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Across The Wide Pacific
Sam Moses
July 04, 1983
The ketch Natoma was a luxury liner among flat-out racing machines in the 1981 Transpac, the classic 2,560-mile run from Los Angeles to Honolulu, but she managed to hold her own at sea and her crew was unbeatable ashore
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July 04, 1983

Across The Wide Pacific

The ketch Natoma was a luxury liner among flat-out racing machines in the 1981 Transpac, the classic 2,560-mile run from Los Angeles to Honolulu, but she managed to hold her own at sea and her crew was unbeatable ashore

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Armstrong and Walker had to be more than excellent cooks able to turn leftovers into minestrone; they had to be attitude adjusters as well. Their territory extended into the cabin, and the cabin was Natoma's heart. The crew mixed there, and, Natoma's nobility notwithstanding, the way the crew mixed was what gave this vessel so much style. Armstrong and Walker took it upon themselves to ensure that the atmosphere in the cabin was congenial; they put themselves above moodiness. By so doing, they pulled the others up with them.

Posted in the cabin were the Ship's Rules, written by Dalziel. Rule No. 1, lettered in block capitals, was NO BICKERING. The Natoma philosophy recognized that no bickering is no breeze. In observance of the spirit of the rule, six dinner parties were held on Natoma during her 11 nights at sea, each one celebrating an actual occasion. On the evening of July 6, it was Jean Armstrong's 36th birthday party.

Natoma's crew members are fond of saying they may not win every race, but they never lose a party. The flippancy contained in that phrase belies their seriousness about sailing, though it accurately reflects the Natoma crew's image: a rowdy bunch. At the dinner during which race instructions were given, two nights before the start, in Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel ballroom, Natoma's table looked like a scene from Animal House Goes to Sea. The maitre d' finally came to the table to confiscate the butter and demanded to know the identity of the skipper. Dalziel pointed at Yarnold, who pointed at the crewman next to him, and so on. Only Walker wasn't indicted; how could she be? She was crawling around under the table.

Whatever the Natoma image ashore, her crew is known for good seamanship. The 1981 crew had a total of 44 Transpac races to its credit, the Dalziel family accounting for 17 of them. The captain had eight, Jean Armstrong three, and her brother, Alec, six. Alec, 42, owns and operates the family's San Francisco plumbing supply business, which was founded by the captain's grandfather. Altogether, the captain's family consists of four daughters, two sons and 10 grandchildren—not to mention his wife, Mary, who would meet Natoma in Hawaii for the sail to New Zealand. "All good sailors, every one of them," Dalziel says.

The most conscientious crewman—the rest of the crew would vote him rookie of the year—was Jim Jervis, 47, a chemical company executive on his first Transpac. Called Bruto by Yarnold because of his brawn, Jervis was also gentle, and he spoke with an occasional stammer. When he was on watch, his brow was usually covered with perspiration from the exertion of doing whatever needed to be done; off watch he could be found with an awl in his big hands, making a twine key chain for each crew member. He had brought along 11 stainless-steel tags engraved with NATOMA on one side and TRANSPAC '81 on the other. His thoughtfulness said as much about Natoma's atmosphere as the Biltmore food fight.

On the morning of July 7, Natoma's fifth day at sea, the port watch rose to the odor of French toast and the hearty notes of a Baroque overture. Jubilee's computer made Natoma fourth in class, a good recovery after having slipped to a 14th-place standing the day before. That alone would have made it a good morning; the warm sun made it even better. Four sails strained in the 15-knot wind, the blue blooper billowing into a curve shaped like a boomerang. Bob Dietrich, 36, an architect, Ted Kraus, 22, a college student, and Ron Raddatz, 42, a bank vice-president, hopped naked and sudsy on the foredeck, pouring buckets of seawater over one another. Walker sewed a patch on a spinnaker that had torn during a knockdown the night before and knew that only Yarnold could have put the lemons in her bikini top as it hung drying in the head during the night.

That afternoon Natoma became a 43,500-pound surfboard. Eight' and 10-foot swells surrounded her, long windrows of cobalt-blue water steep as a San Francisco street, some of them breaking on top. Natoma would catch a crest and ride it. Yarnold, Brad Armstrong, Alec Dalziel and Dietrich hung out in the cockpit, spotting the big swells, some of which rose high over their heads behind the boat. They took turns steering and shouting encouragement to each other: "Yeah! There it is! Hit it! You got it!" Then they would watch the knot meter climb to nine, 10, 11 and more as Natoma schussed down the face of the wave, her bow dipping into the water like a knife scooping up frosting. And when one wave had passed, she would heave and writhe to the top of another. For hours, Natoma was on a roller-coaster ride across the ocean.

The captain, too, would join the whooping in the cockpit; in fact, he often started it. "Look at that!" he shouted one afternoon, steering Natoma down a wave and taking one hand off the wheel to point at the knot meter. "Look at that! 13½! The fastest yet! This thing feels like a freight train: Whoo, whoo!"

With the sun on his face, Dalziel took on the color of poached salmon. At the helm he wore an old fishing hat pulled down so tight against the wind that it squashed the tops of his ears. It made him look comical, but he couldn't have cared less. He would lean sideways to see around the mainsail and throw his head back like a caroler in full song. He wore a look of complete contentment at such moments, like an old dog getting scratched behind the ears.

The captain was capable of being as crotchety as an old dog, too, especially over dominoes. The stakes were dime a point and dollar a game, and he kept a book on everyone, like a rabid baseball fan who compiles his own stats. And he sometimes bent his own no-bickering rule at the domino table, his voice, raspy under any circumstances, becoming harsh and unpleasant. But the crew knew to whom they owed their presence aboard, and if the man wanted to be cranky about dominoes on his own boat, it was O.K. by them.

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