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"I don't know what I'd do without my . . . buddies'

It began as a ladies' sailing club. The auxiliary fleet for a men's yachting association in Clearwater.

That was the late '60s.

And this is the '90s.

No longer are the Windlasses a satellite to anyone. These girls, as they call themselves, haul their own boats into the water. They officiate their own races. They trim a sail like the best America's Cup crew.

It's all about a bunch of women having fun once a week.

Now that one of their members is dying, it's also about a circle of compassion made up of women whose friendships run deep.

"I don't know what I'd do without my Windlass buddies," Lynn Radcliffe said. "It's quite a group."

Radcliffe, 65, has terminal lung cancer. She lives alone in Dunedin. Since October, her sailing sisters have visited her every evening. They have a computerized roster of who's supposed to go which night. The standby list has a dozen more names on it.

Hanging in Radcliffe's living room is a white silk banner imprinted with colored handprints, each one labeled with the name of a Windlass who dipped her palm in paint.

"The idea was for Lynn to wear it like a shawl, so she could be wrapped up in it like a hug," said Gari Carter, one of the Windlasses who visits Radcliffe. "But she wanted to be able to see it, so we hung it on the wall."

The Windlasses bring groceries for Radcliffe, cook dinner if she's up to eating, take out the trash. They read to her, watch Jeopardy with her.

"I have Hospice (caretakers) now, but the Windlasses were here long before that," Radcliffe said. "They used to take me to my chemo, to transfusions, whatever needed to be done."

Most of all, there are long talks.

"It's been quite an adventure," Radcliffe said. "I think when we started, we didn't know we were going to get into something this

heavy-duty. But we've all learned from this."

Radcliffe is radiant in the face of death. Part of her peacefulness, she said, is due to the loving atmosphere the Windlasses have created in her small house.

"They are genuinely caring and compassionate," she said. "I feel enveloped in love."

When Windlasses talk about the good feelings among them, it rings true.

"There's no backbiting in this group," said Sandy Huff, the Windlasses' newly elected captain. "We all get along so well because everybody has a similar mindset. We're adventuresome."

The group's cruise one morning last month was a case in point.

By 9 a.m., a hundred or so women were ready to shove off from the Dunedin city marina. A steady stream of cars towing Sunfishes on trailers pulled up next to the small beach.

Women without boats hovered by the pram shed, where 50 junior-size wooden boats are stored.

Bloated pinfish, victims of Red Tide, were floating in the Intracoastal Waterway, and word had it the stench of dead fish was beyond belief up at Caladesi Island, where the club usually sails.

No problem. They would just go somewhere else.

Cruise chairwoman Debbie Hofbauer climbed on a bench to lift her petite frame above the crowd. She put a whistle between her lips and produced an ear-splitting shriek that only half cut the chatter.

"Okay, ladies. We're gonna sail south today. We found a little island down by Seminole Landing. Let's go! Boats in the water!"

Within minutes, white sails dotted the Intracoastal like push pins on a map.

In addition to the sailing vessels, there was a pontoon boat to ferry picnic supplies, plus a small outboard ready to help a novice sailor or tow someone in, if needed.

"That's the crash boat," explained Lori Beese.

"Don't call it that. It's a chase boat," countered Gerry Pringle.

Midge DuPont was at the wheel of Free Spirit, her 23-foot cabin cruiser.

DuPont is 75 years old and lives in a sixth-floor condo at Edgewater Arms, next to the marina.

"This is my back yard," she said, steering her craft out into the channel.

Three Thursdays a month, September through May, the sailors race each other. Once a month, they have a theme cruise to an empty spoil island. At Easter time, it's an egg hunt. In October, they sail in Halloween costumes. Sometimes there's a treasure hunt. The grape cruise features free-flowing wine.

They know how to have fun. And they're all high on being a Windlass, without exception.

"Super nice girls in this group," said Freddie Webb, a retired airline customer service rep.

Webb, recovering from cataract surgery, was on DuPont's boat, wearing dark wraparound sunglasses.

Lee Holmes of Palm Harbor became a Windlass two years ago. She said this is like no other club she has been in.

"There's not the cattiness, the pettiness that there is in some women's groups."

The Windlasses range in age from thing to 82. Some are widows. One member has nine children. Many of the women work; they just arrange to have Thursdays off.

Pringle, who had a career in the Navy, is the club's official flag-raiser and torchbearer in their winter Olympics.

Lisa Glaser, a St. Petersburg ceramic artist, joined the Windlasses at age 12, tagging along with her mother, Lou. Now 39, Glaser still is one of the group's younger members.

"I have a zillion moms here," she said.

One by one, boats pulled up onto the island.

Women in shorts and bathing suits waded onto the sand, sidestepping dead fish and lugging folding tables, Rubbermaid bowls, packages of paper plates and cups.

In the noon sun, delicate beads of sweat appeared on upper lips. Beach chairs and umbrellas sprouted along the beach.

A Martha Stewart-caliber buffet was laid out: appetizers, salads, breads, huge vats of boiled shrimp, desserts, a cooler of Coors Light and a jug of white wine.

After lunch, a leisurely trip back to the marina, the wind at their backs.

At the end of every cruise, there's a flurry of teamwork. Sunfishes are hosed down and reloaded onto trailers. Prams are returned to the shed. Nobody leaves until all the work is done.

"Not a single one of these women will say "I can't do that,'

" bragged Huff, the captain. "If there's a job to be done, they just do it."

Every year, at the tea to welcome new members, women will stand up and give testimonials of their pre-Windlass days, Huff said.

"They'll say, "I used to sail with my husband. He let me pull in the anchor, and I got to wash the dishes.' "

Things are different here.

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