At Gulfport, the night before the race, I found exactly what I expected to find. A rousing party had spawned over the docks and moved inland as far as the Broadwater Beach Marina. It was gusting strong when I joined it. I wandered around, boozing and eating shrimp and listening to what an idiot I was for embarking on such a jaunt. Did I know what I was getting into? Did I have my pills? Seasick pills, dysentery pills. "Let me see your smallpox vaccination." And what about foul-weather gear? "You know it can get mean as hell out there."
After a while it occurred to me that one of the functions of a yacht club must be to hate yachts, for in the course of that long evening I didn't hear one word about the pleasures of sailing, only about the horrors. This may have been because there didn't seem to be many sailors around, at least not of the kind that race sailboats.
Where were the racing sailors? "There's one," somebody said, "and—oh look!—there's another." Two sailors for 14 boats! That hardly seemed an adequate number. Where were the others? "Resting," I was told, "as you should be."
Next morning, bright and bouncy in new green yachting shoes, I reported aboard the Nimbus, a 48-foot cutter owned and skippered by David B. Hatcher, then of Houston.
Several hours later, when the Nimbus crossed the starting line under full sail, I made another vivid observation: "10:50 a.m., May 28, 1966," to which later in the day I added, "These people mean business. They really intend to win this thing! Surprise No. 3."
I wrote no more, for by that time my hands were too sore for lengthy comment. It had been a difficult eight hours, and in the course of them I had picked up an assortment of nicks, welts and blisters, "love bites," as they were called by other members of the crew, most of whom, having raced aboard the Nimbus before, had formed with her a highly personal relationship.
A racing yacht is a profound complication of ropes, sails, personalities and moods, and a stranger to these is hopelessly lost at first. He wanders about in a maze, trying to attach the right term to the right object, the right name to the right person. In time, however, the darkness lifts and there is a welcome shock of recognition when a sheet becomes distinguishable from a halyard and individual members of the crew, until then names only, acquire identities.
In time, I began to learn that the skipper's two sons, Dave Jr. and Bob, were the Lord Jims of the Nimbus. For them sailing was not a mystery but a challenge. They threw themselves headlong into each new problem, depending upon their youth and enthusiasm to overwhelm it. When a snare developed in one of the halyards, it was Dave Jr. who rode a bosun's chair 70 feet into the air on a pitching mast and spent a reckless half hour tarzaning about the spreaders.
Our best helmsman was Swede Lauritsen, who combined knowhow with strength. His cool proficiency at the helm carried a landlubber such as myself through many troubled moments. A former football player at the University of Michigan, he shook off squalls as though they were tacklers.
Chuck Billing, a Houston insurance man, spoke often of the science and esthetics of sailing. It was he who told me—surprise!—that a boat is pulled more often than it is pushed by the wind.' Chuck admired the beauty of a sail properly set and "glued to the wind," and wanted me to appreciate what a refined and delicate piece of machinery I was privileged to be riding.