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South Seas Dream Comes True for Sailors

Times Staff Writer

On the freeway, maybe after a grinding day at work, the tension collects in your knuckles knotted around the steering wheel, and, suddenly, in the rear-view mirror, you catch the sun melting into the Pacific.

In the afternoon heat, you drift into a fantasy nestled in the back of your mind. You imagine setting sail for the South Pacific, visiting uninhabited islands with vibrant coral reefs and pristine waters. You dream of taking off.

But, like most people, you never go.

There are a few people, however, who do give in to romance. People like Don Ellison, a former shoe designer; Catherine Antoine, a former secretary; Bob McCulloch, a former advertisement designer, and his wife, Dora, who owned an interior plant design business.

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For 4 1/2 years, Ellison and Antoine have lived aboard La Violante, a 110-foot topsail schooner built for a French count in Holland in 1922. The McCullochs joined them in San Diego six months ago to prepare the schooner for a two-year tour of the South Pacific that begins Sunday.

The crew, five paying passengers, two dogs and a cat will begin their journey with the Ancient Mariners Sailing Society race from San Diego to Maui.

Their iron-hulled and oak-planked boat, the second largest in the race, is seen by sailing buffs as competition for the Californian, the cadet training vessel sponsored by the Nautical Heritage Museum in Long Beach. The race begins at noon Sunday off Shelter Island.

After the race--expected to take about two weeks--La Violante will participate in the Tall Ship Parade out of Honolulu, then set sail for Palmyra, an uninhabited atoll in the Line Islands that was an Allied outpost during World War II.

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Ellison, 46, formerly of Los Angeles and New York, bought La Violante in Grenada in 1972, refurbished it for four years, and sailed it in his spare time while running a shoe business with factories in Europe and South America.

“I would sail to Tahiti, fly back to Europe to work, then fly back to Tahiti. It would take me two weeks to get back into work and two weeks to get back into sailing. I wasn’t doing either one well,” Ellison said.

“It was hard to give up the money coming in every week. When I was in business I could have anything I wanted except have this all the time. I prefer this,” he said from the deck of his boat.

Ellison’s graying hair is wild with long curls. His blue eyes stand out of a sun-darkened face and several-day beard. He has put 200,000 nautical miles on the boat in the North and South Pacific and the Caribbean. His Gordon setter, Shadow, and spotted English setter, Dr. Z, are as at home on the water as he seems to be.

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The dogs have developed a taste for lobster and bark wildly at approaching boats, but otherwise loll in the sun on deck with heavy eyes wavering between wake and sleep.

McCulloch, 36, who has accompanied Ellison on other trips, said his love of the water began with his first Errol Flynn movie.

“I’m the kind of guy who goes to Disneyland and goes on the pirate ride eight times,” McCulloch said.

In the city, he said, “People build this thing for the future, live for security in the future. But the future is intangible. Reality is here, at this table.”

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The varnished checkerboard oak table where he sipped coffee sits in an oak-paneled salon, beneath a skylight and ceiling fan. The room, decorated with a wood-burning stove and crafts from around the world, suggests the scene of an Agatha Christie mystery.

The tanned and roughened sailors say they read voraciously, fish, swim and snorkel, explore the islands, play guitars, and eat well during their adventures.

From Palmyra, the boat will head for Pago Pago (pronounced Pongo Pongo) in American Samoa, stopping on the way at other islands and atolls, such as the bird sanctuary Suvarov.

In September, they will leave for Western Samoa, visiting Wallis and Futuna islands on the way to what they say is “everyone’s favorite place"--Tikopia in the Santa Cruz Islands, a tropical paradise with no money, no roads and a population of about 3,000.

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After a week on Tikopia in October, they will sail to the Solomon Islands, to Guadalcanal and Truk Lagoon, through the uninhabited atolls of the West Caroline Islands, arriving in January at Palau. They expect to stay there for about six months or “until the rains come,” running charters to earn money.

Eventually, they will continue on to Australia and plan their next journey from there.

The sailors talk about their old urban lives as something foreign. Onshore chores and business hours are something to adjust to. They wear a minimum of clothes when necessary, often none at all at sea.

“This is a beautiful way of life,” Dora McCulloch, 27, said as she stitched a canvas water bucket. “People ask us about the danger of sea storms, but to me it’s nothing like going out on the freeways every day.”

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Antoine, 29, a native of Paris, said she has only been in one violent storm. About 18 months ago, a typhoon caught the boat with its sails up in the North Pacific. Antoine said winds soared suddenly from 5 knots to 65 knots and snapped the mast in two.

They were rescued unharmed by the Japanese coast guard and spent two months repairing the damage.

Antoine said she never expected to end up at sea, but now she can’t imagine being far from it.

“When we get back to land it is good to go to the countryside. I like the smells and hearing crickets, things you forget about,” she said. “I do miss the ocean if I stay ashore too long. It’s kind of an addiction.”

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