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If racing were all that mattered, then the first biennial Block Island Race Week would have to be called a failure.
There were foul tides and driving rain, foul tides and blinding fog, foul tides and gale winds, foul tides and spotty calms that would hardly stir a sail. After a week only two out of seven scheduled races were completed. But then, as many said last week, racing isn't everything in a yacht-racing week.
Art J. Wullschleger is one of the main-Stays of the Storm Trysail Club, the band of blue-water sailors from swank yacht clubs all up and down the East Coast who staged this salty premiere off the coast of Rhode Island in hopes of making it another event comparable to England's Royal Cowes Week. "Watching a sailboat race," admitted Art, "is the most boring thing in the world. You're either in the race or forget it. Nobody really watches except maybe to glance out and say, 'Oh, look at the pretty boats.' " When Mr. Wullschleger uttered these blasphemies, he and Vincent Monte-Sano were standing by the small white shack that served as office for the race week at Pier 76, Champlin's Yacht Station. Below them, in the Great Salt Pond's New Harbor, where most of the competitors and spectator fleet were moored, drying spinnakers—big nylon triangles in rainbows of red and white, blue and white, green and yellow, black, yellow and red—made a fantastic icing on the cake of an estimated $7 million worth of sailing yachts.
"Larchmont Race Week may get more boats, but many of them are Blue Jays and things like that. This is really a first, a whole new thought in yachting," said Monte-Sano. "And some of our best boats aren't even here because they're on their way to Cowes."
All day as boats labored into port via feeder races from Rye, Newport and Padanaram, the skycocks stayed open and more than an inch of rain fell. A party given by Rhode Island's Governor and Mrs. Chafee was crammed with people in foul-weather gear as colorful as the spinnakers. A few hardy souls squooshed around in the mud barefooted. Water in the sockets knocked out the lights early on, but everybody was cheerful even though the New Harbor foghorn had been sounding monotonously for 36 continuous hours.
When the setting sun spread a red glow at 8:30, word went around that tomorrow would be a good deal better, and people became even more cheerful as they slopped up the hill to try the island's seven restaurants and/or nine assorted hotel dining rooms. (The committee had thoughtfully noted in its program bulletin which spots serve liquor.)
Block Island is an anachronism, a bit of old New England that has changed very little since the early part of this century. Discovered in 1614 by Dutchman Adriaen Block, it has had its share of Indians (the Manisses) and of hardy Massachusetts Bay Colony and Providence settlers whose descendants are still there. It supports a clutch of Victorian white-elephant hotels that flourished in the heyday of neighboring Newport when people brought their horses, carriages and steamer trunks over for "the season." The island has always had a certain air of "apartness" that exaggerates its physical distance from the mainland. In the War of 1812 the islanders even managed to stay neutral. During prohibition it was headquarters for fishermen who put in loaded with what one observer terms "three swordfish and 23 cases of whiskey." Its fine tuna fishing, unusual freshwater ponds, pebbled beaches, steep clay cliffs and isolated "moors" of bayberry, honeysuckle, wild roses and wild sweet peas separated by stone fences have made it an attraction for knowing insiders who want to get away from it all in a really rustic place and for elderly females who must remember it from their youth. These ladies in their print dresses and Bermuda shorts over spindly legs that end in Red Cross walkers are a hallmark of the island, which has never really recovered its big tourist business since the devastating isolation of World War II. But the Storm Trysail crowd discovered long ago that the island was a natural for "putting in" purposes, though most of them had never been ashore for much more than a token step along the dock to pick up ice or get rid of garbage.
The 500 native Block Islanders reacted with split opinions to the influx of 1,500 yachtsmen, their retinues and their observers.
"Some of these islanders are funny," said Storm Trysail's entertainment chairman, Joe Wise. "People come to their docks and say, 'Can we tie up here?' And they'll say 'I don't know!' But with most of the others it's a different story."
One enthusiastic islander was the Red Bird Liquor Store's Brainard Day, who said his sales were up half again over normal. "My business is 100%," he said. Trends? "Well, I notice these people drink the better brands of whiskey."