SI Vault
Carleton Mitchell
March 11, 1974
In the blustery windup of the winter's biggest sailing series, the SORC, one boat went to the bottom and the ultimate winner, seemingly a cinch, had some bad moments
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 11, 1974

Robin Comes Bobbin' Along

In the blustery windup of the winter's biggest sailing series, the SORC, one boat went to the bottom and the ultimate winner, seemingly a cinch, had some bad moments

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Around the starting line of the Miami to Nassau race, the last distance event of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, the sea lay deceptively calm. True, a forecast given out at the captains' meeting promised a cold front on the way, which might mean fresh northerly winds and a bumpy passage, but the fleet took it to mean no more than a fast downhill slide to the land of goombay drums and planter's punches. Yet inshore, the Miami Beach skyline was beginning to be swallowed by a chill mist, and the circling yachts were soon to find that the edge of the Gulf Stream was not delineated by the usual fair-weather transition from the jade green of the shallows to the purple-blue of the ocean abyss, but by marching gray waves showing white teeth, and a sudden freshening of the wind. The line of demarcation was knife sharp.

A 2 o'clock gun sent Class A close-reaching toward the first turning mark, Great Isaac Light, at the northwestern corner of the Great Bahama Bank. For the fleet, it was the point of no return. Neither the contestants nor the chairman of the race committee, Charles S. Wilson, were aware that the weather pattern had radically changed. To the familiar meteorologist's warning accompanying even mild disturbances that "small craft should remain in protected waters" was now added a more specific and ominous prediction: winds of 35 knots during the night, with Gulf Stream seas in excess of 10 feet. Dr. Gilbert Clarke, local director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who had conducted the earlier weather briefing, had been frantically trying to reach Wilson to tell him that the first of two fronts of unusual intensity would arrive by 6 p.m., and to suggest that the start be called off. Failing, he notified the Coast Guard.

"Fortunately, I did not telephone my office before leaving on the committee boat," said Wilson afterward. "Otherwise I would have been on the spot. I could have thanked NOAA for the information and gone ahead, but it would have been hard to start against the wishes of the Coast Guard." The circular outlining conditions for the race does not provide for postponement or cancellation. As Bobby Symonette of the committee on the Nassau end points out, "We assume that any boat coming to the line is capable of going to sea, no matter what the weather."

So at 15-minute intervals the gun sounded and a fresh wave charged blithely forth, down to the lightest brigade, the Tonners of Class E. The pattern was the same, regardless of size. Most skippers were content to set reaching jibs, remaining under control at hull speed, but a few in each class tried for the extra fraction. Phantom, a new 66-foot C&C sloop near the top of Class A, was the first to get into trouble. Setting a huge star-cut spinnaker shortly after the start, she took off on a cresting sea upon crossing into the Stream and for long minutes plunged doggedly onward, surging wildly, main boom digging into the sea as she struggled to regain control. For their part, a pair of racing archrivals, the two Teds—Turner aboard Lightnin' and Hood on his latest One Tonner, Robin Too II—put on a mini match race. Both were carrying flankers—spinnakers cut flat and lacking the high round shoulders of the lighter-weather parachutes—when they neared the Stream neck and neck. As in the larger classes, both almost went into orbit after climbing the first graybeard, but Ted Turner managed to remain in control. Ted Hood could not prevent surges that caused his flanker to alternately break and fill in thunderous crashes. Sagging off to leeward, he was obviously losing ground to Lightnin', so he went to a reaching jib. Still dropping behind, he gamely tried going back to the flanker, again without success, and so the fleet disappeared under a darkening sky: Equation, Jack Potter's ketch-rigged Class A speedster, opening out ahead of the entire pack, Lightnin' and Robin Too II leading the class most likely to succeed if the wind stayed aft, but with two newcomers, America Jane II and Country Woman, in close pursuit.

The prediction of strong gusts and big seas, steepened and deepened by the flow of Gulf Stream current against the wind, came true, but reactions were blas�. Arthur Knapp, aboard Equation, spoke only of "going like hell" in winds that touched 40 knots over the deck, to round Great Isaac at 7:20. Bob Bavier, helmsman on Bob Derecktor's Salty Goose, opined that, because of lack of sail changes or variation in the direction of the breeze, it was "almost boring." But the fleet was not to escape unscathed. At 9:17 a red flare blossomed against the jet-black sky. Osprey, skippered by M. J. (Mike) Fisher of Muncie, Ind., turned on the radio and heard a Mayday from fellow Class C competitor Wimoweh, which reported, "We hit something very-hard and are going down." Wimoweh, winner of last summer's Biloxi to Cozumel race, was an Ericson 46 sailed by Temple Brown. She had slammed at flank speed into North East Rock, one of a string of low, unmarked islets rising abruptly from deep water east of Great Isaac Light. A sharp projection had ripped a gash in her hull, crew members had tried to stem the flood with blankets, but those monitoring the radio could hear the slosh of water on every transmission. Osprey immediately changed course to help, along with Merry Thought and Cavu, while Sonny stood by to act as radio relay between Osprey and the Coast Guard cutter Diligence. When Osprey approached Wimoweh, flashlights showed the sloop silhouetted against seas breaking on rocks two or three feet high. It was ticklish maneuvering to hold Osprey near until the 11-man crew could abandon ship, especially as it was impossible to be sure what lay hidden. Wimoweh had been carrying two inflatable life rafts, enough for all hands as required by the rules, but one failed to open, and the other could not be boarded until the canopy had been slit with a knife. By the time two raft trips had been completed, the stern light of Wimoweh was beginning to lift for the final plunge. "Just like the Titanic," someone said.

