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One way of looking at the Southern Ocean Racing Conference is this: a tropical excuse for multimillionaires to display their queenly new boats every winter while the rest of us are bailing out our post-Christmas bank accounts and wondering when the snow will melt. But that is a shortsighted view. There are those who sail the SORC not for pomp, but just for fun. Take the owner of an aged yawl who, despite warnings he would never win a prize, one year insisted on paying the entry fee for every race. In the first event, the Venice race, he was sunburned so badly he was put to bed. In the 375-mile St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale race he made a landfall on a Cuban beach. The short Lipton Cup race off Miami saw him knocked cold by a spinning winch handle, but he recovered his senses in time to start the 176-mile dogleg from Miami to Nassau—the contest, he had heard, that typified the SORC. Unfortunately, he caved in two ribs when his boat crashed into a big Gulf Stream sea. The final event, sailed from Nassau to a geographical speck called Booby Rocks and back, went pretty well, but after celebrating his good fortune our captain totaled a motor scooter in Nassau—and almost totaled himself.
Like battalions of anonymous skippers whose boats fall far short of being true thoroughbreds, rivals for a Running Tide, Yankee Girl, American Eagle, Ondine, Windward Passage or even some smaller fry, our duffer got no newspaper attention. He had gone south for the fun of it, and in spite of his wounds and racing gaffes he had enjoyed himself as only a sailor can.
Now the fun has begun again—those same six races spread over a month of wind and wave—in the only ocean racing series where sooner or later every type of boat will meet a condition particularly suited to its shape or rig, and particularly unsuited, too. Unless something extraordinary happens, boats that sail best against the wind will get windward work. Those that favor downwind courses will find their share of downwind legs, and so forth. Also, if it fails to blow in one race, just wait, for it will certainly blow in the next. Thus designers, owners and sailmakers are denied the tired excuse, "the weather, you know. We were robbed."
Because of its variety, the SORC has become the test tube and trend-setter of American ocean racing. First models of production boats and new custom craft are built to meet the circuit's deadline, which falls in late January. They travel from the West Coast by trailer, down the Intracoastal Waterway under their own steam and—like Skip Ryder's brand new Phantom, designed by Canada's Cuthbertson and Cassian—on the warm patriotic winds of a foreign designer or two.
They come in all shapes, sizes and pedigrees, but none more glittering than Running Tide, Jakob Isbrandtsen's defending champion. Running Tide has a new man at the wheel this year. Not satisfied merely to race his own 68-foot American Eagle in Australia's year-end series, that transoceanic commuter, Ted Turner, has chartered Tide in partnership with Texas oilman Perry Bass. Warrior, designed by Britton Chance; Yankee Girl by Olin Stephens; Crusade, designed by Alan Gurney and owned by Britain's Sir Max Aitken: these, too, are boats to engage the connoisseur's eye.
Ryder's blood-red Phantom must also be listed high on any SORC dopesheet, for Ryder is a veteran's veteran on the circuit and Phantom is 50 feet of fiberglass rocket, with a sloop rig so tall and narrow it looks as if it could lift her into space. In addition, everything is so nice and neat—and plentiful—aboard Phantom that she is dazzling to behold. The deck boasts approximately a winch per inch, and there are a dozen or more beautifully cut Hood and Hard sails in a specially designed forward sail room. Aft is a nifty owner's stateroom, separated by a midships cockpit from a seven-berth crew dormitory of unusual comfort. Following her introduction to ocean racing society this month, Phantom is slated for the Bermuda race and the thrash from Bermuda to Spain—events that will make her amenities seem as valuable as her life rafts.
Another craft to catch one's fancy in the big-boat league is Equation, owned by Jack Potter of Locust Valley, N.Y. Built to exploit whatever seams there might be in the handicap rule, Equation was given a ketch rig by Designer Britton Chance. In an era of singlestickers, with two-masted vessels about as common as side-wheelers, Equation's spars have set waterfront handicappers buzzing.
Yearly the list of the custom boats grows longer, overshadowing the shoals of small yet peppery vessels that make up the fleet's bulk. But many of these more mundane competitors are worth a closer look. On the 1971 circuit, for example, there was a boat from Sweden named Smuggler. She was so small her owner, Bengt Jornstedt, had to add five inches to her nose to meet the SORC minimum of 30 feet. Jornstedt, a student, and his crew of college kids camped aboard the tiny sloop to save kroner. Through superb sailing the economy-sized Smuggler won Class E by a big margin, finishing 15th overall in a series dominated by big A Division boats.
Hundreds of crewmen show up on both coasts of Florida and then in the Bahamas during the circuit. A few sail for "tickets," i.e., for skippers who are willing to pay the air fares of premium amateur winch-pumpers and foredeck men. But most pay their own expenses and are happy to do so, and often they make equally talented crews. Small boats may have as few as four men, while big ones carry five times as many. Chip Cleary, the silver-haired majordomo for Owner Mark Johnson aboard the 73-foot Windward Passage, keeps a roster of more than 60 names. "We know all these men," says Cleary, "and they all know the boat."
Alongside the superboats in SORC ports will be clunkers with last year's sails and winches from the year before, manned by landlubbers dressed in unfashionably new Top-Siders and Breton-red pants as yet unfaded. But old seaboot or shiny Top-Sider, veteran and greenhorn alike will share seasickness or fright in a violent Gulf Stream. And both will experience the joy of snoring through the Northwest Providence Channel on a warm, bright morning with the Berry Islands to leeward and a bosomy spinnaker happily rippling overhead.