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The Big 5-0: Veteran Navigator To Make It Fifty Times Across the Pacific

Herb McCormick celebrates the prolific sailing career of John Jourdane. "First Beat" from our March 18, 2009, /SW eNewsletter/

March 18, 2009
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Two-time Whitbread veteran John Jourdane and Ragtime, the venerable West Coast sled aboard which Jourdane plans his 50th Pacific crossing in this summer’s Transpac.

Two-time Whitbread veteran John Jourdane and Ragtime, the venerable West Coast sled aboard which Jourdane plans his 50th Pacific crossing in this summer’s Transpac. Herb McCormick

John Jourdane looked a little, well, peaked. But you couldn’t really blame him. It was two days before Christmas and Jourdane had just landed in Australia after a flight from his home in Southern California to serve as navigator for Chris Welsh’s Spencer 65, Ragtime, in the most recent running of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, which was on schedule to begin in a little less than 72 hours. But the last thing Jourdane was looking for was sympathy.

“Actually, being jet-lagged is a pretty good way to start a race,” he said. “You don’t really know where you are, you don’t know the time zone, so you just fall into whatever watch system they’re running. It works pretty good.”

As it turned out, things worked out exceedingly well for Jourdane and Ragtime, the sole U.S. boat in the field, which went on to win the IRC-2 division. For Jourdane, it was yet another victory in a sailing career that’s been chock-full of them. But another, even more amazing highlight is just around the corner. For when Jourdane sets out aboard Ragtime this summer for the 45th edition of the biennial Transpac Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, it will be his fiftieth-as in five/oh, baby-transit of the vast, blue Pacific.

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“Between deliveries and races, I’ve spent more than two full years of my life sailing from California to Hawaii (or vice versa),” said Jourdane, who counts fifteen Transpacs among that total. “And I’d do it all again.”

Jourdane didn’t start out with the intention of becoming one of the more accomplished and well-traveled navigators of this or any other era. It wasn’t his goal to compete in two Whitbread Round-the-World Races (in 1985-86, aboard Digby Taylor’s NZI Enterprise, and in 1989-90, on Grant Dalton’s Fisher & Paykel); to cross the Atlantic a dozen times and record three circumnavigations; or to notch up over 300,000 offshore miles aboard several versions of Huey Long’s Ondine, as well as such famous boats as Blondie, Silver Bullet, Pyewacket, and Magnitude 80.

Nope, before all that, John Jourdane was perfectly content teaching school.

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A native of Long Beach, where he grew up sailing Sabots on Alamitos Bay, Jourdane is the rare Southern Californian who’s earned diplomas from hated crosstown rivals UCLA (undergraduate in zoology) and USC (masters in science education). After a stint in the Peace Corps, he took a teaching job in Hawaii, which is where he got his first real taste of offshore sailing. After making his first delivery back to California, in 1975, he embarked on his first Transpac two years later on a Wylie 50 called Outrageous.

“It was a wild race,” he recalled. “Six boats were dismasted. Merlin set a race record that held for twenty years. It was an interesting experience, but we survived.”

Not only that, but Jourdane found himself hooked. Teaching was an ideal career because it enabled him to earn a living and pursue his passion on the long summer breaks. Jourdane began racing to Hawaii in earnest, not only in the Transpac but also in the Vic-Maui Race, and later, the Pacific Cup. “But after ten years,” he said, “I was having more fun sailing and delivering boats than I was teaching. So I took off.”

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Did he ever. It would take a long, long article to detail all of Jourdane’s campaigns, regattas, and adventures, but luckily, he’s already done a fair bit of that himself in two highly entertaining sailing memoirs (both of which are available on amazon.com)-“Icebergs, Port and Starboard: The Whitbread Round the World Race” and “Sailing With Scoundrels and Kings.”

The former addresses his days aboard Fisher & Paykel, which left a lasting impression. Jourdane says his Kiwi mates play the game differently than other sailors.

“The U.S. has a lot of wonderful, great sailors,” he said. “But a lot of them are spoiled. They want to do their job and go home. Whereas Kiwis do their job and stay until it’s finished. They’ll stay all night if they have to. It’s the same thing on the boat. They have a different work ethic. They’re very open while a lot of Americans hold things inside. Kiwis will yell at each other, punch each other out, then go to the bar and have a drink. They’re great friends afterwards. It’s real honest and open. I’d sail anywhere with Kiwis.”

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These days, Jourdane has hauled his sea bag ashore and is back to full-time teaching, now at a private school in Southern California. “I spent fifteen of my most productive years racing yachts around the world,” he said. “But it’s time to start thinking of retirement.”

To that end, he still regularly knocks off a Newport-Bermuda Race or a Transpac, but there’s more balance to his existence. “By June, I’m tired of the kids and I’m ready to go sailing again,” he said. “It’s a nice combination.”

And so, Jourdane’s next race, his fiftieth time across the Pacific, represents a big milestone. It’s fitting that it’ll be aboard Ragtime, a boat he grew up watching and fantasizing about, and then spent many years campaigning. Heck, he even got married aboard Ragtime. “She’s a little wooden splinter,” he said, with genuine affection. “She has a special place in my heart.”

Another year, another Transpac: Here’s guessing it won’t be his last.

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