What he eventually ordered was a 19-foot Cockleshell type of boat, which he named the Sopranino, after the smallest wind instrument in music. "I wanted a boat that would be inexpensive to build," Ellam says, "and one that you could race like an open dinghy, yet also cruise and race in relative comfort anywhere you pleased. Furthermore, because she was so small, you could keep her in your backyard on a trailer." Sopranino looked like a miniature submarine and was so small that Ellam could practically wear her like a pair of pants. Having donned his boat, he could stand on her keel with her deck at waistline level and practically touch the water to port and starboard. Yet down below she was a veritable space capsule, with a pair of bunks, chart table, lockers and even a two-burner stove.
For a while Ellam was content to play with Sopranino, racing her to various Channel ports, and then across the wild Bay of Biscay to Spain. He also formed a club, called the Junior Offshore Group, for like-thinking wildmen, but he came to realize that the best way to advance Sopranino's qualities was with a spectacular feat. So he signed on a fellow named Colin Mudie, who specialized in long-distance endeavors, and they took off from England for Barbados, 3,500 miles away.
Mudie was later to fail in an attempt to cross the Atlantic by balloon, but this time he and Ellam made it in the Sopranino. It was the smallest racing-cruising sailboat ever to complete such a voyage. Wrote Ellam of the accomplishment: "We had opened up the possibility, for thousands of young people who cannot afford to buy or run large seagoing boats, of owning their own little boats in which they can go out onto the wide seas away from the artificial surroundings of modern life and learn the many things that such an experience has to teach."
Today manufacturers are turning out small descendants of Sopranino like cookies, and the number of those interested in the sort of pursuits Ellam espoused seems to be doubling every year. Appropriately, Ellam was on hand himself in Milwaukee for the first truly national half-and quarter-ton championships, and the half-ton division award that Raider won was named the Sopranino Trophy.
The nonstop schedule called for five races in each division. The competition was fierce, for the regatta's big-bore caliber promised sail and boat sales for the winners. As a result, there were almost as many pro sailors in Milwaukee as there are breweries. The professionals earned their keep, for the Midwest was freezing beneath the coldest summer spell in years, and particularly at night the cold bit hard on the men in the little boats. "I kept doing this," said Tiger Moth's Fred Bremen, piling one hand on top of the other and pressing down on his knee, "but nothing I could do would make my damn leg stop shaking."
"Well, if we are indeed pros," said Designer Bob Finch, "then there isn't enough money in the world to pay us fairly for what we endured out there last night."
But if the crewmen worked like professionals, they lived like gypsies. Twenty-eight-year-old Lee Creekmore, with a Ben Turpin mustache and gold-rimmed granny glasses, rode up from Miami to Wisconsin in a rental truck, with the boat he designed, Tiger Moth, astern on a trailer. He and his crew rigged up a pair of huge pipes to siphon air into the back of the truck to cool sleepers cocooned in hammocks. When they reached Milwaukee two crewmen moved aboard the Moth and two stayed in the truck, but Bremen chickened out to take accommodations in a nearby hotel.
Other crews lived in everything from a Volkswagen bus to borrowed rooms to the cramped cabins of their tiny boats. It was a far cry from the luxury dished out to the crews, pro or amateur, by the owners of big gold-platers. But then, so much of it was a new experience, with boats that seemed no more alike than sharks and porpoises battling each other, only lengths apart, all the way to the finish line. It all pleased Ellam. It showed that although boats and gear may change, the old Sopranino spirit remains intact in the people who sail midget boats on the mighty lakes and oceans.