There was only one boat in view that afternoon, and she was miles astern of Natoma, her orange sail bobbing in and out of view behind the swells. Soon it would be out of sight, and no other boats would be visible for nine days. By evening Natoma's only company was three dolphins, which swam circles around her. The captain played the tape of an operetta, and Yarnold, who calls himself the "marine maintenance man," celebrated the Fourth of July by lobbing a cherry bomb enclosed in a coffee can over the side like a depth charge.
The '81 Transpac soon turned into a rough race. The second night out, Drifter, surfing down swells with Merlin and Christine at up to 20 knots, dropped her skeg and was forced to limp back to the mainland, out of the race.
But the most provocative report from Jubilee came on the first morning and concerned the plight of Chat d'Eau, a catamaran competing in a separate race. Some catamaran sailors, miffed that the Transpacific Yacht Club excluded multi-hulls from its race, having deemed them too flimsy for a transoceanic competition, had decided to stage their own race to Honolulu. Starting near Point Fermin at the same time as the official Transpac entrants, the multihull sailors intended to prove their boats as seaworthy as—and faster than—monohulls over a long haul. Chat d'Eau failed the seaworthiness part of the test. "We were sailing away sweet as can be, only on the mainsail, when the right pontoon lifted over a swell and just fell off," Skipper Mike Leneman said afterward. "Fifteen seconds later we were all in the water."
Chat d'Eau's crewmen stood atop the wreckage of their craft in the cold Pacific in the middle of the night more than 200 miles from land. Their emergency strobe lights were spotted by Westward, a Transpac boat, and within 45 minutes the crew was safe. Now carrying 14, Westward continued to Hawaii, arriving to a grand reception.
In just 48 hours at sea, Natoma had averaged more than eight knots. In those two days her crew of 12 struggled through more than a dozen sail changes to squeeze out maximum speed. Natoma carried 22 sails—genoas, bloopers, spinnakers, fore staysails, mainsails and mizzens. With her two masts, she could fly five sails at once if need be. There were more combinations than anyone cared to calculate, and finding the best sails for the situation was an unending task that demanded strenuous effort by the crew. The wind could be infuriatingly capricious, shifting faster than the sails could be changed. On one morning there were five sail changes in one hour. The fine-tuning was constant. The change of a sail often gained only seconds—sometimes not even that—and it was tempting to think of those seconds as insignificant over a 10- or 12-day period. But hard sailing had to be done, for this was a race.
The very idea of being carried across something so vast and deadly as an ocean in a tub propelled only by the wind gives a landlubber pause, and there's comfort merely in the progress made, however slow it might be. In truth, a relay team could run to Honolulu in less time than it takes the fastest Transpac boat to sail there. It's 2,225 nautical miles, or 2,560 statute miles, along the rhumb line from Point Fermin to Diamond Head; 2,560 athletes each running a four-minute mile would best Merlin's record by 32 hours. Even 97.7 fast marathoners could come close to breaking the record.
Such hypothetical notions give definition to the Pacific Ocean's vastness. It is huge, but it's also finite; you know there is a boundary 10 days over the horizon. The horizon represents permanence: Your challenge doesn't get any bigger than that. You know where you stand, even if it is only a delusion. It makes the ocean seem almost cozy.
But about the time you've come to that conclusion, the sea will usually rise up like that silly shark in Jaws and take a bite out of your back. Nature's assault might come in the form of a squall or a rogue wave. It might strike in the middle of the night, when the sea is at its most frightening, and inflict a quick knockdown. The boat will heave and tilt and shudder, and the mast may even be dragged underwater. After the squall or wave passes or some brave crewman takes in the sails it's back to normal, just like that. But afterward the feeling of coziness is diminished.
When sail changes were, necessary on Natoma, Brad Armstrong, no kin of Jean's, was usually first to the chore. Armstrong, who celebrated his 25th birthday on the eighth day out, kept a sharp eye on the sails, always looking for more speed. The first footfalls heard on deck after a knockdown were often Armstrong's. On the morning of July 5, he was hoisted to the top of the 72-foot mainmast to retrieve the end of a halyard that had parted. The light from the rising sun made his body a swaying silhouette against the sky. That same morning—morning was often the liveliest time in Natoma's cabin—Armstrong blithely ordered a hero's breakfast: huevos rancheros with hot sauce, a shot of tequila and an ice-cold beer—none of which was available on Natoma. "The crew's getting spoiled!" shouted Dalziel in mock dismay. "The cooking's too good! If all they ever got was mush three times a day, they'd probably love it."
The captain was certainly right about the crew's eating well. Jean Armstrong and Kathy Walker, the only women aboard, ran the galley. They alternated days on watch, both standing stints at the helm as well as at the stove, but they lacked the muscle to control the boat when the seas were heavy, so most of the time one or both could be found at the gimbaled stove, sometimes literally strapped to the adjacent bulkhead.