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Scuttlebutt News:

Ragtime: Resurrection of a Legend

by John Drayton
click to enlarge


(May 2, 2007) Just 36 months ago, one of the most legendary racing sailboats on the West Coast was purchased at a sheriff’s auction. The boat had sat unused and neglected since the 2001 Transpac, and was suffering from the effects of many months sitting unattended in Long Beach Harbor.

While a small consortium purchased Ragtime at this auction, and got the boat to the line in time to finish Rag’s record-setting 13th Transpac, the boat was hardly reaching it’s potential. Fortunately, designer Allan Andrews, who knew the boat and had helped in its 90’s design updates convinced Chris Welsh that Ragtime still had the lines to compete.

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Ragtime was designed in 1965 by John Spenser in New Zealand, and has among the most impressive racing pedigrees’ of any active sailing boat. Originally known as “Infidel”, she was effectively pushed out of racing in the Southern Hemisphere by 1970 due to her radical lightweight design.

Infidel was renamed “Ragtime” by a Long Beach consortium that purchased her, and she would win line honors at both the 1973 and 1975 Transpacs. Ragtime continued to be a line-honor contender in the Transpac through the 1990’s when she was extensively retrofit by Home Depot founder Pat Farrah. Noteable sailors that have put their hand on Ragtime include Stan Miller, Barney Flam, Dick Deaver and Dennis Durgan. John Jourdane was married on board.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Ragtime is among the most striking sailboats ever floated. Modern sailboat designs come and go; we’ve all seen modern plumb bows, reverse transoms, windowless dog-houses, colorful graphics, etc…. by contrast, Ragtime is unique: long, low, all-black hull, hard chines, varnished wood doghouse with stainless window frames, minimal freeboard, and the delicate, ever smaller taper aft. It’s rare that we pull up at a dock with Ragtime that her approach is unnoticed. Last year, we pulled into Turtle Bay, and the panga operator said that he remembered every time Ragtime had been there during the past 30+ years.

Unfortunately, from a sailing standpoint, some of these features become obstacles, especially when racing in wet, windy conditions. On the crew, we joke that we sail a 70’ boat with less useable space than a J-24. To get to the two back berths, you need to crawl past the engine with maybe 36” of headroom. The navigation station and kitchen are built on top of each other. Nevertheless, all this discomfort seems forgivable the first time you get to race Ragtime downwind in a big breeze.

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In late 2005, Chris took the plunge and bought out his other partners to take sole ownership of Ragtime. Perhaps inadvisably, he and I worked to invite his friends, family and old Lehman 12 buddies to come race a few events. Our crew is coming together, unlike many top end racers these days, this is a strictly amateur, local crew, and the boat is sailed mainly by active NHYC members. From the Lehman fleet, we pulled Bryan Nickel and John Clement. Etchells stalwart Jamie Hardenberg was thrown into the mix for tactical/strategic guidance (he allegedly sailed Lehmans a few times). Ragtime alumns include legendary chef “Hubie”, Hubie Laugham III, who takes care of cooking and grinding. Another Ragtime alumn is Tom O’Keefe (Jr) who manages the pointy-end and all things mechanical. Doug “The Good Brother” Welsh and his cousin Greg Eggstaff provide familial balance.

click to enlarge
Ragtime's return from the shed
Ragtime’s 2006 highlights included 10th boat to finish in the Ensenada Race, 2nd to finish in the Cabrillo to Dana Point around Catalina race (3rd overall corrected), and 4th in the SF to Santa Barbara Coastal Cup. It’s amazing that a 42 year old boat is still competitive and can be a force to be reckoned with, given the generations between her and the ultra-ultra light swing keel boats launched today. In June, 2006, the old girl went into Dencho Marine for an extensive retrofit and repairs that effectively ended last summer’s campaigning. During the Coastal Cup, years of leaking through hulls had weakened the hull, leading to a four foot square section of hull delaminating and tearing away, leaving 9” splinters in the water flow.

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After a little more consultation with designer Alan, Chris and Dencho Marine embarked on some major work on Ragtime. A 8’ by 20’ section of hull was removed and replaced, along with all of the through hulls. A new rudder was designed and installed (which somehow improved on Ragtime’s legendary downwind sailing). The entire hull was refinished from the topsides down. Since there was old damage to the aluminum rig, Chris ordered a new carbon fiber rig that was installed in February 2007, less than a week before the start of the Cabo Race. Along with the new rig is a new mainsail and five asymmetrical chutes (Code 0, and A1 to A4) to replace all of the old symmetricals.

Our first race back in the water was NHYC’s Cabo Race. Despite a good start and sound strategy, we frequently found ourselves in weather more conducive to swimming (i.e. no wind). We carefully followed our weather strategy, playing the beach past Ensenada, and then looking for a nice shift to pull us off the beach to presumably steady offshore winds. Even as Santana winds played havoc with the wind projections, wee were looking great up until we found a 20 square mile no-air vacuum on day 2. And another huge wind hole on day 4. A 220 mile run the last day helped bring about some redemption to an otherwise frustrating race.

click to enlarge
Starting the 2007 Newport to Cabo San Lucas race
Despite the light air, we were still in contention with a projected 6 am finish at Cabo; unfortunately, the 3 hours it took us to cover the last 3 miles really hurt. At one point, we were going backwards at half a knot in the current coming out of the Gulf of California. The Cabo scoresheet says we finished the race 14th overall of about 50 boats (correcting 27 seconds ahead of new uber-boat Stark Raving Mad), but all of us were disappointed about what might have been.

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Even though all the winches and running gear were overhauled and working, Chris started looking at how the crew work could be made easier. Alan Andrews is now working on a redesign of the cockpit that will make room for a coffee grinder and better trimmer space. The plan is for Dencho to complete a cockpit upgrade in time for Cal Cup and Transpac by fabricating a new cockpit out of the boat, and completing the install in one active week.

A second challenge is preserving the legacy of the boat. Every modification is made with apprehension and nail biting about our role as keepers of the boat’s tradition. The new cockpit will be glass over balsa core rather than the lighter carbon fiber/foam core, since the boat is a “wood” boat. When sailing, you find yourself reflecting about this legacy, especially in tight maneuvers. Among my nightmares of the last year was navigating our way into Turtle Bay on a moonless night, relying on a handheld GPS and a couple old charts – at the time, I kept imagining the headlines if we somehow screwed-up and put Ragtime on the beach.

It’s funny that Ragtime was the original “Giant Killer,” having won Transpacs against boats 10-15 feet longer, and twice as heavy. Ironically, many smaller boats have been sped up over time, and we compete hard against everything from TP52’s to the Santa Cruz 70 Turbo’s today. We remain optimistic that Ragtime can still sail with the best of the 70’s out there, and we hope to show this at Ensenada, Opening Day, Cal Cup, Pacific Cup, and ultimately Transpac. Longer term, we are looking forward to building up friendly rivalries with a resurgent local class of 70’s, especially the Ayers family’s Skylark, and the Hogan’s Westerly.

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