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For the record, no boat in the 75-year history of the Los Angeles to Honolulu yacht race has ever reported being assaulted by a whale. But if such an encounter were to occur, some boats would stand a better chance of surviving than others. The speediest of today's entrants, most of which are built of fiber glass, probably wouldn't have a prayer. But were a whale to bully Natoma, a 58-foot ketch with a cold-molded spruce hull 1¼ inches thick, that whale might find it had bitten off more than it could chew. Natoma is a noble craft.
Christened in 1975, Natoma was one of the last boats designed by the esteemed naval architect Phil Rhodes, who died without seeing her sail. Her owner and skipper, Donald B. Dalziel, had commissioned Rhodes to build a fast ocean cruiser that would be comfortable and durable, and Dalziel got what he wanted. He named the boat after a street in San Francisco. "I looked up while I was waiting at a red light and saw 'Natoma' on the corner," he says. "A beautiful name! We subsequently found out there was an operetta called Natoma, and it was a flop. An absolute flop! But out of it came one song everybody knows: The Dagger Dance." Dalziel does a little dagger dance: "Da-da-da-daaa...."
Natoma, which sails out of the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, has had a romantic and colorful career. She has scored her share of firsts in short-course competition in San Francisco Bay and local offshore races, and there have been some good dinner parties on board—Dalziel enjoys dinner parties, especially if there are costumes or favors. There has also been a lovely wedding on board, and there were two nice funerals. One was for John Murphy, who had raced to Honolulu with Natoma and had left instructions that his ashes be scattered under the Golden Gate Bridge from her deck. They were.
Natoma's first race was the 1975 Transpac, as the biennial L.A.-to-Honolulu competition, which gets underway again this week, is known, and she came in sixth among 15 boats in Class A. One week later she raced some Transpac boats from Honolulu to the Hawaiian island of Kauai and set a record that still stands. "It was sailed in stormy conditions, and we just flew," says Dalziel.
The next year Natoma was first to finish (after 21 days) in the LA.-to-Tahiti race. True, there were only four boats in the race, but then it's such a tough race that they were the only boats willing to tackle the 3,700-mile ocean crossing. Natoma finished ninth in Class A in the '77 Transpac, and in '79, the year the wind vanished for a week—that race came to be called the Great Pacific Parking Lot—she finished third in Class A, demonstrating her versatility. "I've never been in a race with this boat where my crew and I weren't ready to go on after the finish," Dalziel says. "Just restock the galley and set sail again." The general feeling, not only on the part of Natoma's crews but also her opponents, is that she isn't a bad racer for a luxury liner.
The 1981 Transpac was more than a race for Natoma. It was the first leg of a 13-month voyage from San Francisco to New Zealand and back. She would continue sailing southwest after the race and make port calls in Pago Pago, Samoa and the Fijis before reaching Auckland in October. She would return to the U.S. the following summer via Tahiti, the Tuamotus and the Marquesas, but would not enter the '83 Transpac.
In 1929, when he was 18, Dalziel shipped out with the merchant marine as an ordinary seaman. In five years with the Dollar Steamship Line he made half a dozen trans-Pacific voyages and two trips around the world, visiting places like Alexandria, Singapore and Shanghai. Dalziel's zest for adventure has diminished little in the half century since; if it has changed at all, it has merely evolved into an old man's zest for life.
Dalziel, who turned 72 on May 26, speaks in exclamation points and gestures as if he were drawing them in the air. There's a watery film over his eyes and the lids have grown puffy, but for one who has spent so much time squinting to windward, there are few crow's-feet. After a lifetime of squeezing his 6'1" frame through hatches and passageways, he seems to be perpetually ducking. He has a narrow white mustache trimmed to a mere stubble and silky white hair that blows when he's at the helm of Natoma.
He thinks nothing of changing sails in a heaving sea or stumbling onto a slick and heaving deck in the middle of the night. "I like it when the bow dips down into the water, like a knife scooping up frosting," he says.
Dalziel is notorious among West Coast ocean racers for his public wassailing with his crew members, some of them teen-agers. In restaurants he's a patriarch whose leadership is somewhat loose. He has faced down the police, the offense on one occasion having been dancing after dinner against the wishes of the establishment. He says he would have liked the dancing to have been on the tables.