SNIPES ON THE RUN
On a dash to the leeward marker, a cluster of pitching, planing Snipes veers into a tense jibe during the national championships. Turn page for the story of the world's largest class of sailboats and their skippers
If you think the color picture on the previous pages showing the intense rivalry between two Snipe skippers fighting for the 1958 national championships represents an unusually crowded situation you are wrong. Disaster may seem imminent as the red boat piles in on the white one, but Snipe racing habitually rides the hairline of the hair-raising. Fred Schenck, the 1957 national champion, recalls a race 19 years ago when his boat was completely swamped by the second marker in a 40-mile wind. "We bailed like crazy with a bilge pump, bucket and sailor's cap. By the time we reached the third mark we were up and sailing again—and we won." Schenck's racing memories also include the time a shroud parted on a competing boat, threatening sudden collapse of the mast, sails and rigging; the crew grabbed the mast and held it up for the rest of the race.
Unlike many class boats which were designed as pure racing machines, however, the Snipe offers more than speed and thrills. It is a miniature yacht as well as a racing boat, and despite the fact that newer and faster classes continually appear, the Snipe is more in demand than ever. Snipes, in fact, are so much fun they have become the most popular boat in the world. Today there are more than 8,000 of the little 15�-footers in commission, sailing out of 250 active racing fleets from Trieste to Tokyo and even in such Iron Curtain countries as Poland, and last year over 400 more were added to the class.
The Snipe was designed in 1931, in the early Depression years, by Magazine Editor and Naval Architect William Crosby. He set out to build a family sailing boat that would be low-priced enough to stay within the restricted family budgets of the times and furthermore would be properly balanced in sail plan for any wind condition or body of water from mill ponds to oceans; small enough to hoist on a trailer, thereby greatly extending the sailing range of the boat; and sturdy enough to take any beating a family might give it. And Crosby succeeded on all counts. The Snipe has a moderate sail area (up to 115 square feet), making it an easy boat to handle. It has a high boom which helps prevent boom-cracked skulls. With a minimum racing weight of 425 pounds it is easy to trailer from race to race. As for cost, the first Snipe built from Crosby's plans was constructed by a 14-year-old boy, Jimmy Brown, in Pass Christian, Miss. It cost him $67. Even on today's inflated market it would cost him only $185, and he could get a ready-built Snipe for $675 to $1,000. For $160 more he could get dacron sails (main and jib). A Snipe fully equipped for a national championship (including trailer, two sets of dacron sails, etc.) would set him back less than $1,500.
The rapid growth of the Snipes established that Americans were looking for just such a safe, economical boat. Within a year after Crosby finished his design there were enough Snipe skippers to form the Snipe Class International Racing Association. By allowing only moderate changes in the design since, SCIRA has seen to it that a well-maintained old Snipe today will still have an even chance against a brand-new competitor. As if to prove the amateur can match the professional builder, John Wolcott, last year's national champion, built his winning Snipe right in Ithaca, N.Y. while attending classes at Cornell. No kit man, Wolcott started from scratch, drawing full-sized plans from those in the two-page Snipe rule book.
"In the evenings I would kick the guys out of my room and spread the plans out over the floor," recalls Wolcott. "When I was finally ready to build, I rented a loft downtown." Since the Snipe is one of the few major classes where a home-built boat stands a chance of winning a top championship, Wolcott's victory puts him in an exclusive group among racing skippers.
Snipe enthusiasts like nothing more than explaining why they believe their little yachts are the most fantastic craft afloat. The man most entitled to speak on Snipes is Ted Wells, 52-year-old dean of Snipe skippers. Wells, winner of more championships than any other Snipe sailor, is the author of one of racing's most important books, Scientific Sailboat Racing. He got his start in Snipes quite by accident. One Sunday afternoon 20 years ago, he and his wife drove from Wichita, Kans. out to Santa Fe Lake to watch the boats for a while. He saw the Snipes perform, and was intrigued with them.
"As we were leaving," Wells recalls, "we stopped at a pop stand and I asked if anybody had one of them for sale around the lake. Somebody did, and I bought it for $100." From then on, Wells was a victim of Snipe mania. Twice since, during the Kansas droughts of 1953 and 1956, the lake has evaporated out from under him but, undismayed, he took to neighboring lakes to win trophies.
"You get so much interfleet competition in the Snipe class," says Wells, "that it gives us a much higher percentage of very good skippers than any other class can claim. The competition is so stiff that when I get out ahead in a race I get a very insecure feeling, particularly in light air. I think about hitting one flat spot without wind—if I do, I've had it. One poor tack can cost the lead."
Fred Schenck recalls just such a time when he outfoxed the old master. "It was during a race at Long Beach," says Schenck. "It was rather hazy and the boat I was in rounded the leeward mark behind Wells, who was in the lead. Ted didn't spot the next mark. We saw it, but kept quiet and followed along behind him, letting him think he was heading straight for it. After a while we jibed for the mark and went into first place."