A Legend Returns to Racing

Written by Mike Simms, February 13, 2010

When Dianne Masters bought her yacht in the US, little did she know it was one of the most famous craft in New Zealand yachting history.

Aboard a fabled yacht in the Caribbean, a big plan is being hatched. Dianne Masters, owner of the sleek 20m ocean racer, wants to sail it to its original home port, Auckland, pick up a New Zealand crew and enter it in the Sydney-Hobart Race. And if the lithe but ailing 47-year-old achieves her aim it will be a historic moment.

The boat is Ceramco NZ and this year’s Bass Strait classic marks the 30th anniversary of Peter Blake’s victory, only the fourth line and handicap honours in the race’s history. Blake then headed off around the world in the celebrated Whitbread race, in which a broken mast cheated him and his crew of a likely victory.

Asked why she should take on such a mission, Masters says she is looking for an adventure and, given the history of the vessel – which she did not know when she bought it – “it just seems appropriate”.

Sold to a California surgeon after the Whitbread, Ceramco was based for a decade at Marina del Rey in Los Angeles. Its sparse racing interior was refitted for cruising by the owner, who renamed it Winterhawk and sailed it with a professional crew for 20 years, first out of California and later from Newport, Rhode Island.

By the time Masters bought it in 2005, it had reverted to its original name. Although she had sailed since her teens and had her 100-tonne master’s ticket, it was the first yacht she had owned.

Buying it took “everything I had”. Unaware that she had bought an icon, she began drawing up plans for a refit.

“I wanted to replace a lot of the gear – put in hydraulic winches, that sort of thing.”

But after more research on her purchase, “I just couldn’t do that. It would have been sacrilege. Now everything up above is just as it was 30 years ago.”

A former flooring contractor in Newport – “we worked out a way to lay the boards faster than anyone else” – Masters has lived aboard Ceramco for the past two months in the US Virgin Islands, where she and partner Wayne Pelaggi have been getting the boat ready for an odyssey.

“We’re just about there,” she says at her present anchorage at Christmas Cove on St James Island, adding that the next step – a much-needed full exterior paint job – will probably be carried out in the Dominican Republic, where “the whole job will cost the same as just hauling it out of the water in Newport”.

That will be a stop on the way in their planned voyage through the Panama Canal, to the Galapagos Islands then on to New Zealand, down what sailors know as the longest downwind run in the world.

Coincidentally, that is just what Ceramco was built for – but with rather less benign conditions in mind: Blake had her designed to maximise the effect of the powerful up-the-tail gales of the Southern Ocean, which he used to make up time after having a new mast fitted in Cape Town.

Masters is well aware of the obstacles still in her path as time starts to run short.

Apart from thousands of miles of ocean, there is the small matter of money and she’s casting around for sponsorship of about US$150,000 ($214,800) for the Sydney-Hobart entry.

“We just hope there’s someone out there who would like to see this boat in that race again, 30 years on,” she says.

Masters is also in a race of a different kind. Suffering from an auto-immune condition that will eventually disable her, she has quit her business to go sailing full-time almost a decade earlier than planned. She was diagnosed 19 years ago with Sjogrens Syndrome, a disease that causes the body’s moisture-producing glands to dry up. It also causes debilitating scar tissue to build up in the connective tissue, causing pain and limiting movement, particularly after the age of 50.

“I just want to do as much as I can for as long as I can,” she says.

So far Masters has taken the aluminum-hulled, Bruce Farr-designed Ceramco on just one ocean race – from Newport to Bermuda, where she finished in the middle of the field.

“After that race I realized it wasn’t the sort of race this boat was built for – no wind and no waves.

That’s when I started thinking ‘I’ve got to do the Sydney-Hobart’. That’s the sort of conditions this boat was built for.”

The daughter of a Newport engineer had her first taste of sailing as a child but has since amassed a lifetime of experience crewing with “some of the best”.

She crewed on races, charters and deliveries that took her as far as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and by the age of 22 was a seasoned mariner, with a 100-tonne master’s ticket rather than a degree.

“I was lucky to learn from people who really knew what they were doing, including some New Zealanders. I was upset to begin with when they wouldn’t let me do any of the important jobs like the winches and sheets and just left me doing things like handling the running backstays. But later I realized how important every job is on a boat – the backstays hold up the mast – and how dangerous it is if you don’t know what you’re doing. You can easily lose a finger, an arm or your life.”

Leafing through Blake’s Odyssey, the book written by the sailor, with friend and collaborator Alan Sefton, about his voyage on Ceramco, Masters smiles as it falls open at a well-thumbed place – a picture of the crippled yacht under jury rig.

“At least,” she says, flipping back to the previous page with drawings of the rig that propelled Ceramco across the southern Atlantic to Cape Town, “if I lose a mast I’ll know what to do”.

Masters says Ceramco is the best-organized yacht she’s ever sailed in.

“Everything’s in the right place, just where you’d want to find it,” she smiles. “Every morning I thank Peter.”

NOTE: It’s the hope for Ceramco to compete in the 2013 Sydney Hobart Race

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