Twice a Winner, Restored Ragtime Races in Transpac : A Legend Is Still Fit Enough to Sail Away

Times Staff Writer

Pat Farrah recalls his teen-age years, when he would go to the water and stare at his dream and then dream about how to own it.

His dream was a boat called Ragtime, a 62-foot legend of a sloop that is now docked in front of Farrah's home on Alamitos Bay.

Thursday, as in any fairy tale, Farrah and Ragtime will sail into the sunset, but they won't be alone. Fifty-four other sailboats will join them for the 34th biennial 2,225-mile Transpac race to Hawaii.

Ragtime has been the first boat to finish the prestigious event twice, for other owners in 1973 and 1975, but she remains an anomaly, not only for her age but her origins.

Ragtime is a wooden boat, which sets her apart from her modern-day fiberglass rivals, and she isn't even a native of the Northern Hemisphere. She is one of a kind, launched from John Spencer's boatyard in New Zealand in 1966 for her first owner, Tom Clarke, who christened her Infidel and painted her low-profile hull not a traditional white but a defiant, glossy black. Perhaps Clarke sensed she would be something special.

However, it would be a while before she proved herself. Clarke just wanted a fast, light boat for sailing the bays around Auckland and didn't envision her as an ocean racer. But by her strong construction and a happy accident of design, she became the forerunner of the ultralight displacement boats (ULDBs) that would become the rage of downwind racing.

In the late '60s Clarke built another boat, Buccaneer, and sold Infidel to John Hall of Newport Beach for $25,000.

Until Hall bought her, Infidel's only source of power was the wind. He installed an engine and re-christened her Ragtime--not the most original name for a sailboat--but did little else with her. It remained for a syndicate of Long Beach sailors to recognize her potential and turn her into a serious sailer after they bought her from Hall for $27,000 in '71.

From there, the record of her ownership is like tracing a family tree. The syndicate was organized by boat dealer Stan Miller and included Barney Flam, Bill Dalessi, Chuck Kober, Mort Haskell and Jack Queen--all well-known in Southern California sailing circles.

"The plan was we would go through the Transpac (in '73) and sell it," Flam said. "We didn't do any modifying at all."

All they did was install a new radio, buy a new spinnaker and go racing.

They were first to finish in every race they sailed, starting with a series of Mexican races late in '71.

In that whirlwind span, they established records that still stand, and they climaxed it with Ragtime's successful debut in the Transpac in '73.

In that one, they sailed past Diamond Head 4 minutes 31 seconds ahead of the formidable 73-foot ketch Windward Passage, winner of the previous two Transpacs. It was the closest finish ever and opened the era of ultralights.

Until Ragtime, Flam said: "There weren't any other real light boats that big. We shocked everybody when we beat Windward Passage."

Since then, designer-builder Bill Lee has cranked a series of record-breaking "sleds" out of his Santa Cruz yard. Those include Merlin, which succeeded Ragtime as the Transpac winner in record time in '77 and will be her strongest rival.

"Lee checked out Ragtime before building Merlin . . . measured her inside and out," says Mike Elias of Long Beach, who as watch captain and crew organizer will be sailing his third Transpac with her. "Lee built Merlin to beat Ragtime."

Although Ragtime is 21 years old, which is getting up there for contemporary ocean racers, she has kept up with technology through frequent modifications.

Only two years ago, steered by two-time Congressional Cup winner Dick Deaver, she was first to finish the Newport-to-Ensenada race--by five seconds over Christine, a modern ULDB boat. This year, she won her class.

Bud Tretter, who runs the Long Beach Marina Shipyard where most of Ragtime's maintenance and modifications have been performed, says: "It's almost like a cult, the Ragtime following."

But the Long Beach syndicate subdued its sentiment and stuck to its plan to sell Ragtime after her '73 win to Bill Pasquini of Long Beach and Dr. Bill White of Altadena for $50,000. As is usual before a sale can be completed, the boat was hauled out for inspection by a marine surveyor.

Flam recalled: "When we hauled the boat for the survey, I was up on deck and the surveyor was way back by the transom inside. I heard him call to his assistant, 'Hey, come on back here. There's something I want you to look at.' I thought, 'Oh-oh, something's wrong.'

"But then he told his assistant, 'This boat's just been to Honolulu and back and there isn't a sign of working anywhere. It's amazing.' "

Flam said the hull is extremely strong, and credited it to the New Zealand workmanship involved in laying up two layers of plywood around a layer of linen with epoxy, with longitudinal timbers for bracing.

The boat also is fast, Flam said, because of its hull design: "Very sharp forward with the beam well aft."

Aft, Ragtime also has hard chines--sharp angles between the sides and bottom--"but lots of dinghies are built that way," Flam said. "In all the years since she was built, naval architects haven't found anything any faster."

Dennis Durgan of Irvine was another Ragtime owner. Durgan was Dennis Conner's tactician for Freedom's America's Cup victory in 1980 and, like Deaver, also has won the Congressional Cup twice.

Durgan has sailed many big boats but said that sailing Ragtime is a delight.

"It's like driving a Mercedes-Benz, compared to some others," he said.

Part of Ragtime's speed comes from being real skinny, Durgan said. "She's only 9 1/2 feet wide at the waterline."

With Pasquini and White, Ragtime won the Transpac by eight hours in '75. Jim Phelps of Long Beach then took over ownership from Pasquini and White and took in two new partners, Dick Daniels and Eldon Hickman, who later bought him out. They installed a taller rig for more sail area and switched the steering from the original tiller to a wheel to keep her easy to handle.

With the true ULDBs coming on strong in '77, she placed third behind Merlin and Drifter, which was to win the race in '79, with Ragtime second.

The owners then donated the boat to UC Irvine, but Tretter, Daniels and Hickman chartered it back for the '81 Transpac, which was one of the windier races in the series. The rudder broke 150 miles from the finish, so Tretter and Elias dropped the main sail and "steered" to Honolulu by adjusting the trim in a pair of headsails.

"As we came in," Tretter recalled, "the committee boat was yelling, 'Stay away from Ragtime, she's out of control!' Heck, we were in perfect control."

By then, of course, the boat knew its own way to Diamond Head.

Durgan chartered Ragtime for the '83 Transpac, then bought the boat from UCI and finally sold it to Farrah in '85 for $140,000.

The price had gone up considerably, but Farrah didn't mind. A founder of the Home Depot stores, he recently sold his interest in the business and has started another chain called Sports Club.

"I bought the boat cheap and since then I've put about $600,000 into it," he said.

Durgan: "When we chartered the boat it was really rundown. We more or less chartered it for a fix-up fee. Pat has done a wonderful job in restoring her. I'd say he's probably put in closer to a million dollars."

Can Ragtime do it again?

She is rated second only to Merlin on the official handicap list, although Farrah is unhappy that because Ragtime's new rating certificate was approved one day late she won't be permitted to carry the larger spinnakers on which he spent $30,000.

"But they can still do pretty well," Deaver said. "If the wind blows 17 (knots) and above, they'll have a fighting chance."

Tretter: "She's been restored to better than new. New mast, new keel, I'm sure she's faster than ever, as fast as anybody."

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