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The Best Revenge

Barred from racing because of their age, six sailors band together to take on the Transpac.

October 4, 2007
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/Bubala/’s crew, way past AARP age: top row (left to right): Gordon Livingston, Lloyd Sellinger (Skipper/Owner), Andy Szaz. Bottom row (left to right): Mike gass, Jim Doherty, Herb Huber.

Bubala‘s crew, way past AARP age: top row (left to right): Gordon Livingston, Lloyd Sellinger (Skipper/Owner), Andy Szaz. Bottom row (left to right): Mike gass, Jim Doherty, Herb Huber.

In our youth-obsessed culture, one’s chances of getting a crew slot in the biennial Transpac race at age 70 are slim. So, in 2003, Lloyd Sellinger did what any self-respecting septuagenarian wanting a ride to Hawaii would do: He lied about his age. “I told the skipper, a man in his forties, that I was sixty-nine; it sounded better. When he was turned down anyway, Sellinger came up with the perfect revenge. He would prepare his Cal 40 for the 2005 Transpac and have as a crew requirement that everyone on board be over 65.

When his intentions were published in a California sailing magazine, he immediately started receiving applicants. Andy Szaz, 67, called first. A member of the 1956 Hungarian Olympic team in the Finn class, Andy had been a yacht broker for 25 years and campaigned his Peterson 30 out of Newport Beach. That the name of the boat is Babe tells you all you need to know about Andy.

Mike Gass, 66, was an optometrist living with his wife on his 42-foot ketch, Suzannah, on the same dock in Seal Beach where Sellinger kept his boat, though they had never met. He signed on as navigator.

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Herb Huber, 67, a general contractor/engineer from San Francisco, veteran of numerous sailing campaigns, who now sails his Ericson 35 on San Francisco Bay, and Jim Doherty, 67, a communications relay installer, grandfather of 13 and owner of an Islander 36 in Los Angeles, were the next two crew accepted after sailing auditions.

That’s when I heard about the adventure, in far-off Maryland, and applied. Sellinger by that time had several other likely prospects, so he told me he’d keep my resume on file. Lucky for me the other candidates either broke things when they sailed on the boat, had visible tremors or insisted on scurrying to the foredeck on their hands and knees. Sellinger e-mailed me and I flew to L.A. in January 2005 for a trial sail. I emphasized my 30-year racing experience in one-designs but played down the fact that I had sailed nothing larger than a J-30 and had never been out of sight of land in a sailboat. Being an M.D. weighed in my favor, though the small detail that my specialty is psychiatry raised some (mostly unspoken) concerns.

The practice sail went well. I knew port from starboard, didn’t fall overboard and appeared likely to survive two weeks at sea; I was selected as the last of what came to be known as “The Dirty Half-Dozen. I agreed to fly to California monthly to practice or race. I also promised to brush up on physical and emergency medicine and to stop referring to all potential ailments and injuries as “psychosomatic. Most important, we all seemed to get along. There were no abrasive personalities or people who thought they knew everything. Sellinger’s intuitive crew-selection process and his easygoing leadership style proved sound.

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Once our effort got a little publicity we, of course, had to deal with the Viagra jokes. Was the drug company going to sponsor us? (No, but we had asked.) Finally, we came up with a satisfactory response: We were taking some pills with us on the trip, but only to keep us from rolling out of our bunks.

A long ocean voyage, like any quest, is both an expression of hope and a journey within, undertaken for reasons that turn out to have little to do with the outcome. In our early practice sails and in our races to Ensenada and around Santa Barbara Island, we learned a couple things. First, we were slow. Our 1969 Cal 40, Bubala (Yiddish for “sweetheart), and dated sail inventory made it unlikely that we could keep up with lighter boats, more-experienced crews and bigger budgets. Second, it didn’t make any difference. We were there to sail to Hawaii as fast as we could. None of us had Transpac experience. This was going to be the trip of a lifetime, and for us perfect speed meant being there.

