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There She Sails

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

Says co-skipper Sherman: “I love long races and ocean passages because it is a chance for me to remember how many things one can do without. A long passage is a chance for me to remember, unfettered by all the stress of day-to-day activities, what things in life are really important. Family, friends, good food, a dry bed and dry clothes take on their proper perspective when you are far away from land.”

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Bay Wolf, the 50-foot sailboat built by Bill Lee of Santa Cruz Yachts, is owned by Kirk and Jocelyn Wilson. The couple are well-known in the sailing world, having previously chartered the boat Merlin, which still holds the Transpac record of eight days, 11 hours, one minute and 45 seconds.

That record will be 20 years old this season--and Merlin will be one of the boats Bay Wolf will compete against.

The 50-foot Bay Wolf, which has a sparse interior to keep weight down, will by the time it sails be crowded with a dozen sails, three weeks’ worth of food and fresh water, maps, charts, clothing and personal items.

Sails can weigh as much as 70 pounds and can require two to four women to trim. In the first few days of the race, when winds traditionally pound the boats, sails can be put up and taken down dozens of times.

“It can be grueling, especially in the first few days when the wind is blowing and pounding the stink out of you,” says Nowlan of Transpac.

But veterans say the grueling first few days of the race give way to a freedom and exhilaration they can’t describe.

“It’s a total sensory thing, like surround sound,” Crowfoot says.

In the last few days of the race, the seas are notorious for undergoing a huge mood swing. With trade winds blowing about 25 knots and kicking up 10- to 20-foot waves, the boats “surf” through the water.

“That’s what everybody hopes for,” Nowlan says. “When you find that, everyone is yelling and screaming.”

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During the estimated 10 to 13 days on the water, every job--including cooking--aboard the Bay Wolf will rotate in shifts of three hours on, four hours off around the clock. Technical jobs will rotate about once every 30 minutes to reduce fatigue, and members will eat, sleep and conduct routine maintenance during off hours.

Daniels, a registered nurse and veteran of many offshore races, is in charge of menu planning and food preparation--a task that will have her developing 234 meals.

“The most important thing when you’re out there is the food. All you want to do is sail, eat and sleep,” said Daniels, who will spend her 48th birthday on the sea or in Hawaii--depending on the crew’s finish time.

The crew is very focused on its goal and, say observers, stands as good a chance as any of winning the race.

“They have chosen a boat that is lighter, more agile and the loads are lower,” says Nowlan, comparing Bay Wolf with some of this year’s other entries.

“They made an excellent choice. Strength isn’t the critical factor; sailing ability and concentration is what will determine how they do. They have as good a chance as any group of guys out there. It’s all tactics and skill and endurance.”

Some of the team’s stiffest competition is expected to come from some of the largest boats in the race, including the 70-foot Pyewacket owned by Roy Disney; Vicki Lawrence’s Vicki; and Cheval, the Transpac 95 winner.

Bay Wolf owner Wilson has high hopes for Elias and her crew.

“I appreciate the talent on the boat,” Wilson says. “They have a very good chance if they go the right way. It’s a big . . . ocean.”

* The Transpac Yacht Club will post daily updates on its Web site beginning July 2. The address is kenwoodcorp.com/transpac97/


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