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Go tell it on the mountain
Richard W. Johnston
October 28, 1974
Skippers from the Alps were best in the Tornado championships
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October 28, 1974

Go Tell It On The Mountain

Skippers from the Alps were best in the Tornado championships

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If your son or daughter says, "Please buy me a Tornado," you might suggest that the kid go climb an Alp. This is not a matter of frivolous disregard for teen-age ambition, but rather a recognition of reality. The nearly 100 competitors participating in the World Tornado Championships, which ended in Hawaii last week, discovered that in Olympic-style competition the Alps are where it's at. Two Austrians, Robert Jessenig and his crewman Hans Polaschegg, bested blue-water sailors from Germany, Canada, England, France, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Jessenig's victory gave him his second world title in a class that is only seven years old. He won his first at Travem�nde, West Germany, in 1972, the year the International Olympic Committee decided to drop the Star class, among others, and add the Tornados for the 1976 Games in Canada.

To anyone accustomed to the slow, stately maneuvers of the America's Cup, a Tornado race looks as clawingly frantic as a fight among 50 cats (feline, not seaborne). The Tornados sail two triangles and two windward-leeward courses in each race, the legs ranging from 1� to two miles, for an overall distance of about 18 miles. These centerboard cats, each precisely 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and carrying 235 square feet of sail in a jib and mainsail, are not exactly restful conveyances. Going downwind they must jibe several times, and on the weather and reaching legs their tracks look like the zigzag stitch of a sewing machine.

"We change sides as often as 200 times in a race," says John Weiser Jr. of Honolulu, the 40-year-old helmsman of Manuiwa II. Changing sides means scrambling under the shifting boom to the trapeze wires and, at least for the crewman, hiking out on the trapeze, feet braced against the rail as the cat rises on one hull or the other.

The Tornado's attractions are its speed (more than 20 knots to leeward and 10 to 15 to weather), the need to make hundreds of instant decisions during a race, the unrelenting physical effort involved and the rail-to-rail competition. John Weiser was once an aerobatics pilot. "You flew your patterns all alone," he says. "Judges decided whether you won or lost. I like to see my opposition and react to it, which is why I took up Tornado sailing."

In the championship off Pearl Harbor there was no lack of intimate contact. With 39 to 45 boats entered in each race, congestion at the marks was fierce. In the seventh race, when a wind shift forced placement of the reaching mark inshore, the cats were required to round the weather mark to port, and then proceed to port—directly across the bows of what in Vietnam was called "the incoming."

Before the races, which were sponsored by the Waikiki Yacht Club, the 16 U.S. teams were confident, perhaps overly so. "Wait till we get Jessenig out in blue water with the trade winds to buck. We'll see what he's made of," one crewman declared. "Don't be too sure," cautioned Weiser, who finished second to Jessenig at Travem�nde. "He's a very clever fellow, and he has been exposed to almost every kind of wind shift and rough sea there is."

On the first race day the northeast trades blew at a tentative 10 to 12 knots, but this was more than enough for the cats. Reg White, the 38-year-old Englishman who helped invent the Tornado at his Sail Craft Ltd. plant in Brightlingsea, won the start in Nice Pair and at the same moment sensed a sharp wind shift. He went toward land on a high starboard tack while most of the fleet mushed out to port—most, but not all. "We just followed Reg," said David McFaull, the skipper of Bandido. The two cats remained close until the last leg of the race, when the founder unaccountably foundered into a wind hole. Bandido flashed across the line the winner, and White finished a lame third. Jessenig's Hastanix was right behind in fourth. The Austrians had done exceedingly well despite the blue sea and the trades, with another entry from the Alps, Joy, finishing second.

The Monday trades had been gentle, but on Tuesday they came whistling through the passes of the Koolau Mountains at 20 to 22 knots, with gusts of more than 30 knots. These proved too much for the Austrians. Jessenig, sailing carefully and taking no chances, came in eighth, while Hans and Bernhard Prack in Joy capsized and could not right their boat in time to finish. They were by no means the only casualties. Only 29 of the 42 starters crossed the finish line. One Tornado was dismasted, and a Honolulu boat, out of control in a gust, ripped apart the leeward mark. Reg White in Nice Pair broke his tiller bar. But the strong winds and steep seas did not bring the expected Hawaiian victory. Bill Hollier, sailing Australia's Red Roo, finished first, 96 seconds ahead of California's Roy Seaman in Pacific Fox.

If Tuesday's winds had lasted, there is no guessing how the results would have been affected. But on Wednesday the trades subsided to 10 to 12 knots and stayed there throughout the remainder of race week. The emphasis shifted once again to skill at sensing slight wind shifts, knowing the right moment to drive behind a mark or to round it close, finding wind when others could not. It was an Austrian sort of day, and an all-Austrian finish—Jessenig, Prack, one-two. "This weather I like very much," Jessenig said, a remark that hung like a cloud over the Thursday lay day, causing what might be called the Danube blues among the other contestants.

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