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His reputation as a skipper is also well established. Other Transpac sailors don't know exactly what goes on aboard Natoma during a race, but they see the results: respectable placings and an unmatched spirit. They realize Natoma must have a special skipper. His philosophy of sailing in general and the Transpac in particular is simple: "If you have a good boat and a good crew, you'll have a good time." That's much easier said than done for most, but after 54 years as a seaman, Dalziel has it wired.
1245 hours, July 3, 1981, off Point Fermin, San Pedro, Calif. It's 15 minutes before the start of the Transpac, and 74 yachts are milling about near the line. Boats are cutting and weaving, tacking and jibing at close quarters in a 20-knot wind. There are craft with cryptic but euphonious names, like Zamazaan and Shandu and Tuia; with magical names, like Merlin and Oz and Moonshadow; with bold names, like Jubilation and Temerity, Audacious and Regardless; and with names that might be personalized license plates, e.g., Sumark. The hulls are long and short and sleek and bulky, fiber glass painted brightly, wood varnished darkly. And the boats are all trying to be in approximately the same spot at the same time.
"This is our approach!" shouts Captain Dalziel in his raspy voice as he mans Natoma's helm. "We're approaching!" It's just two minutes and 15 seconds before the start, and Natoma is in good position. The 36-foot sloop Gryphon is heading toward her off the port bow, but Natoma is on starboard tack and has right of way. Gryphon keeps coming. A Natoma crewman shouts an alarm from the foredeck, but Gryphon veers too late. The boats' hulls come within feet of each other, and when Gryphon enters Natoma's windshadow, she straightens up. Her shroud tangles with Natoma's mizzenmast and there is a steely sprooinngg and a long clamor of aluminum.
It's no contest. "Well, he's out," says Jean Armstrong, the captain's daughter. Gryphon's mast has toppled; her sail has dropped like a collapsed tent. One bewildered crewman kneels on the aft deck and looks forlornly toward Natoma as she speeds off undaunted toward Hawaii.
"One forty-five before the start," says Armstrong.
Natoma crosses the starting line at full speed, just seconds after the gun, the best start she has ever gotten in a Transpac. Close off her starboard beam is Christine, an owner-built 84-foot sloop expected to challenge the two fastest boats, Drifter, which finished first in 1979, and Merlin, which holds the race record of eight days, 11 hours, one minute and 45 seconds. By sunset, Christine will have drawn away from Natoma and disappeared over the horizon, while Natoma, beating toward Catalina Island at her nine-knot hull speed, will have separated from most of the other boats. Natoma will sail around the northwest tip of the island that evening and hook south for the run to Honolulu.
Until the Transpac boats broke into the northeast trade winds, the seas were choppy. Natoma reached all that first night, blown by 15-knot winds. It was a long night for Michael Yarnold, 39, Natoma's mate and the only professional sailor on the crew; he was employed full time by Dalziel to maintain the ketch. Yarnold has been sailing since he was 14. He has a walrus mustache that droops with ocean spray and makes him look like Teddy Roosevelt. Storms at sea lure Yarnold on deck and draw a salty exuberance from him.
Twelve days earlier, when he left San Francisco on Natoma, Yarnold knew it would be more than a year before he'd return, because he planned to stay with the boat through the winter in Auckland. "I got into sailing because you always end up in a different place," he says, looking as if he thinks it's about the smartest move he'd made in a life in which not all the moves have been smart.
Yarnold's night was long because he spent part of it crawling in the bilges, drawn there by an ominous sloshing sound. He came back up with bad news: One of the two 100-gallon water tanks was leaking. This didn't constitute a crisis—the leak wasn't that severe—but at breakfast the captain announced there would be short water rations; no hot coffee for the night watches would be the worst of it.
Every morning the escort vessel, Jubilee, held a radio roll call, and within minutes after all competitors had reported their positions, a computer on board Jubilee would determine the standings on the basis of projected finishing times, including each boat's handicap. After the first night, Natoma was third out of 23 boats in Class A and 13th in fleet. "If we could stay at this point of sail with this wind, we'd win it," said George Freyermuth, the navigator. "Reaching in heavy seas like this is what Natoma does best."