SI Vault
Hugh D. Whall
March 16, 1970
Across wind-raked Southern waters 'American Eagle' scored a startling victory over the lordly 'Windward Passage' and a bristling armada, bringing glory to her fiery skipper and some painful joys to the author
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 16, 1970

Eagle On A Wild, Wet Flight

Across wind-raked Southern waters 'American Eagle' scored a startling victory over the lordly 'Windward Passage' and a bristling armada, bringing glory to her fiery skipper and some painful joys to the author

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Now that my arms have stopped trembling from the agony of cranking Ted Turner's accursed winches, I can begin to appreciate what he accomplished. With a hand-me-down 12-meter sloop designed for the yachty America's Cup waters off Newport, this profane and passionate Georgian took on the queen of deep-sea racers, surely the fastest boat of her size the world has known, and beat her for the championship of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. It was Turner, millionaire Atlantan, age 31, sailing American Eagle against Mark Johnson, millionaire vagabond, age 31, sailing Windward Passage, and I will not soon forget the spectacle of Turner capering at Nassau last week after the victory was won. "We decimated 'em," he crowed. "We're just a bunch of Southern boys and we decimated 'em."

Of her six SORC races, the one most critical to Eagle, and the one in which I was a member of Turner's crew, was a 184-mile overnighter from Miami across the Gulf Stream to Nassau. The graceful 67-foot sloop had won two previous races on corrected time but still trailed Passage in the overall standings. Eagle had to catch up now. To do so she needed wind from a favorable direction; from dead ahead, to be exact. Passage is all but unbeatable off the wind, Eagle a very swift bird chewing into it.

Off Miami's Government Cut was the most powerful ocean-racing fleet ever brought together in modern times—106 boats ranging in size from 30 feet to the 73 feet of Passage and Huey Long's pocket battleship, Ondine. An easterly breeze of better than 20 knots put white in Turner's smile; a long, profitable beat to Nassau was in prospect. Many boats already had reefs tucked in their mainsails. We followed suit.

Turner assembled his crew of 11 men and a girl (blonde Patsy Kenedy of Nassau, who can handle a boat more nimbly than most men and can cook, too) and put on his Mr. Hyde face. At sea Turner saves his kindly Dr. Jekyll moods for those rare occasions when no fault can be found anywhere. If Eagle should lose to Passage, said Turner, approximately, the sky would surely fall on every maladroit malingerer among us.

The smaller boats started first, the big ones last. We in the big boats must have been a gorgeous sight as we marched up to the line. "At no time," said a Passage crewman afterward, "has anyone ever seen a big-boat class like this." Acres of sail crackled as the fleet eased or trimmed sheets to avoid being early or late across.

Turner got Eagle going with surgical precision, as apparently Johnson did also with Passage. Turner, a man who has sailed in more races in more countries than most skippers twice his age and had just returned from placing second in the 5.5-meter world championship in Australia, was in good voice, which is to say he was using language rated X for adult audiences only.

Aboard Eagle the mast jumped in its step as the reefed mainsail strained, and the first trickle of water sneaked through foul-weather gear to trace an icy course down one's back. Boots filled with water. A crust of salt began to form crescents around the eyes, which were reddening, and everybody's hair became saltily sticky.

Late afternoon brought a squall. Turner would have preferred to skirt around it, but as Eagle tacked the squall struck. Instantly the wind died way down. We were slatting about helplessly, as was the nearby Passage. When the wind breezed up again Turner shouted, "Take up half an inch on the jib halyard!"

Night fell, and we pounded into darkened seas with the sails trimmed home and full of a high, hard wind. The lee rail was awash; now and then a crewman was swept dangerously off his feet. Wire sheets strained in tight leash as hundreds of square feet of flakproof Dacron sail thrummed overhead. A broken sheet whipping across the deck was a murderous possibility. On Eagle we were to have four such accidents, but thankfully no beheadings, before the race was done.

Below decks conditions were not particularly comfortable. Although Eagle's hull was secure, she was taking water from the deck where the mast passes through it. There was very little ventilation. In the stuffy, murky half-light, with the smell of bilge water everywhere, it did not take long for a ravenous hand, soaked to the bone and standing amid a heap of discarded slickers, to lose his appetite and reluctantly put Patsy Kenedy's sandwiches to one side.

Continue Story
1 2 3