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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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1730 hours, July 9, more than six days and 1,295 miles from California. Natoma nears the point on the globe farther from land than any other. It's the daily Happy Hour, and soon the halfway-there dinner will be served. The entire crew is gathered in the cockpit. Smoked oysters and paté on crackers are passed around on a tray, and a bottle of California chardonnay is emptied into 12 plastic cups. There's dancing in the cockpit to Hawaiian music, despite the shortage of women. At the helm Alec Dalziel is wearing a tuxedo, complete with cummerbund; the rest of the crew is attired in equally bizarre fashion, most notably Yarnold, who sports a gray pinstripe three-piece suit and hair slicked back with grease. His eyes are covered by a pair of magenta New Wave shades. And the boat's speed never drops below eight knots.

According to the reports from Jubilee, Natoma improved her position to second in class on the seventh day, which was a surprise; the crew members knew they were sailing a strong race, but not that strong. They hadn't expected to be leading all those all-out racing yachts—ultralight displacement boats, or ULDBs, as they are called—especially the seven hot-surfing Santa Cruz 50s, foreshortened clones of the sleek 67-foot Merlin. In fact, Natoma's standing kept Freyermuth awake at night. Every day he cautioned the crew against false optimism. Freyermuth usually used celestial navigation to calculate their position, but the previous day and this one were too cloudy for him to get a fix on the sun with his sextant. So he had to resort to dead reckoning, or plotting Natoma's position on the basis of her speed and direction, a method that leaves room for error—especially when a boat is surfing. Furthermore, one of his hand-held calculators had begun telling him unbelievable things. (When Natoma reached Hawaii, Freyermuth called the calculator company. They told him that calculators wear out, just like people, and that five years' service was all they were designed for. The very thought made Freyermuth, 74, melancholy.) On the eighth day, reality—and the Santa Cruz 50s—caught up with Natoma: She was in 10th place in class. Freyermuth slept better now. He'd suspected all along that the second-place calculation had been incorrect, and he'd felt bad that his report to Jubilee had been imprecise because of the vagaries of electronics and dead reckoning. "I knew it was too good to be true," said Brad Armstrong. "Well, we just have to take it on the chin today," said Dalziel.

Freyermuth, a widower who lives alone in San Francisco, was an executive with Standard Oil (New Jersey) until 1959, when he left to go into the consulting business. He had sailed his first Transpac in 1965, entering a boat that year in what amounted to a college graduation gift to his son, Reed. The crew consisted of four of Reed's classmates, and they sailed on Freyermuth's 38-foot sloop, Mistress II.

"None of us had ever been out of sight of land," Freyermuth recalls. "I bought a sextant and a couple of books on celestial navigation and we sailed off. How my poor wife ever endured it, I'll never know. There went her husband and her only son off across the ocean, and neither one of them knew what he was doing."

They finished 44th out of 54 boats, but Freyermuth had discovered the stars. "In the last 15 years celestial navigation has become more than a hobby to me," he says. "It's a fascinating study. A sailing yacht is the last bastion of celestial navigation."

Aboard Natoma Freyermuth made only infrequent forays away from his navigation nook, squeezed against a bulkhead between the main saloon and the forward head. When he made an appearance on deck, he invariably carried his sextant. Meals were cooked around him, naps were taken around him, domino games were played around him. His bunk seemed always empty—or occupied by someone else. He stood no watches, but he worked as many hours as those who did. He labored endlessly at night, poring over his charts with a cup of cold coffee at his elbow, the hazy light from the small fluorescent tube turning his stubble of silver whiskers and tousled hair a bluish color. He usually retired long after the cabin lights went out, and by dawn his bunk would be empty again. He would jump out of bed before daybreak to take a sextant reading after the horizon became visible and before the stars faded.

Freyermuth planned to stay with Natoma to guide her on her odyssey to the South Pacific and back. Just as navigation has become more than a hobby to him, so Natoma has become more than a boat. "I've become attached to her," he explained, then went on to muse on the ironies of growing old. "It's funny, it all seems out of proportion. There's got to be a mistake somewhere. It's funny how everyone gets older and changes but you."

The ninth morning at sea was balmy, with gentle zephyrs in the air. A tropic bird hovered over the mainsail, more than 600 miles from home, if Hawaii was its home. By noon Natoma had slowed to six knots, and four sails were flying, whooshing in the gusts like leaves in tree-tops. The spinnaker looked as sheer as gossamer when the bright sun shone through it. Only blue sky surrounded it. The day was so inviting it even drew Freyermuth on deck for a while; he rose from the companionway squinting like a prisoner just let out of solitary and walked on wobbly legs white as coconut meat.

The crew members were off watch sunbathing, lounging on nylon sail bags. The shadows from the sails swayed across the pages of the books they read, tales of adventure and faraway places: Tai-Pan, Manchu, Shibumi, Far Tortuga, East of Eden (what could be more faraway?), and the captain's choice, Command a King's Ship, in which, according to the jacket blurb, "iron shot and tall ships will decide the course of an empire."

The balmy weather was wonderful to relax in, but it wasn't getting Natoma to Honolulu; more wind was needed, so the captain ordered the crew to jibe and head farther south to begin the race's final leg. The crew felt relief—and maybe delight—when the sky turned red that night. The sea was black to the horizon, where lumpy pink clouds fit together like pieces in a puzzle. Other clouds fanned skyward in ashen streaks.

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