Fire Chief Heats Up High Seas In Impetuous Race For Shore

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John Ross learned how to sail while growing up in Tucson which, of course, is a little like learning how to bobsled while growing up in Jamaica. But that didn't stop Payson's fire chief from finding bodies of water large enough to pursue his sport of choice.

The very first was a lake in Estes Park, Colo., where he took his maiden voyage in a rented sailboat.

"I loved it immediately, even though I knew nothing about sailing," he remembers. "In fact, they had to come out and get me because I didn't know how to get back to shore."

That was more than 20 years ago. Today, Ross knows how to get back to dry land.

And he proved it this Independence Day weekend while serving as a crew member on a brand-new and untested 40-foot racing/cruising sailboat in the Marina del Rey to San Diego Sailboat Race which passed a sufficient percentage of the 50 competing vessels to finish ninth overall, and fourth in its class.

The annual race covers the 107 nautical miles between the two Southern California beach towns of the race's name, and takes more than 20 hours to complete.

Ross was given the crew job by his longtime friend and fellow boatman Sheldon Gingerich, who recently bought the 1999 J-120 sailboat, which he named Impetuous.

The following are excerpts from Ross' victory journal ...

Friday, June 30: 1:30 p.m.

"Flying to Los Angeles, I read information Sheldon had e-mailed to me about the boat how to make it sail faster, how to handle certain sail maneuvers.

"I decided my theme for the race would be 'No shrimping!' Shrimping is a term used for improperly dropping the monster spinnaker sail into the ocean which stops the boat and makes it appear the crew are using the sail as a shrimping net. That's very bad form for sailboat racers."

Saturday, July 1: 11:00 a.m.

"On the dock in Santa Monica, I met the other crew members: Rex Weedon, a sailor and engineer from Tucson I had sailed with several times previously; Frank Abel and his wife, Lynn, both of Tucson and very experienced sailors/racers; and Joe Hagen, a sailor/racer out of Phoenix. Sheldon asked if I'd read the material he e-mailed me and I said 'yes.' All the other crew members said, 'Cool! Someone knows how to make the boat go fast!' I knew we had just bonded.

"The crew walked to Ralph's Grocery and proceeded to buy $210 worth of groceries to sustain us through the race.

"Since we all were extremely health conscious, we purchased two pizzas for Saturday night, Oreos, tortilla chips, a jar of salsa, two cans of salted peanuts and several pre-made sub sandwiches. Oh, yeah. And several cases of beer."

Friday, July 1: 4:00 p.m.

"We went out into the ocean to practice. None of us had ever been on the boat before. I told the whole crew several times, 'No shrimping!'

"As we ended the practice, a huge power boat crossed our bow. Impetuous dipped down, and suddenly I was under water. (My wallet was still wet two days after I returned to Payson.)

"At the pre-race party, we met a crew from Phoenix. Their boat was a full-race 35-footer named Center of Gravity, and the crew was made up of some of the best sailors and beer drinkers in Arizona. Their helmsman was Al Lehman Jr. ... a resident of Payson! I had often raced against him, yet I had never met him. He could be Arizona's best sailboat racer, and one of the best in Southern California, too."

Saturday, July 1: 11:15 a.m.

"The race was on. The gun sounded, my mouth was dry from the adrenaline rush ... and we started off dead last! Then the wind went away and our boat came to a complete stop! I was afraid oxygen masks would fall from the boom if we didn't get a breeze soon.

"But the wind picked up, we made some appropriate tacks, and started passing one boat after another. At the first mark, we rounded seventh. Nice comeback.

"As the day wore on we changed positions, slept and munched health food. We felt confident that we might actually be competitive.

"As evening approached, we were sailing away from Catalina Island and had about 50 more miles to go. We had made good progress. However, as the sun set, the wind velocity dropped. We also made a few strategic errors that allowed a boat behind us to catch up, causing our crew to suffer significant depression ... so we ate pizza. Feeling better, we started sailing the boat hard."

Sunday, July 2: 1:00 a.m.

"During the darkness, it was much harder to keep awake. The effects of the pre-race party started taking their toll. I fell onto a pile of sails and immediately went to sleep. I awoke about three hours later, and we were sailing fast but surrounded by smaller boats that caught up with us in the light night winds. Drat!

"We started sailing harder ... The sea breeze began to increase in velocity, and Impetuous really started moving. With the boat doing eight knots, I told a joke that made our Skipper laugh so hard that he spit out his beer. It came out of his nose, too. He is a distinguished anesthesiologist whom I now call 'Blowhole.'

Sunday, July 2: 10:45 a.m.

"As we dodged the kelp and rounded Point Loma, we spotted Center of Gravity along with the other fast guys. Not only were we still in the hunt, we were in a drag race to the finish line.

"Of the boats in our class, Center of Gravity came in 15 minutes ahead of us. A boat identical to Center of Gravity finished four minutes later. Then we finished fourth with a new boat, new crew and no experience!

Sunday: 5:00 p.m.

"During the post-race party, Blowhole and the rest of us congratulated Al Lehman, Jr., and his group, telling him that we had hoped they'd win if we didn't.

"It was exciting to have two Arizona boats do so well in their class. The Southern California hot-doggers wondered how the 'Desert Lizards' did it. Our collective answer: 'No Shrimping!'"

Epilogue

Back in Payson, Al Lehman Jr. had nothing but compliments for Ross and the Impetuous crew.

"They did a fantastic job," said the full-time Payson resident, who's been racing sailboats all over the world for 25 years. "We were quite surprised to see them within sight of us in the morning. They obviously did the right things along the way. I was thoroughly impressed.

"I think John and I will try to find ways to hook up and get on each other's crews. Maybe I'll get some free fire inspections."

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