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FAIR GAME PETE THOMAS

These sailors are pretty much lost at sea

March 02, 2004|PETE THOMAS

The wind is blowing whitecaps across the deck of the tall-masted schooner as it bounds purposefully over and through the swells. The intrepid sailors are too caught up in the thrill of the chase to worry about getting wet.

Gusts rush into the sails, and the ship lists, giving the sailors an uneven platform. That only means they've performed their duties well, harnessing enough wind within the canvas.

The Dirigo II pushes on, its crew undaunted and exhilarated. Few of them have sailed before, yet they have the ability to get this 73-foot hunk of mahogany and oak underway gracefully. And they're gaining rapidly on an enemy trying frantically to escape in a larger, sleeker schooner.

Soon the vessel has pulled alongside the 110-foot Exy Johnson, stealing its wind, leaving it dead in the water. This should be the moment of reckoning, but "we seem to have forgotten the cannon," the captain sighs. "Aargh!" howls the crew.

The day is young, and the nor'wester is holding at 20 knots. The halyards and sheets are manned anew, the sails are trimmed and a course is set toward an even wilder theater beyond sprawling Long Beach Harbor. "Where do you want to go now?" the captain asks. "The ocean is ours today."

So it is aboard the Dirigo II, one of perhaps a dozen so-called tall ships running out of Southern California ports, and the only one, according to its operators, to offer hands-on excursions for the public.

A voyage aboard this ship is like a trip to another era, when such chases were common and deadly. Tall ship versus tall ship. Pirates versus merchants. The fury of the sea versus the wits of men. You can stand on the lip of the bow under full sail, rising and dipping with the swells, taste salt spray on your lips while hanging onto ropes with arms outstretched, knowing you could fall but not caring because there's no place you'd rather be.

Capt. Robert Gregory's crew comprises four volunteers and six passengers, including me. We've boarded at Alamitos Bay, not sure what we are getting into. Ships such as these were used by American colonists in the 1700s, first for fishing and commerce, and later to harass larger, clumsier ships of the British navy. She was built in 1939, circumnavigated the world in the 1960s, and now is the flagship of the Horizons West Adventures sailing program. Producers of the movie "Master and Commander" inspected the ship in an attempt to record sounds of an old wooden schooner, but they ended up obtaining those sounds elsewhere.

Joining our excursion are Rich Cook and his father-in-law, Don Hosford, from Huntington Beach; John Orr from Norco; Fred Ashley from Dana Point; and Juliet Evans, a midwife from Scotland. "I came because I thought it would be a good way to unwind and perhaps see a few whales," she says.

Chris Frost, the first mate, immediately issues the most important warning. "The boom comes around in what's called a jibe," he says, with his hand on the thick wooden spar supporting the bottom of the mainsail. "As you can see, it is low enough to take someone's head off. You want to be very careful when you're in this area."

After pushing away from the dock, the sailors, three to port and three to starboard, use the halyard lines to hoist and set first the mainsail, then the foresail. They watch with wide smiles as the wind fills the sails and begins to propel the ship through the channel.

The jib sails are then raised and adjusted, and there is a brief moment to relax as Gregory pilots the ship to the harbor's outer limits. Then comes the cry "Enemy ho!" when a

crew member spots the billowing sails of the Exy Johnson just beyond the breakwater, about one mile away. That ship is returning to the harbor, and we have only to come about and

sail parallel to the breakwater. We then pull in behind the ship, turn slightly to starboard, trim the sails and mount a down-

wind charge toward a vessel teeming with scampering children. "In fairness, they don't seem to have a complete crew today," Gregory says of the rival schooner.

Soon the Dirigo II breaks the chase and heads for blue water churned white by gusts. The sailors are busy adjusting the sails, keeping the deck clear and watching for traffic. Cook and Hosford, my partners on the starboard deck, are working well together. They wear the proud look of accomplishment that passengers on the Exy Johnson must be wearing, seeing their sails so full of wind again.

#S#

I cannot help but wonder if we have deflated their pride by launching so successful an attack. But then a bucket's worth of cold ocean wallops me in the face and brings me to my senses. Pirates aren't supposed to give any quarter.

To e-mail Pete Thomas or read his previous Fair Game columns, go to latimes.com/petethomas.

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