With 18 men aboard the 41-foot sloop instead of the starting crew of seven, Osprey went back on course. "Everybody kept their cool," Mike Fisher said. "Flames appeared under our cockpit about 20 minutes after the Wimoweh crew came aboard because someone had punched the bilge pump switch by mistake and the pump shorted out, but no one seemed upset. After getting squared away we went to nine-man watches to give breathing room below, with people sleeping all over the sole. For breakfast John Rumsey cooked lasagne pancakes and sausages. There were no big eaters at dinner so John added the leftover lasagne to the pancake batter. But the funny thing was when everyone appeared on deck at the change of watch—just like the act in the circus when all the clowns pour out of the little taxi. A guy almost fell overboard from a boat alongside trying to count."

There was a brief lull for the leaders at the second turning mark, Great Stirrup Cay. Then the weather gods fired the second barrel of the double front. Most skippers reported their strongest gusts during the final leg, when the wind was free enough to carry spinnakers. Equation "came screeching in," to quote Navigator Ed Cotter, frequently surfing for sustained bursts of 18 knots. She roared across the finish at 7:16 Tuesday morning, not breaking the record of 15 hours, 52 minutes and 17 seconds set by Windward Passage in 1969, but averaging some 10 knots to win Class A. Yet, as in the Lipton Cup race of the preceding week, conditions made it almost inevitable that the One Tonners would continue to prevail. When the spray settled and results were computerized, Class E had taken all but one of the first 10 fleet positions, the Class D Golliwogg slipping into sixth place. As though adding insult to injury, Equation dropped back to 65th in the overall standings.

For those awaiting the Miami-Nassau finish, the only question was which One Tonner would take first in class, thereby first over all. It turned out to be America Jane II, owned by George Tooby and flying the burgee of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club. She had slipped between Lightnin' and Robin Too II on the reach between Great Isaac and Great Stirrup, and increased her lead on the final spinnaker run. Named for Tooby's great-grandmother, who trekked to California by wagon train in 1845, America Jane II was designed and tank-tested by Olin Stephens to be an improvement on Lightnin'. In the conditions encountered, she was, finishing 12 minutes, 55 seconds ahead of Ted Turner. Then came Country Woman, a development of Doug Peterson's Ganbare, the sensation of last summer's World One Ton Cup in Sardinia. Robin Too II had dropped back to fourth, still good enough to all but cinch for Ted Hood the Governor of Florida Trophy, awarded to the boat with the highest point score in the six events comprising the Southern Circuit.

Before the Lipton race, the larger boats had been leading. Scaramouche, a 55-foot Class B sloop designed by German Frers of Buenos Aires, was on top by a substantial margin after a third in the opening St. Petersburg-Anclote Key race, a second in the longest bash of all, 370 miles around the tip of Florida from St. Pete to Fort Lauderdale, and a first in the ocean triangle race, from Miami around Great Isaac and back. Running Tide of Class A lay second overall, with Robin Too II third. But after the twin disasters for the big boys in the Lipton and the Miami-Nassau, Ted Hood was comfortably ahead—now leading the new occupant of second place, America Jane II, by 45.5 points. With only the day race for the Nassau Cup remaining, there seemed no way he could lose the SORC title short of a dismasting.

But nothing is sure in yacht racing, as a decision of the protest committee demonstrated almost 48 hours after the last straggler had arrived from Miami. Mike Fisher and the other skippers coming to the aid of Wimoweh had quite properly requested an allowance for time lost during rescue operations. Navigators' logs and radio contacts established the period when they were not sailing the course, 1 hour 23 minutes in the case of Osprey, 46 minutes for Merry Thought, 40 for Sonny and 17 for Cavu. However, the committee felt it necessary to grant Osprey additional time as compensation for the loss of speed caused by the weight of the Wimoweh 11 over the remaining distance. Osprey and the other Class C boats involved had been averaging eight knots before the rescue. Afterward, in identical conditions, she dropped to between 7.5 and 7.75 knots, so an additional 27 minutes representing lost speed was awarded, bringing the total to two hours, and thereby exploding a bombshell. Osprey advanced from 89th in fleet to overall winner, and Merry Thought jumped from 14th to second in class. For once the Good Samaritan was bountifully rewarded. For the record, many boats that must have seen the flares made no effort to turn back, but as one cynic remarked, the next time a Mayday sounds there will be a race within a race as would-be rescuers converge.

Continue Story
1 2