When the cream of the eastern class-racing fleet gathers next week for the 61st annual regatta of the Larchmont, N.Y., Yacht Club, the boat to beat in the Star class in all probability will be Shandon, sailed by Skip and Mary Etchells. Shandon will bear watching on several counts, and can be identified either by her mainsail number, 4125, or Mary Etchells' curious headpiece. In contrast to the crew-cuts worn by the jib-tenders on the other Stars, she will be wearing a cornflower-blue shower cap to keep her hair dry.
Skip, also known as E. Widmer Etchells, is one of the world's foremost Star skippers, but Mary stands alone. She is the only woman who has ever crewed in a Star that won the world, the Western Hemisphere and the North American championships. As a consequence, she is also the only woman who has ever won her way into the Star's Hall of Fame, where she commands the full admiration of such other occupants of the temple as Briggs Cunningham, Corny Shields, Arthur Knapp Jr., Stan Ogilvy, Cuba's Carlos de Cardenas and Italy's great Agostino Straulino. The only occupant of the Hall who seems unimpressed by her sailing skill is Skip. But even he mutters an occasional "well done."
Mary's singular position in the world of yacht racing is the more remarkable because the Star, of all the one-design class boats, is probably the boat least suited to a woman. It is designed solely for racing, and whenever the wind gets up it spends most of its time with its lee gunwale awash.
There are scores of Stars in the world today so evenly matched that they can be ranked only by a flip of a coin. Even so, the Etchells have won such major international events as the Bacardi Cup of Cuba (1950), the Meyers Cup of Nassau (1951), two Western Hemisphere championships (1950, 1958), the North American championship (1958) and the world championship (1951). Among their regional triumphs they've won the Atlantic Coast Championship five times, scored five victories at Larchmont Race Week and the same number in the Pickens Series, and taken the Quincy Challenge Trophy twice and the Bedford Pitcher six times.
This adds up to a lot of silverware, and their home in Old Greenwich, Conn.—within sprinting distance of their home club, the Rocky Point Y.C.—houses more tarnished trophies than Mary, to whom silver polishing is an anathema, likes to contemplate. Despite the fact that they have given away every trophy that came to them happily unengraved, at last count there were still 81 cups, mugs, platters, trays, tankards, cigarette boxes, plaques and nut bowls either on display or tucked away in cupboards on the ground floor of the spacious gray frame house. Another 13 trophies were rapidly losing their luster on the second floor, and an uncounted number of others were packed away in cartons in the attic.
It is only poetic justice that the Etchells should be burdened with such an array of tarnished silver, because they are probably guilty of tarnishing more sea air than any other couple in the annals of yacht racing. Mary was asked recently if the rumors that she and Skip occasionally exchanged a heated word or two during a race were well founded. She laughed and said, "A word or two? Why, Skip can't call me an imbecile in less than a thousand words, mostly profane. And I can pass a whole weather leg just telling him what an overbearing, hypocritical stinker I think he is. I guess our ludicrous brannigans have made us sort of infamous."
A LACK OF TRANQUILLITY
When they won their world championship, one yachting reporter wrote, "There was the usual lack of tranquillity in the Etchells' boat. At the end of one race Skip was in dire peril of having his head bashed in with the whisker-pole by his beautiful wife Mary, formerly of the Baltimore O'Tooles." Neither Skip nor Mary can now remember what that ruckus was about. There was one time, too, when Mary threw the bailing scoop at Skip. It was an instinctive reaction to Skip's icy request that she kindly get her salt-stained rump out of his line of vision so he could at least see what the hell ocean he was sailing on. It was too bad she missed him, she says, because the scoop went overboard and they needed it later in the race. There have also been a couple of occasions when Mary, in her wrath, has tried unsuccessfully to throw Skip overboard. She can't remember why. But she is sure the attempts were justified. And it is a continuing source of regret to her that, although she is 5 feet 8 inches and as rugged as she is shapely, she is still no match for her husband, who is 6 feet 3 inches, weighs 240 and can step a mast singlehanded.
The sound and fury of their seagoing battles usually signify nothing more than racing tension. "There've been a few times when I'd have happily signed divorce papers if there'd been a lawyer waiting with them at the dock when we came in," Mary says, "but not many. It's just that I've got an Irish temper, Skip's a racing perfectionist, and we're both competitive as hell. So we scream at each other. Sometimes for cause but mostly, I think, to let off steam. Fortunately, we've both got some sense and we always—well, almost always—drop the argument in the bilge when we reach the dock. And I've a hunch our life ashore is nicer because of it. We always seem to leave all of our orneriness behind us in the boat."
It also always seems to be there waiting for them when they go aboard again, ready to flare up the moment the starting gun sounds. They sailed their first tune-up race this year in the May Eye-Opener series at Larchmont. It was an inconsequential preseason race but before it was over they were both tuning up their vocal cords, too, growling at each other as if a world championship depended on their every move.