For boating buffs: single-handed racer sails Atlantic track

The Race, by J.T.W.Hubbard. New York and London: W.W. Norton. 240 pp. $19.95. There's a kind of chicken-or-the-egg aspect to the batch of sailing adventure books being churned out these days. Some of them relate a voyage so miserable that one wonders if it was undertaken solely for the prospect that ``there's a book in it.''

On the other hand, we have stories seeming to read like a natural result, not the raison d'^etre, of a passage that honors the siren who calls sailors to challenge themselves because it's there to be done.

Count ``The Race'' among the best of those. If, when Tim Hubbard entered the Observer Single-handed Transatlantic Race in 1984, he planned to write a book about it, it doesn't show. Hubbard is not only a sailor in the finest traditional sense, but also a professional journalist with high credentials.

The OSTAR is one of three world-class races for fearless loners willing to face the distinct possibility of being run down, dismasted, capsized, attacked by whales, injured, terrorized, or beset with the madness that recently compelled one single-hander to leap from his boat in mid-ocean. Like the better-known America's Cup competition, it has fallen prey to a degree of commercialization that disturbs the traditionalists even as they partake of its dangers. Well-subsidized state-of-the-art vessels, skippered by professional sailors, make it hard for amateurs like Hubbard to compete. So why do they do it?

Hubbard, born in Britain and schooled in sailing on his father's old gaff-rigged yawl, wearied of being lectured by newcomers who figured a week's charter in the Caribbean had made sailors of them. Fearing for the true grit of sailing, he wrote, ``By entering OSTAR I could, perhaps, restore a piece of my own soul and reaffirm some of the good-humored verities that I had learned as a boy among the commercial sailors and the tides and fogs of England's East Coast.''

He even thought he had a chance of winning in his class. Only the second OSTAR competitor to sail in a Westsail 32, a sturdy little sloop of venerable design, Hubbard had built the ship's interior by himself and knew that she would take anything the ocean dished out. More than he could, so goes the mariner's maxim.

The OSTAR adventure is viewed through a lens with focus sharpened by brilliant wit. There is agreeable irreverence for the incipient pomposity of race committees and a great discovery concerning the true heroes of the undertaking, most notably the stragglers like Hubbard in their basic little boats with their basic navigational equipment.

Hubbard made it; 27 of the 91 entrants did not. But he did it his way: changed course to get some sunshine, detoured to a remote island in the Azores for a few days, faced his darkest horror in a howling storm off Newfoundland; and finished with his soul refreshed and some additions to his list of good-humored verities.

``The Race'' provides the nonsailor with exceptional insight into the psyche of single-handers and the nuts and bolts of making an ocean passage. Sailors should find it a refreshing change from the look-what-happened-to-me genre of nautical book-club selections. Hubbard's OSTAR experience may not have been a lot of fun at the time, but his book is.

As a matter of fact, he says he'd do it again. In a bigger boat.

Jo Ann Morse Ridley writes about boats and boating out of Seattle.

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