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Two Texans shoot it out with a pair of 5.5s
Hugh Whall
September 16, 1963
Ernest and Albert Fay (right) take on the world in a month-long race series in rugged Olympic sailboats
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September 16, 1963

Two Texans Shoot It Out With A Pair Of 5.5s

Ernest and Albert Fay (right) take on the world in a month-long race series in rugged Olympic sailboats

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It was a day for heavy-weather sailors. Chill early-autumn winds were gusting down Long Island Sound at speeds up to 30 knots, and the fleet of 5.5-meter yachts competing in the third race for the U.S. National Championship swept toward the finish line like maple leaves ahead of a gale. Under such turbulent, testing conditions, few of the observers present were surprised to find that the first two boats across the line, by a comfortable margin, were occupied by an unlikely pair of oil-rich Texas brothers, 50-year-old Albert Fay, in his red-hulled Flame, and 49-year-old Ernest Fay, in Yale-blue Pride (see cover).

The Fays are on the Sound, along with a Norwegian Crown Prince, a Soviet naval officer, a Leningrad mill hand and assorted Swedish, German and Swiss sailors, to take part in a month-long regatta at Long Island's aristocratic Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club. The ultimate purpose of it all is to determine the best 5.5-meter sailor in the world. When the month is up, that distinction may well belong to one of the Fays. There are about 400 5.5s in the world (117 in Soviet Russia alone), and only three of these come from the state of Texas. But two of the three belong to the Fays—and how many boats do two men need to gain a monopoly anyway?

Between them at one time or another Albert and Ernest Fay have collected many of the world's available 5.5 prizes as well as a cabinetful of trophies in other classes. They first learned to sail as boys at Bay St. Louis in Mississippi—first in catboats, then in two old, leaky 30-footers that, according to Ernie, "anyone could get a sail in if he was willing to crouch in the bilges and bail." Later Ernie went to Harvard and Albert to Yale to study geology. Now, old Eli Albert sails a boat colored for Harvard, and Cantab Ernie one painted blue for Yale.

When they are not sailing 5.5s, the Fays keep in tune aboard Corinthian One-Designs, 19-foot sloops that look like Lightnings fitted with keels instead of centerboards. Albert, the family extravert, who races with a red cap on backward for luck, is the current Texas Corinthian champion. He is also a staunch Barry Goldwater supporter and a Republican National Committeeman. "I didn't try out for the Olympics," says politically minded Albert in the firm, conservative tones of a man who believes in first things first, "because they came in a presidential election year."

Ernie, on the other hand, lives for boats, and not only sails them but designs them as well. Well below average height and generally soft-spoken, Ernie Fay was one of the first U.S. sailors to become enthusiastic about the 5.5-meter class. Like other would-be Olympic sailors he demoted himself into the 5.5s from the bigger, far more expensive 6-meter boats that were once the mainstay of Olympic competition. (It is an irony that 5.5s now cost just as much as Sixes used to.) The Bill Luders-designed Sabre shown on the following page was Ernie Fay's first 5.5. Then he decided to design one for himself. Pride was the result.

"Designing a boat means as much as sailing it," says Sailor-Designer Ernie Fay. "A good designer ought to get out and race his own boats. Otherwise he loses touch with what is practical and just gets lost in theory."

As a naval architect, Ernie, though technically an amateur, does not restrict himself to sail. He has designed a speedboat capable of zipping from zero to 30 mph in five seconds—even though success evaded him on the first attempt. The first boat was drawn from calculations printed in a journal of naval architecture. "She was a failure," says Ernie, "and we soon found out why. In the next issue of the journal they printed a story saying that they were sorry but the calculations were incorrect."

Apart from considerable interests in Texas gas and oil, the Fay brothers jointly own a shipyard near Houston. It is a neat installation at Seabrook on milky Clear Creek where shrimpers from the Gulf of Mexico spend Saturday nights with no Sunday mornings. Here, in the yard where both Flame and Pride were built, Ernie tests his ideas.

Unlike such one-design class boats as the Stars and Lightnings, which are all identical—in theory, at least—meter boats are built with individual variations in design restricted only by a general formula (the quotient of the formula equation must not exceed 5.5; hence the name). In the hotly competitive business of making one 5.5 sail faster than another, rival designers are constantly eying one another's products to detect that elusive quarter inch here or half ounce there that makes all the difference at the finish line of a race. Like all 5.5 designers, Ernie Fay is fiercely jealous of his secret's. "Rush VII" he says with unaccustomed heat of a boat designed by Sweden's Naval Architect Einar Ohlson, "has a strange resemblance to my Pride. The only way you can tell them apart is by their color. Her sheer [the curved line of a boat's deck] is a little straighter, and her rudder is an inch or two different, but otherwise they are the same boat."

"We took a template of Pride's midship section and laid it against the Swedish boat," says Albert in confirmation, "and they didn't vary a quarter inch."

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