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Until very recently, distance racing in sailboats was governed—to everyone's everlasting boredom—by a handicap system. After measuring various parts of the boat's anatomy, including hulls, sails and shoe sizes of the crew, ratings were computed. These ratings were then applied as handicaps, which usually led to the paradox of winning boats with large handicaps crossing the finish line long after losing boats. It was a strange way to run a race.
But last week, off Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, a revolutionary kind of sailboat racing had its coming-out party. It is called "ton" racing, and, curiously, it works this way: the fastest boat is the winner. "When you finish first you know who won," said Sailmaker Fred Bremen, co-skipper of Tiger Moth, the quarter-ton winner. What will they think of next?
The call for a real race, sponsored by the Milwaukee Yacht Club, One-Design Offshore Yachtsman magazine and the Midget Ocean Racing Club, brought entries from all over the country to compete in the quarter-ton and half-ton divisions. Quarter ton? Half ton? Most of the people hanging around the yacht club dock had not the slightest idea what the figures meant. The racing boats, which were being slaved over by crews armed with drills, hacksaws and knives, obviously weighed far more than 500 or 1,000 pounds. So what did it all mean? "Ah, forget it," an official advised. "Quarter ton and half ton doesn't mean a thing. Just remember that half-tonners may not rate more than 21.7 feet and quarter-tonners more than 18 feet even." Essentially, sailboat racing has always been a handicap event; now the event is level, but the name becomes the handicap.
At Milwaukee the race was the show, and a thrilling one right from the starts, which sometimes resembled the old mad opening dash at Le Mans more than any traditional sail-away. For the first half-ton distance event, an overnight race to Waukegan, 50 miles down lake and back, the fleet took off with the starting horn more like a bunch of 2-year-old maiden fillies going 3� furlongs at Hialeah. The boats crashed the starting line in such a crush that one of them—aptly named Impulse—sent race committee members scurrying for safety as she rammed their anchored boat. Shortly afterward, during a quarter-ton start, the officials had to reach for their preservers again as Prim Vent slid right into the committee boat's side. "It was like a war out there," one official back from the front shuddered later.
The finishes were just as good. It took a sail-off between Tiger Moth and Foxy Lady to determine the quarter-ton champion, and the margin there—a minute and four seconds after 15 miles, a matter of about four boat lengths in the calm waters—was the closest anybody could recall in an event of national importance. "It was nerve-racking," said Tiger Moth crewman Pedro Morillas. "My heart was beating just like I'd been in an airplane crash."
The whole matter was decided when Skip Boston, sailing Foxy Lady, decided to get a spinnaker only yards from the finish line. In the dark, spectators could see the sail fill with wind and moonbeams, for a second. Then a foul puff strode across the lake and cruelly blew back into the crew's faces. Tiger Moth, remaining safe and snug under her biggest jib, took the same puff to pull over the line the winner.
The half-ton result was not quite as dramatic, but the dark-horse winner, Raider—a boat that was supposed to be a contender only in heavy weather—had to overtake three boats on a dying breeze down the stretch to become the surprise victor. The Raider crew—co-captained by an unemployed airline pilot named John Hokanson—also included a farmer, a law student and a pair of hands from Palmer Johnson, the boat's builders. They yipped and roared as soon as they crossed the line, for there was no need for slide rules and adjustment tables to figure out a winner.
"This even racing is the only way to go," Foxy Lady's Skip Boston said later. "Five years from now everyone is going to wonder why in hell we didn't do this sort of thing before."
The father of all this—the sport of bumping about in small cruising boats on big oceans and lakes—is Patrick Ellam, one of those fabled Englishmen who does not know when to come in out of the sun. Ellam is a veteran of the Dunkirk evacuation whose insatiable curiosity once led him to answer an advertisement for army officers who spoke French fluently. When he woke up, as he describes it, he found himself dangling from a parachute over enemy lines. Ellam will give you an Alec Guinness stare with two blue eyes, only one of which is good, and tell you blandly how his professor in safe-blowing, who had graduated from a British prison, used to insist, "Not too much or it'll blow the box to smithereens, not too little or the bang will bring the peelers and won't open the door."
Having survived several jumps and lots of jolly close calls, Ellam finally wound down his war and got back to sailing. At that time he owned, and still owns, a tiny, cabinless, souped-up sailing canoe with which he used regularly to crisscross the English Channel in weather that astonished even stiff-lipped British tars. It was this little boat, named Theta that gave Ellam the idea for a kind of boat, a different boat, that would foster a new breed of sailor and a new brand of sailing.