TALE OF THE SAIL : Her Survival Test Has Lasting Impact on Record-Holder

Lori Rafferty was looking for adventure when she joined the crew of a 41-foot racing yacht being delivered from Hawaii to Sydney, Australia, in 1980. What she got was a harrowing test of survival. Somewhere in the South Pacific near American Samoa, the yacht Impetuous encountered a raging storm that broke the vessel's mast. Then the wind died. The crew--four men and two women--was stranded in a vast seascape for almost two weeks. As they edged toward Samoa, sending faint emergency signals as best they could, they depleted their food and water. Without the mast, which served as an antenna, they could not send strong transmissions. But fortunately, a passing tanker picked up one of their signals. The tanker's radio operator relayed the message to Fiji, from where it eventually reached the owner of the yacht in Sydney, who organized a search with a tracking plane. All the while, the crew became more and more desperate, Rafferty said, and two members broke down emotionally. The crew had auxiliary power, but their supply of diesel fuel was low and their batteries for the radio--their only link to the outside world--were weak. After countless days adrift, Rafferty was listening to the radio when she suddenly heard a loud voice from the rescue plane. She made contact, and was asked to turn on the yacht's emergency locater frequency. The plane found them within an hour. They were finally picked up 70 miles from Samoa by a local fisherman who once had lived in Oxnard and knew Rafferty's parents. "When we got to land, we ate lots of ice cream," Rafferty said. "We all lost 15 pounds." Rafferty did not continue with the yacht to Australia. Instead, she relaxed on the sunny beaches of the South Pacific, trying to regain her strength. "(The ordeal) taught me a lot about myself," Rafferty said. "I learned that I had a lot of survival willpower. When you're on a 40-foot sailboat in the middle of the ocean, you're an insignificant piece of cork." Rafferty, 30, gained a healthy respect for the ocean, but remained undaunted by the episode. Otherwise, she would never have become the United States' fastest female sailor, setting a short-course speed record for all types of sailboats last month at South Padre Island, Tex. Her record of 37.45 m.p.h. on a sailboard broke the mark of 34.79 m.p.h. set by Patti Whitcomb in 1986 at the Ponds in Palm Springs. Rafferty, who lives in Santa Barbara, has become accustomed to hazards on the water. During the week of a speed-trial event where the record was set, she suffered a hair-raising spill and later a scratched cornea. Early in the contest she crashed at more than 30 m.p.h. and swallowed so much water she thought she would drown. "A gust of wind slammed me so fast I didn't have time to react," she said. "It (the board) did the upwind slam, which really hurts." The gusts of up to 60 m.p.h. lifted the board, the sail and Rafferty, and slammed them onto the water, which feels like a slab of pavement in such circumstances. The speed trials, with 30 competitors, were held on a 100-yard course in the Brownsville Shipping Channel, an international waterway best known for accommodating one of the United States' largest fleets of shrimp boats. Boardsailing usually is associated with more exotic locales, such as the Bahamas, Hawaii or the French Riviera. But in the continental United States, sailors say, there may not be a better spot to attempt speed records. "You need high winds and flat water," Rafferty said. "They're usually mutually exclusive." Despite the presence of large ships in the waterway, boardsailors have discovered a site they call the Ditch. But when the wind blows, silt from the bottom of the channel is stirred up. During one run, grains of sand wedged beneath one of Rafferty's contact lenses and scratched her cornea in three places. Staying on remote South Padre Island, Rafferty had difficulty finding a doctor to aid her. Finally, she was able to locate a physician at a restaurant. He remedied her plight and she continued the competition a few days later, but with goggles. "It really scared me," she said. "There was so much flying debris. It was like a brownout. When we'd approach the speed course, our eyes would be coated and we'd be spitting out dirt. It was just like going down a dirt tunnel. It's a pretty ugly place, but sometimes that is what you have to put up with." Well, race car drivers had to go to the Bonneville Salt Flats in the Utah desert to set land-speed records. "To find good bodies of water is hard," said Rich Jeffries, who represents boardsailing on the board of directors for the U.S. Yacht Racing Union. Rafferty, who grew up in Santa Paula in the Santa Barbara foothills, learned boardsailing in Australia. She returned to Santa Barbara and became a serious sailor. She eventually entered the sport's professional circuit, not making much money, but satisfying her wanderlust by competing throughout the world. Reference: http://articles.latimes.com/1989-05-09/sports/sp-2833_1_south-pacific-palm-springs-survival PDF Version