still warm from the last body.

Inside, Ragtime is a noisy echo chamber for the roil of the sea, the humming of the rigging, the thud of footsteps on deck and screech of mechanical winches. No matter, we sleep, exhausted--if sometimes only for minutes before the call "All Hands!" to change a sail or course.

On deck, each standing watch of four people will bring us an average 46 to 51 miles closer to Hawaii. How much closer depends on the wind. But by no means the wind alone. No amount of advance reading or dockside conversation had prepared me for the physical effort and coordinated artistry necessary to gain the most from the breeze.

Seasickness Fells the Storyteller

Preparing for this voyage dockside, I had hoisted our enthusiastic 34-year-old bowman, Mike Burch, a Long Beach steamship agent, up Ragtime's spindly 70-foot mast, using rope and winch. Suddenly a falling piece of rigging bounced off my head. I wavered and saw an explosion of stars.

"Lucky that was titanium and not stainless steel," someone remarked.

So considering this standard of sympathy, I am not surprised to find myself being deployed as a floor mat 30 hours into the race.

You see, I am seasick.

Ghastly so. Curled up over the bilge, on wet bags of sails, inert, morose and full of self-doubt. I awaken, my stomach greasy and adrift from its moorings. Down here, I see a forest of hairy legs. The off watch is eating dinner. They are sitting on bunks. I am lying at their feet. Grinning mouths leer down. Crumbs or drips or something rain on me. The boat is pitching horribly.

Hey, what about some pity?

"OK," mutters Mike Burch. "We'll bake you a cake just as soon as the sea smooths out a little." Someone else reminds me that no one dies of seasickness.

We exchange profanities. I resume my position as floor mat.

During the six months I worked to earn a spot on the crew, I raced twice in Ragtime. Once to Mexico and once locally. I felt no queasiness and put the matter out of mind. But in the final 10 days before Transpac, it seemed that everyone I met asked how sick I become in the big swells offshore. I began to dwell on the subject.

Two days before the start, I took Meclizine tablets as suggested by a doctor. I stopped drinking alcohol and I ate nothing with grease or fat. Still, I could not shake the dread.

On race day, Saturday, July 5, we have a dockside goodbye party with family and friends. Ragtime's small diesel engine propels us two hours from Long Beach to the starting buoy off Point Fermin.

Long ago, natural disaster fixed this place as our starting line. King Kalakaua of the independent monarchy of Hawaii got yachtsmen thinking in 1886 when he proposed a cross-Pacific sailboat race. In 1905, two boat owners, one from Honolulu and one from Los Angeles, agreed to race the following year. They decided the race should begin from San Francisco.

Hawaiian Clarence MacFarland arrived with his yacht La Paloma in May 1906 to find the city in ruins from the great earthquake and fire. The commodore of what is now the Los Angeles Yacht Club proposed moving the race south. It has been run from Southern California every other year except during world wars, and once during the Depression, the race was put off for a year. Among ocean races, only the Newport, R.I.-to-Bermuda regatta is equally as old, but barely one-third the distance.

Before the starting gun, our last order of business is a crew meeting. John Jourdane, who has sailed 200,000 ocean miles, says this: "Any little scraps between us we left at the dock. We've got to be a family. This is our little world. There will be tension in the days ahead. Work it out."

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