Few yachtsmen can resist the lure of the South China Sea. Capricious as the typhoons that roil its surface, somnolent as an equatorial sun, sultry as a monsoon, it captures a seafarer's imagination in its ageless tides. The soldiers of Kublai Khan sailed the South China Sea to Java. Magellan sailed across it to claim the Philippines for Spain. MacArthur fled from the advancing armies of Japan on the same waters that supported the war canoes of Mindanao Moros, the golden barges of the kings of Thailand, Chinese junks and Spanish galleons, Yankee clippers, salt-caked British freighters and gray-clad warships from the U.S. carrying home the dead from Bataan, Corregidor and—now—Vietnam.
For me, a reporter who has spent the past 12 months covering that tragic war in Vietnam, the invitation to join the crew of the Columbine on the third biennial yacht race across the China Sea from Hong Kong to Manila was as welcome as a breath of fresh air to a man in a bomb cellar.
Columbine, a 41-foot Sparkman & Stephens sloop, was designed and built at a cost of some $40,000 for a bookish expatriate American named Harry Colfer, a doctor who had never raced anything in his life before, much less an oceangoing yacht. A fussbudgety sort of man who spent seven years practicing medicine in London and another seven in Hong Kong, Dr. Colfer took many hours off during the last two years to supervise every detail of the building and fitting out of his new boat.
Understandably, since it was mustered in Hong Kong, the crew that Colfer assembled for the run to Manila was a motley of national origins. The skipper, Owner Colfer himself, was a product of Wisconsin and Montana. The No. 2 man on board, our navigator and sailing master, was a big, husky Dutchman named Constant van Kretschmar. A splendid, stern-voiced sailor, he was born in Surabaya when the Dutch ruled the East Indies and spent a decade in Hong Kong trying to lose the accent he had picked up in American-run schools. First Mate Frank Rothwell's ancestors learned the sailing business a century ago en route from New Bedford, Mass. to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Ship's Cook Jack Young looked like a leathery Paladin and hailed from Los Angeles. Mike Lovatt was a China-born Irishman whose good looks were sufficient to get him an occasional job posing for handsome advertisements. Harry Colfer Jr., the owner's 16-year-old son, was born in the States and educated in England, while Nigel Kay was, by his own admission, "a true Englishman, if you don't mind."
The plan at the start—there is always a plan at the start of an ocean race, and it always proves futile—was to sail a course about 2� below the rhumb line in the hope that a northerly set combined with brisk beam winds would carry Columbine straight to Manila with no further ado. It was rainy and overcast as the fleet got under way, but the wind held beautifully all through the first day. The big South African ketch Stormvogel, West Wind II and Columbine were the first off, and the plan seemed to be working fine. Then young Colfer, who had flown out from London only the day before, got seasick, a development that soon seemed to infect the entire surroundings. The wind died, the sea flattened, the refrigerator stopped, the engine for recharging the batteries wouldn't start and the door to the head got locked tight with the removable handle nowhere to be found.
At long last Frank Rothwell reenergized the battery engine by banging it with a hammer, the refrigerator started whirring again and the handle to the head was found in a sailbag. But the wind, which had freshened slightly, moved lazily around to our port beam and began to die again. We changed course and steered due east for the better part of the afternoon, until the sun dropped into the sea with an almost audible hiss. Young Colfer became ill again. The patent log hung limply astern. Cigarette smoke drifted straight up, and in the still air the flame of a match burned clear and bright without benefit of cupped hands. For most of the night Columbine barely maintained steerage way. Then about 5 a.m. the puffs began. By half past noon, the wind was up above 10 knots, and Columbine was footing at 5�.
"Let her go. Let her run. Give her her head," Van Kretschmar shouted. "We're just about on the line now. The main thing is to sail her to Manila." He thought a moment and went on. "I just hope the others decided as we did, that it was futile going any farther south. Because if they didn't they got this wind before we did."
A few hours later I wrote in my notebook: "So here we sit again." With an almost dead wheel in one hand and a glass of Holland gin held delicately in the other, Van Kretschmar mused as he looked at the still horizon, "The most beautiful night we've seen in years—a night to sit and contemplate your sins."
The ocean was black, dappled with lighted moon pools. Jack Young stuck his head up from the galley and gazed mournfully at Betelgeuse in the sky off to starboard. The boat was silent save for the muted flop of sails and the occasional wad of garbage Jack chucked up from below. "What constellation is that?" he asked. Van Kretschmar smiled. "That," he said, "is the belt of Orion, the hunter."
"O'Brien?" asked Jack. "That certainly is a hell of a queer name for a constellation."