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Ezra Bowen
June 18, 1956
Carleton Mitchell's fat yawl 'Finisterre' is the most exciting boat in the Bermuda Race, and has started a revolution in ocean racing
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June 18, 1956

Ocean Racing

Carleton Mitchell's fat yawl 'Finisterre' is the most exciting boat in the Bermuda Race, and has started a revolution in ocean racing

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The day after he won the Southern Circuit championship in his 38-foot eight-inch yawl Finisterre, Carleton Mitchell made a bold guess. "I wouldn't be surprised," he said, "if Finisterre started something of a revolution in boat design" (SI, March 26). Last week, on the eve of the 20th biannual Bermuda Race—premier event of East Coast racing and the oldest blue-water race in the country—it looked as though the revolution was already at hand. The Bermuda Race runs 635 miles from Newport, R.I. across the Gulf Stream, where squalls often knock down the smaller boats while the deep-keeled 70-footers can use their driving power to get out ahead and beat their time handicaps. Yet in the fleet that heads for the island June 16, nearly half of the record-breaking 93 entries measure 46 feet or less. Moreover the hottest favorite is not a keelboat at all but the fat-bodied little centerboarder, Finisterre.

Like any revolutionary, Finisterre is as much a product of change as a cause of it. And the forces in yachting design that produced Finisterre—the perfect combination of fast racer and comfortable cruiser—have been at work since the first race to Bermuda in 1906.

In those infant days an ocean race was just a bunch of the cruising boys who thought it might be fun to get together. It was pretty much come-as-you-are, with no formal handicaps and no nonsense about slipping in a cast-iron water tank for ballast or building a whole new boat just to get there first.

The first Bermuda winner (see box p. 61) was an honest, 38-foot yawl named Tamerlane that made the passage in five days, six hours and nine minutes. But then the 85-footers got into it, and within four years the race died of big-boat domination.

It was revived in 1923, with a set of rules limiting length to 70 feet and awarding progressively higher time allowances to the smaller boats. However, marine architects quickly discovered that within the limits of length there were still ways to build faster boats. Hulls that had been built wide for comfort and shoal for shallow harbors gave way to narrow-beamed racers with deep keels, cramped quarters and a tendency to take the fast, wet route through a wave rather than the dry, slow way over it. In the late '20s the Cruising Club of America took over and tried to check the tendency toward pure racing boats by a broader set of rating rules. But all they produced was a more sophisticated set of rule-beaters, like the radically slender Dorade and in the early '30s her fatter sister Stormy Weather, both designed by Architect Olin Stephens.

"The truth was," said Olin Stephens last week, "that the rule had not been very scientific. If all boats were geometrically similar, you could rate them on one dimension-length, for example. But as soon as Mr. X, who wants to win the race, gets together with Mr. Y, the designer, they build a boat with all the characteristics of speed except for that one dimension. Then you need a really complicated rule that takes into account all factors of design, or you'll get freaks."

The rule the Cruising Club thought up to beat the rule-beaters stands today as about the most complicated document in sport. In its present form it is a 27-page labyrinth of fractions and rating tables that measures every plank and angle on a boat by means of such wonderful equations as: P[2] = ?(1/.95)[2]-B[2][2]—which is a learned way of saying your spinnaker should not be too big.

In essence the rule takes the following stand: extreme length, narrow beam, tall masts and great sail area make boats go faster. If carried too far, all these tendencies lead away from healthy cruising concepts. Therefore, all short, fat, shallow-draft, little boats receive time allowances over the racing machines.

Then, two years ago, along came Finisterre to win 17 of 29 races in all kinds of weather, and now the rule makers aren't sure what to think. The rule says fat boats pound or wallow in waves the long boats slice through. Yet Finisterre, whose length is only 3� times her beam, drives through like a 50-footer. The rule says excess weight slows a boat; but Mitchell's yawl is built like a truck and loaded with gadgetry. Finally, the rule says, and everybody knows, that a centerboarder hasn't the depth and stability to go to windward. But Finisterre goes to windward probably better than any little heavy-weather boat ever has. Briefly, Finisterre beats the rule; and the extraordinary part of it is that she was never intended as a rule-beater.

"I give you my word," says Carleton Mitchell, "that not once in my discussions with Sparkman and Stephens when we were building and planning Finisterre did we mention the ratings, or any way we could beat the rule.

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