Sailor, 94, ready for comeback

CORONA DEL MAR — Even when you're 94, there can still be some firsts in life.

Just ask Jim Emmi of Corona del Mar, who will be competitively sailing for the first time in three years next week and participating in the inaugural Around the Islands race, hosted by the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club.

"Let me put it this way, I'm not as active as I used to be," Emmi said Friday with a chuckle. "I got a good crew. Between myself and the crew I think we'll do pretty well. I expect we'll do OK."

Emmi's team will set out from Newport Harbor Friday on a 125-mile loop around Catalina, Sutil and Santa Barbara islands and return Saturday in a race club officials hope will become an annual event.

Organizers said the race offers challenges for every type of competitor because of the different winds they face.

For guys like Emmi and fellow racer Joe Degenhardt, 81, changes in the wind shouldn't be a problem, given their decades of experience.

"Nothing out there surprises me," Degenhardt said. "Things happen all the time. It's been claimed to be the most complex sport in the world."

Degenhardt will be racing his Cat 38, Lickity Split. Emmi will be racing in Pele, a 43-foot Swan.

"The boat is so magnificently built, it's almost as good as a swan," Degenhardt said.

He would know. Degenhardt helped Emmi bring Pele to the United States from Finland where it was built in 1978. The journey wasn't easy.

"I was in very good shape then, I could stay awake for 24 hours at a time," Emmi said, talking about his early 60s as though they were his early 20s. "There were only three of us in the boat. We survived."

The crew left Finland only to get stuck in winter ice packs as it tried to pass Norway. A much larger boat circled them three times, leaving a huge wake in its path that freed the Pele and allowed the crew to return to the dock and try again later.

"We headed back and found a 65-foot swan. A guy who had a lot of bucks from Sweden was transporting it across the ice pack," Degenhardt said.

The man also had two planes flying over the water to chart a path for him to get through the ice. He promised to give Emmi his route once he made it through.

The man kept his word. But with the radios aboard Pele not picking up the Swede's directions because they were using different radios, the Swede pulled some strings and had the necessary coordinates broadcast over a regular radio station.

"We were impressed they would interrupt a radio program. He had contacts all over," Degenhardt recalled.

Degenhardt departed in Europe and Emmi finished the journey to the West Coast without him, along the way passing through the Panama Canal.

"It's about the people you meet," Emmi said. "Most of the people you sail with are some pretty nice characters. I just enjoy being out on the water. Ever since I was a kid I've loved boats. Sailboats were always my favorite. I just love to cruise."

Emmi spends his days cruising now, but he's taking this afternoon to prepare for next week's race.

"I never thought I'd feel this good at 94," Emmi said, laughing. "I feel pretty good. I feel like most guys do in their 70s."

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