The script for this year's Transatlantic Race across 3,000-odd miles of ocean from Newport, R.I. to England's Eddystone Light might have been written just for melodramatic Huey Long and his lovely aluminum yawl, Ondine. As the curtain rose, Ondine was drifting through a windless gloom off Brenton Rock, trapped in a fog of frustration. The second act produced two violent storms and near-disaster. But the final curtain found Ondine third across the finish line, a triumphant overall victor. It was a plot corny enough to satisfy even the histrionic demands of the principal actor.
Long, a kind of one-man Shakespearean repertory company, was seized by fate right at the start. While three boats—Sally Ames Langmuir's Bolero, the Italian Corsaro II and Clayton Ewing's Dyna—had the mother wit or good fortune to head northward and find better weather, Ondine and the remainder of the fleet of 14 boats sagged slowly through haze and headwinds for five days, falling hopelessly behind as the leaders opened a gap of 60 to 70 miles.
"There goes the ball game," Huey complained to the members of his crew. "We'll never lick the handicap." But as the breeze rose to sting the helmsman's eyes with spray, Huey-Hamlet's black mood changed and so did his complaints against the sea of troubles. Now Huey-Macbeth flung a challenge in the teeth of the wind: "Lay on, Macduff!"
We laid on. Ondine, her rig shortened by seven feet, began to leg out the long sea miles in great style. The wind increased to half a gale. The seas built. Huey, a skipper charged with frenzied energy or drenched with deep despair every minute of every race he sails, drove all of us before him. With the wind at 40 knots and gusting ever higher, he reduced sail (when at all) too late. Ondine, a light-hulled craft, slid like an eel off the top of seas and cascaded down them in long, roaring, surfing runs. When variations in the wave formations shouldered her out of a direct line, she would veer off, broach, jam her main boom end deep in the roaring seas and stagger over onto her side, throwing men in the cabin out of their bunks. Huey put two men on the wheel to get more power, and carried on. A rip appeared in the big No. 3 spinnaker. Riding a wild and wet foredeck with a 28-foot aluminum pole bashing around, we wrestled the torn sail down and set the less unwieldy No. 4. It blew out within 10 minutes, and we set the No. 5 "bulletproof" spinnaker.
Shortly thereafter, we had the most dramatic moment of the trip. A breaking sea got under Ondine's stern when the boat was making 18 knots on a surfing run and swung her around in a broach that lifted the rudder out of the water as though a giant had picked the whole boat up by the stern. Then a cross sea swung her 160� in the other direction in a full jibe. The boom slammed inboard, tagged the backstay and jack-knifed up it to a 70� angle. The watch below, struggling to get on deck, were thrown back and forth across the cabin. Bob Davis, the cook, had just extracted six cans of tomatoes from a locker and, as the boat seesawed wildly from beam end to beam end, he was bombarded from every direction by flying cans.
We finally got the No. 5 spinnaker down and set the more easily managed genoa in its place, but Huey wanted none of this appeasement. "Get it back up," he howled. "This is still a race!" So we rolled a reef in the main for balance, reset the spinnaker and roared on through the foaming, rain-swept Atlantic. Huey's hunger for speed and still more speed paid off that day, with the greatest 24-hour run in Ondine's history—248 miles for an average of 10.33 knots. She had closed the gap on all the other boats.
By now, Huey was implacable. As the seas increased under the press of a full gale, he could barely be restrained from setting the big spinnaker all over again. We managed to pacify him with a mizzen staysail, and carried on.
For three days, during which the runs were over 200 miles, no boat gained on us. Some were feeling the effects of the blow. Still 1,000 miles from the finish, Clayton Ewing's Dyna, taking a spinnaker knockdown just as we had, was set back into an onrushing sea that broke her rudder clean off. She managed to finish the race by steering with her sails, but competitively she was pretty much out of it. Bolero broke both spinnaker poles, carried away her permanent backstay, blew out her mainsail and, in Sally Langmuir's own words, found her "foredeck declared a disaster area." The yawl Windrose, reporting her position on 13 July, announced herself as "the sloop Windrose," her mizzen mast having gone by the board.
And now the plot changed again. The storm that put Ondine back in the running had drifted off toward Scotland, and the winds went light. Once again, the skipper's heart went heavy. He became Huey-Prospero, invoking a new storm. He pored over the weather bulletin and disagreed with all its predictions. He was right. Miraculously, a secondary low developed a new gale around us as we closed with the English Channel. Again the wind came on. Huey refused to lighten sail and drove her hard.
The next 24 hours were decisive. It was a misty night, pitch black and windy, and the sea was white with gale and flashing phosphorescence. The breeze grew rapidly, and Ondine again began her great surfing runs, this time dead before the wind and on course. We held the big, heavy No. 3 spinnaker for five hours, and only got it down in a roundhouse broach that once more brought all hands scrambling on deck. Then, with a reef and the No. 5 spinnaker, we went on for the rest of the night. In nine hours we averaged 12.2 knots through the water, an unheard of sustained speed for a vessel of Ondine's size.