The 2,250-nautical mile race began off Point Fermin west of Los Angeles. The winds were light and got lighter as the day wore on. Under normal conditions we would have expected to pass Catalina at five in the afternoon. Instead we ghosted at 2 knots past the blinking light at the west end about 2 a.m. the next morning. Just beyond Santa Barbara Island we fell into a glassy calm that lasted nearly eight hours. On the evening of day two, we actually were set by the current more than a mile back toward the mainland. Finally, a light breeze filled in and we made what turned out to be a terrible decision to stick close to the rhumb line and sail north of San Nicolas Island, past some rock outcroppings. The wind shifted and suddenly we were close-hauled on a course to the northwest that pointed us approximately toward the Aleutian Islands. By the time we were able to tack back and round the rocks, we had lost hours on boats that had gone south into stronger winds.

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At about this time we discovered that some new batteries that had been installed on the boat were not accepting a charge properly. This meant that we had to shut down all lights and restrict our radio communications to the morning position report and evening “bed check. This also disrupted plans to use the Seafarer’s Net to call our families and meant that we could not receive weather faxes on our computer. For the rest of the race we had only the Commander’s Weather reports from the communications vessel to rely on. We soon noticed that the bulk of the fleet, presumably with better weather information, was headed south, away from the Pacific high. We tried to follow, but never caught up.

Once we adjusted to the watch system, three hours on/three hours off, we settled into the experience. For me the immensity of the ocean was a lesson in personal insignificance. It was impossible to contemplate that environment without an acute consciousness of our vulnerability. We saw no other signs of human activity-no boats, not even an airplane-for 14 days. Others, especially single-handed sailors, experience much more profound isolation, but for me this was enough of a reminder of our remoteness, powerlessness and dependence upon the unpredictable movement of air.

A ship, Samuel Johnson opined, is like a prison, with the added prospect of being drowned. In fact, a small boat on the high seas is a microcosm of the human experience: loneliness, cooperation and an abiding belief that through skill, determination and luck we can overcome forces that dwarf our own. We are a speck of consciousness in a universe utterly indifferent to our fate. Yet we may win through and find land and others of our kind.

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Once we got into the northeast trade winds, we reassured ourselves that this was one of the most reliable weather systems on earth; still we prayed they would hold. At some moments we were at the edge of our abilities as the anemometer crept close to 30 knots and we boiled along at hull speed, higher when we surfed the following seas. Holding a course with the spinnaker up at night under those conditions was to walk a tightrope between a broach in one direction and a disastrous jibe in the other. There was debate about the use of a preventer in strong winds: The consequences of jibing unexpectedly versus the prospect of being taken aback and breaking the boom or worse.

A race across the Pacific in the twilight of life is a compelling metaphor for how best to confront the western horizon-flat out, spinnaker drawing, dolphins leaping alongside, in the company of kindred spirits. What could be better than this?

We celebrated the halfway mark with champagne and reflected on the fact that we were at a point farther from land than anywhere on the planet. We stopped listening to the position reports from the other boats because they did nothing for our morale, nor could they help in our planning. The trades were up and down but never deserted us wholly, and on the evening of our fifteenth day we saw the glow of lights on Maui. We had only to jibe once more at Molokai and head for the finish, 32 miles away. First, it turned out, we had to defy death one last time.

The choice had been made to fly a relatively small 1.5-ounce spinnaker that had come with the boat in the ’60s. As we approached Molokai at night in 25-knot winds the chute became progressively harder to manage and ultimately wrapped itself on the forestay. All hands turned to in an attempt to get it down. Three were on the foredeck and three in the cockpit when the helmsman became distracted, and with a sound I will never forget, the boat suddenly jibed. As the boom whistled over my head, my first thought was that someone was dead, overboard or else the rig was gone. As it happened, none of these disasters occurred, and so we subdued the spinnaker and, under a waning moon, sailed on into the dawn.

As we drew abreast of Oahu the sun rose behind us and bathed Diamond Head in the pristine glow of a new day. With the old Eagles barnburner, “Already Gone, playing on the iPod, the years slipped away, and for a moment it was possible to feel the strength of our younger selves. We finished more than two days behind the first Cal 40, suffering from a failure of speed, but not of the heart or of the spirit. We were, finally, six old men on an old boat racing toward the embrace of those who loved us and in whose eyes we were already heroes.

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