Get Out of Jail Free

Originally published March 2009

The last time Ragtime tied up at my local marina, I wandered down to the dock, admired the varnish, and grinned at the dinky cabin. But most of all I admired the audacity of those long, skinny, hard-chined lines drawn by New Zealander John Spencer a few years before the boat, as Infidel, was denied entry to the 1967 Sydney–Hobart Race. For safety reasons. Plywood hull, indeed.

Now, some 150,000 miles later and carrying the name that became a legend in Pacific Ocean racing—back-to-back line honors in the Transpac, 1973 and 1975—Ragtime has come away from the latest Rolex Sydney–Hobart with a division win, after winning last summer’s Los Angeles–Tahiti Race and then cruising on south.

Back at my local, I gave those gleaming topsides a loving pat. Not many boats affect me this way. Dorade, Bolero, Windward Passage—that’s my shortlist.

What sets such boats apart? History, but there are other famous boats. There’s something more, something that twangs the heartstrings, that tells you this boat has stories in her bones, that she is damned near alive. How else to explain the Chris Welsh phenomenon, Welsh being the passionate Californian who in 2004 rescued Ragtime via a sheriff’s auction? “You had to go through barbed-wire fences and guard dogs,” he says. “The boat was chained, surrounded by impounded fishing boats—in jail.”

In 2009 “Rags” is better than new, with updated keel and rudder and a crack crew who went into the Hobart race braced for a tough go. Welsh got his thrills early on. He describes the start: “The fleet is split, with two lines [forward and behind] about 500 yards apart. This leaves the first-line fleet circling in a small box—supermaxis Wild Oats and Skandia searing through at 15 knots—and nothing in four years of Ragtime starts has been as adrenaline-charged, scary-fast, over the top; Hobart is the crystal meth of racing starts.”

This Down Under classic being famous for breaking boats, fair-weather sailors might get a grin out of (Morning Light movie veteran) Genny Tulloch’s recollection that “We never saw the gnarly stuff; the max breeze was probably at 40 knots.” Peak downwind boatspeed, 26.5, from a 1963 design. Oh yes, and there were the blown sails, the bowman wave-washed into the winches and put out of commission—stuff like that. Shifting down to the storm jib, Welsh notes, “happened at exactly 40 degrees South. Welcome to the Roaring 40s.”

To which we add, Welcome back to center stage, Ragtime.

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