Nice guy who finished first reflects on his solo race across the Atlantic; Moxie: The American Challenge, by Philip S. Weld. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co. 245 pp. $16.95.

Ocean-racer Philip Weld has a way of getting better as he goes along. In the 1972 Observer Single-handed (solo) Transatlantic Race he hardly set the bluewater world ablaze: sailing in the trimaran Trumpeter, he took 39 days for the east-west crossing, finishing 27th out of the 55 starters.

Eight years and three trimarans later, in Moxie, he beat out 81 other single-handed starters, clocking a time of just under 18 days. He came in more than seven hours ahead of his nearest competitor to become the first American to win the great race. At 65, he was also by far the oldest entrant.

By dexterous use of his log and of the sound track of a film made on board, Weld now gives us a vivid account of the race. His book also makes use of running comment and flashback to explain how a late starter and fast finisher came to be what he is.

What motivated Weld in the first place? Early in his sailing career, as an indefatigable compiler of lists, he set down the advantages of solo racing. To him they are just as valid today. Among them he includes: (1) a nourishing of the explorer instinct; (2) a sharpening of perception and hardening of physique; (3) the necessity of learning new skills (from celestial navigation to the patching of sails); (4) the making of new friends of all ages with a powerful shared interest; (5) the chance to gain recognition at 60 or over; and finally, (6) the bringing of a feeling for the Eternal Verities, and a ''sense of earth's rotundity, of the planet's fragility.''

In the various flashbacks we learn of Weld's training as a reporter, his combat record as one of Merrill's Marauders in World War II, his creation of a small-city newspaper chain--and how he sold the chain when the siren call of the trimarans crowded out all else.

The end product of the years of experiment and near-failure is Moxie, heroine of the present book. Her wood and glue come to 8,000 pounds. Add 2,000 pounds for rig, hardware, sails, and stores, and she weighed in at five tons. Her working sails measured 1,150 square feet. Overall length was 50 feet, beam just over 33. Important to performance was the fact that her main hull waterline beam of 3 ft., 6 in. ''made such a trivial wave that her wake disappeared in a boat length.'' This was during trials when she was ghosting through fog, but it was an omen that thrilled her master.

We learn a lot about trimarans in general and Moxie in particular. Gulf Streamer, Weld's second craft, capsized during a trial run when clobbered by a giant rogue wave, and he and his crew of one spent five days and nights in the waterlogged, upended cabin before rescue. At the gallant suggestion of his wife, Anne, whose supportive role comes through very clearly, he named No. 3 Rogue Wave and pushed strongly forward.

From the start of the 1980 race, all the good planning paid off. Although there were times when rumor and truncated communications made it seem otherwise, Weld led most of the way across. Toward the end, even he knew he was the front-runner, and only some last-minute mistake could cost him the victory. He describes the final night's run with a touch of the poet: ''Moxie advanced down the track of reflected light from the setting half-moon dead ahead. A golden cable drew her noiselessly to Newport over the glassy sea.''

There was a tooting of horns from the assembled craft at the finish line, a breaking out of bunting. Now we can put out more flags for this fine, very American book by a nice guy who finished first.

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