All over the U.S. this summer a lot of former hackers may suddenly emerge as first-class racing sailors and a lot of good sailors may be better ones thanks to a new school that is just completing its first semester. The school is popularly known as Bahamas Race Week because its principal classroom is the waters off West End, Grand Bahama Island. Officially known as Sailing Symposiums, Inc., it was the invention of Steve Colgate, 32-year-old president of New York's Offshore Sailing School, and Knowles Pittman, editor of One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman, sailboat racing's best magazine. From October to April, these two reasoned, many a frustrated sailor is simply sitting, oiling his turnbuckles and waiting for the spring thaw. Why not give him a chance to combine a winter vacation with a chance to really learn the techniques of his favorite sport in a balmy climate with some of the best racing sailors around to serve as instructors?
"People can talk all they like about sailing for esthetic pleasure," says Chuck Ulmer, who makes sails in City Island when he is not winning races elsewhere, "but sooner or later most every sailor will want to take up racing." Ulmer was quick to accept an invitation to join the symposium as a guest instructor, as was another sailmaker, Owen Torrey, a bronze medalist in the 1948 Olympics.
Torrey and Ulmer were on duty in the school's late sessions three weeks ago, along with Don Loweree, one of the permanent instructors and a highly competent sailorman with a master's degree in, of all things, music. During earlier weeks the roster of instructors in the Bahamas had sparkled with the names of the great and near great: George O'Day, who more than anyone else may deserve the title Mr. Yacht Racing; Wally Ross, president of Hard Sails Inc.; Canadian Olympian Bruce Kirby; former World Star Class Champion Dick Stearns; Dr. Stuart Walker, who has done as much to encourage small-boat racing as any man in the nation; Harry Sindle, six times national champion in the Flying Dutchman class; 5-0-5 champ John Marshall; et al., et al. In pairs they had faced each new group of students as it arrived, about 25 sailors per session, lecturing them long and hard at the blackboards and giving them solid tactical training in the school's fleet of Norwegian-built Solings.
Now it was the turn of Ulmer and Torrey—Ulmer the pragmatist, Torrey the intellectual. "If it works, do it," says Chuck. "If it works, why does it work?" wonders Owen. "Most people lose races because they ignore the obvious," says Chuck. "If you have three alternatives," says Owen, "you ought to be able to determine scientifically which of the three is best."
The student sailors facing Professors Ulmer and Torrey ranged in age from the mid-20s to the mid-50s and in skill from hopeless to promising. The youngest, 28-year-old Bob Benkert, owns a man's apparel store in Birmingham, Mich.; the oldest, Dr. John Thomas, 57, practices pediatrics in Omaha. There were five doctors in all, including a pathologist and an orthopedic surgeon, a florist, four attorneys, a cookie manufacturer, a real-estate man, a printer, a paper manufacturer, a pile-driving contractor, a safety-equipment manufacturer, a painting contractor, a lieutenant colonel stationed with the U.S. Continental Army Command in Virginia, and Charles Owens, founder of the Owens Yacht Co. Most of the men had brought their wives along. Three of the wives, having crewed at home for their husbands, signed up for the course.
In assigning crews, bachelor Colgate promptly separated husbands and wives. "Women tend to defer too much to their husbands," he explained. "Or else some husbands are too concerned about what their wives are doing, which distracts them from what they're supposed to be doing. When men sail with their wives, they frequently get too bossy. In this symposium, everyone has to take his turn skippering and crewing. I remember one couple I separated and found, at the end of the week, that the woman had the best record, her husband had the worst."
The students were divided into two groups, A and B, depending on skill and experience, "If the air isn't too heavy," Colgate announced to B group, "we'll have a spinnaker drill." "Oh, Lord," moaned Harriet Golden, a housewife from New Rochelle, N.Y., "I can never get that damn spinnaker up." "Or down for that matter," muttered Harriet's husband.
Getting safely out of the harbor was B group's first challenge. A bootlegger's haven during Prohibition days, the harbor is narrow and sheltered by a line of cays that run roughly north and south. When a boat emerges into the sea, it must fight its way through a channel bucking a strong current. A tremendous turbulence may send three-to-five-foot waves across the bow before a boat breaks through into quiet water.
Loweree and Ulmer followed the Solings in a Boston Whaler. Colgate and Torrey manned the committee boat. Chuck Ulmer, who had been full of charm and humorous anecdote in the classroom, was all business once sailing instruction got under way, stern of demeanor and loud of voice.
"Where is the first mark?" shouted a crew member of No. 10.