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Steering the ship of state
Hugh McIlvanney
August 23, 1971
British Prime Minister Edward Heath was off sailing, leading his country to world yachting glory. But who was minding the country?
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August 23, 1971

Steering The Ship Of State

British Prime Minister Edward Heath was off sailing, leading his country to world yachting glory. But who was minding the country?

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As the British yacht Morning Cloud, running raggedly under broken gear and before a Force six wind, came home to Plymouth in the final race of the Admiral's Cup last week, there was much more than the hazards of this particularly exhausting voyage to depress her skipper. All the way out from Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, to the forlorn pile of the Fastnet Rock, off the southwestern extremity of Ireland, the highly sophisticated radio equipment aboard Morning Cloud had fed into her austere cabin a kind of information no racing yacht before her had ever received. On the return to Plymouth, the messages coming through from London were more frequent, their substance more momentously gloomy. Time and again, Mr. Edward Heath was obliged to detach himself from the problems besetting his 30-foot sloop and forget that he was captain of the British team that was on its way to defeating Australia and the U.S. in the Admiral's Cup. He was forced to assume his working identity as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and, as he absorbed more and more detail of the murderous violence in Ulster, to admit that the very title of that kingdom had yet again emerged as one of the sadder jokes of the 20th century.

Even before the series of four races for the cup had begun, Heath was heavily criticized for adopting his sporting persona at a time when political demands on his energies remained undiminished by the imminence of Parliament's summer recess. Inexorably, the Admiral's Cup, the greatest international team event in the yachting calendar, was dragged from the sports columns onto the front pages. The more venerable yachting correspondents summoned all of their considerable insularity and went on mumbling doggedly about luffing and tacking and booms and headsails. But their resistance was hopeless. The big, wild world outside had infiltrated theirs, as it was always likely to do from the moment Ted Heath had gone to Sparkman & Stephens, Inc., on Madison Avenue, to seek a design to replace the first Morning Cloud, the ocean racer he had bought "off the shelf" after only three years of dinghy sailing.

He had been a purely honorary member of his sailing club in Broadstairs, Kent—where his father is retired after working his way up from carpenter to owner of a building business—until he met Gordon Knight on the jetty one day in the spring of 1966. "It's about time you did some sailing," said Knight, a Broadstairs schoolmaster. "I'll take you up on that," Heath answered breezily. And he did, with the eye for detail of a man who has had to make sense of memos all his adult life. "He doesn't sail by instinct," Knight says now. "It's something he had to learn. But he is constantly asking questions, he never forgets something he's told, and he doesn't mind being corrected. I've often seen him with a group at the club bar, moving ashtrays around to represent boats, working out where he went wrong." Within nine months of making his maiden outing on the first Morning Cloud, Heath was going wrong rarely enough to surge away with the 630-mile Sydney-Hobart race, one of the classics of ocean sailing.

If Sparkman & Stephens (Heath's firm choice despite a great deal of buy-British heckling) suspected they would not have a free hand in drawing up the lines of Morning Cloud II, they were absolutely right. Heath quickly gathered round him a crew of highly qualified specialists, and when it came to the design of Morning Cloud II, which was to be aimed specifically at the Admiral's Cup, they proved to be a vigorously outspoken committee. There were spirited discussions at Chequers, the official country home of Prime Ministers, and at his London flat. "We're a strong crew," says Anthony Churchill, a financial journalist turned publisher, who is the yacht's navigator. "There's only one skipper in ocean racing who could keep us all together."

Even at the drawing-board stage their independence was raucous. But it was informed. George Stead, recruited as a helmsman this year, is a yacht builder. Peter Dove, a foredeck hand, is a sail-maker. Owen Parker, a tough, broad-chested man with a drawling Hampshire accent, is a ship's chandler in Southampton when he is not acting as sailing master for his Prime Minister. The others earn their living well away from water, but they had clear, convincing ideas about the yacht they wanted to sail.

Heath insists that he has never found it embarrassing to be surrounded by so much expert opinion. "Our crew is a carefully selected group of specialists," he says, "but the others will tell you that I am a specialist at examining data, sorting out priorities and making decisions. That's my function now, just as it was when we were deciding exactly what kind of boat we needed. We were after a racing machine, and that is what she is. Naturally, she was expensive. I'm not a very rich man and she stretched me financially." He hesitated for a moment, and the full, deeply tanned face under the silver hair offered a smile that stopped a long way short of the toothy chortle that has kept so many cartoonists in work. "Not quite to my limit, but enough."

He is a 55-year-old bachelor whose single-minded pursuit of a political career was relieved only by his love of music until that chance meeting on the Broadstairs jetty. His new interest is definitely helping to keep him youthful, and also, while he has been accused of being a remote, socially insensitive man, around boats and yachtsmen he is both animated and gregarious. "In any case," he says, "suggestions that Morning Cloud cost 40,000 pounds are well out. We were purely and simply interested in racing, so we didn't ask for luxuries. We have no deepfreeze, no stereo. We think about only one thing on board. Above and below deck, our boat is a workshop where we work at winning races. We certainly never discuss politics. I couldn't tell you what the others' politics are."

Morning Cloud's performance in the British trials had encouraged the selectors to go for relatively smaller boats. Prospect of Whitby, the largest of the three British choices, had a 33.2 rating (Morning Cloud was 30.7), while the principal challengers among the 15 competing nations—the U.S. and Australia—ventured out with much larger craft.

The home team showed its mood and its flair by flaunting some aggressive little badges, TED'S AHEAD was the slogan of Heath's crew. The crew of Prospect of Whitby, which is owned and skippered by the bearded, one-legged Arthur Slater, followed up with SLATER IS GREATER. But Bob Watson, in the third British boat, Cervantes IV, had the jauntiest line. Watson had his 23-year-old daughter Elizabeth in his crew. Their badge said: CERVANTES HAS PANTIES.

As soon as the first of the cup races was under way—amid a bedlam of helicopter rotors, the churning of press launches and the alarming attentions of a vast spectator fleet—British spirits rose still higher. This was a 225-mile slog from Southsea on the Hampshire mainland, across the Channel to Le Havre and back to Cowes, and it carried double points compared with the two much shorter inshore races to follow. The final 605-mile marathon around Fastnet would bring three times as many points as each of the Cowes Channel sprints.

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