An Englishman of the old, sporting kind, he had the look of lion hide stretched over oaken barrel staves. When he came into Bermuda last week after a crossing from Newport on wrathful seas and in winds that snapped the masts and tore the sails of other boats, he was an object of admiration and curiosity. "Mr. Amey," yelled one man from dock-side as the Englishman's sloop, called Noryema, was made secure, "we'd like to congratulate you on what looks like your victory in the Bermuda race."
"Well, thank you very much. Thank you very much, indeed," said the Englishman softly. "But, you see, I'm afraid I am not Mr. Amey. I'm Ted Hicks."
Thus did the mid-Atlantic island begin to puzzle out the mysteries of the 1972 running of the world's foremost ocean race, one in which a record entry of 178 yachts learned again how majestic the North Atlantic can be and how vulnerable are the boats that risk its furies.
Teddy Hicks, a small, sunburned man with eyes begging for sleep, turned out to be chief assistant to the British industrialist Ron Amey, whose group of some 50 companies deals in sand, gravel and dredging. Noryema is Amey's boat and the apple of his eye. He had intended to sail her himself, but an urgent business deal took him back to England just before the race was to start, on June 16. So it was that Hicks was skipper when Noryema, a Class C boat, became the first English winner in the 66-year history of the biennial rush to the Onion Patch. Amey had outfitted Noryema, a 48-footer designed by Sparkman & Stephens of New York and built in Finland, with tender, spendthrift care. And then he had gone home to make more money to buy more boats to win more races—and had missed out on the one he wanted most of all.
Amey blew a thriller. When the fleet departed Newport, sails were already taut with a 20-mph breeze. That was on a Friday afternoon. Out in the ocean the wind freshened, and by Monday evening the leaders were listening to the screech of 50-mph gusts through the rigging and contemplating the beauty and terror of 10-foot seas.
It is 635 miles from Newport to Bermuda as the 707 flies. That direct route, in seaman's parlance the rhumb line, is rarely taken by a racing sailor. He knows that the Gulf Stream, eddying generally north at variable speeds, will carry him astray, so he sets a course based on wind forecasts, experience, intuition and prayer.
For many in this year's fleet such reckoning became secondary to survival. The smaller boats were spitting about the Atlantic like drops of ice water in sizzling fat. Nor were the big boats much better off. The wind blew the masts out of Bermudian Sir Bayard Dill's Duchess of Devonshire, and all the world's computers could not THINK Vincent Learson, president of IBM, through the storm. He had won the race in 1966 with Thunderbird, but his new boat Nepenthe was dismasted in 1970, and now he saw her dismasted again. Skylark, out of Oxford, Md., lost her stick. Crusade, the gold-plater owned by Britain's Sir Max Aitken, suffered mast damage. The spanking new La Forza del Destino, winner of the Block Island race, lost her steering and began the tricky business of edging toward Bermuda from 15 miles out by means of sail and motor. The U.S. Naval Academy enjoyed no victory at sea. Its 73-foot ketch Jubilee III rippled her aluminum hull like a washboard by coding down too hard on a log—or a whale—and its big sloop Rage snapped her headstay.
Sorcery radioed for an ambulance to stand by to treat an injured crewman. And even with her race over and shore but a moment away the 73-foot ketch Blackfin was in jeopardy. Her engine refused to start and only a dead-accurate heave of a towline to a rescue tug kept her off the beach.
It was a beach that one of the swiftest yachts in the world found desperately elusive. Windward Passage blew out two sails just moseying up to the starting line, but led the whole fleet until reaching a point a mere 35 miles from the finish line. Unfortunately, her normal working sails had by then surrendered to the gale, and the wind was still roaring. For the first time in her three-year life she ran up a storm trysail, and as her principal competitors sped past she just stood there pounding a hole in the ocean.
Even as the wind howled and spars splintered, Race Committeeman Syd Rogers spoke of the event's intrinsic challenge. "Everyone talks about the Fastnet, and of course it is a great race," he said. "But what most people forget is that in the Fastnet you are never more than 75 miles from land, whereas in this one you cannot usually call on anyone's help because you are hundreds of miles offshore and you had jolly well better know what you are doing. When you go, you go, and no turning back, and no turning in. You take what you get."