As the fleet slammed its way last week to the starting line of the Miami to Nassau race, the culminating distance event of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, the scene was oddly reminiscent of last year. In a sport with as many variables as ocean racing, history isn't supposed to repeat. Yet inshore dark clouds were beginning to silhouette the white cubes of the Miami Beach skyline, while the yellow-orange-red foul-weather gear of crews manning windward rails formed bright blobs against the roiled green water of the shallows.
Offshore, Gulf Stream rollers awaited, built by two days of fresh southerly winds. Again small craft were being advised by the meteorologists to "remain in protected waters," as another strong cold front with its squalls and northerly shift was on the way. Thus once more it looked as if the road to paradise—even Paradise Island—would be strewn with almost Biblical difficulties.
With the two o'clock gun, the big speedsters of Class A took off in 25 knots of wind, Jim Kilroy's new 79-foot Sparkman and Stephens ketch, Kialoa III, opening out like a mechanical rabbit in front of greyhounds. She had finished first in each of the circuit's preceding four events, setting new course records in three. Now she was racing not so much against the fleet dwindling astern as against the clock—driving to better the record time of 15 hours, 52 minutes, 17 seconds posted in 1969 by the fabled Windward Passage. But the attention of the spectator fleet that braved the elements was again focused on a group of small yachts starting 40 minutes later—the One Tonners, now racing as a separate 13-boat class with identical handicap ratings of 27.5. As last year, a Tonner was leading in points counting toward the SORC championship. If anything, the class was hotter than ever, even though the archrivals of yesteryear, Ted Turner and Ted Hood, had moved up to Classes B and C, respectively, both with eyes on a summer campaign including the Admiral's Cup team in British waters, for which One Tonners are not eligible.
But if the cast of characters and their vessels had changed somewhat, the quality of the competition had not. Dennis Conner was back, sharpened by his role as starting helmsman of Courageous in the America's Cup matches, skippering Stinger, a souped-up version of the 1974 world champion, Gumboots, itself a development of Doug Peterson's '73 breakthrough design Ganbare. As though one such flyer was not enough, there were two virtual sister ships, Country Woman and Inflation, along with the new Bootlegger, Crocodile and Voodoo, a radical twinbilgeboard design by Ted Irwin. Individually and collectively, the One Tonners were once more the boats everyone had to beat to win overall.
As successive classes entered the Gulf Stream at 10-minute intervals the point of sailing was almost identical to that of the previous year but on opposite tracks. Then the first stage of a double front had already gone through, so the wind was northerly; now it was southerly, blowing with the current, making for longer but less confused seas. Nevertheless, the hardy skippers opting for spinnakers on the beam reach to Great Isaac Light, the first turning mark in the Bahamas, fared as before: wild sheers, cataracts of white water along lee decks, spinnakers "breaking" in thunderous crashes under the pressure of winds so strong that helmsmen could not maintain control. Minor disasters were not long arriving. The ketch Southerly bucked out into the Gulf Stream like a bronco trying to dislodge the crewman making repairs at the top of the mizzenmast. Later, loss of rudder control caused a flying jibe which almost cost J and B her rig. Terrorist lay dead in the water for half an hour without sails while three forward halyards were rerove. Uncounted light sails were casualties, but this year the race committee made sure there would be no repeat of the near disaster in the 1974 event when boats taking an illegal shortcut behind the rocky islets beyond Great Isaac had contributed to the wreck and sinking of Wimoweh. Two Bahamas police vessels equipped with radar and searchlights patrolled the forbidden area to discourage any yacht from venturing through.
Yet tragedy in another form was averted only by quick crew action. At 0525 EST the Class C sloop Westwind, some 13 miles southeast of Great Stirrup Cay, had made a jibe under difficult conditions. The navigator noted in the log, "Boat gyrating violently." Main boom and spinnaker pole were dipping alternately into the overtaking crests as Westwind rolled. Suddenly at 0533 sounded the seaman's most dreaded alarm, a shouted "Man overboard!" The owner and skipper, Clarence P. Crobaugh, standing up the better to wrestle the wheel, had been catapulted out of the shallow aft cockpit by an especially deep lurch. Two strobe lights attached to horseshoe life rings were thrown over. The spinnaker sheet and guy were cast off to allow the sail to flap like a flag from the masthead, and the engine was started. Main- and staysail were dropped on the run and Westwind turned to the reciprocal of her course. No time was wasted, yet it was 22 minutes before Crobaugh could be brought alongside and hauled aboard—an eternity in black water on a black night.
"My first thought on coming to the surface was wondering who would take the helm," he said later. "Then it became a struggle to get to one of the life rings. I never realized how exhausting it would be to swim in clothes and oilskins. It seemed a long way and when I made it I didn't have the strength to get to the whistle in the life ring pocket. I just hung on and watched the lights of Westwind get closer, with a lot of thankfulness for a capable crew."
Even before the start it was obvious this would be a fast race, perhaps the fastest on record. Carrying a double head-rig and a "slatsail"—a tall, narrow mizzen staysail—Kialoa III roared across the Gulf Stream to Great Isaac at an average speed of 12.41 knots and on to Great Stirrup at a barely diminished pace. With 125 miles astern and 55 remaining to Nassau, she needed an average of only 8.83 knots to break Passage's record, but the front did not arrive in time to provide a final burst. As the northwest wind moved in from astern it benefited boats almost in inverse ratio to their size and rating, and the One Tonners were making the most of their opportunity. Stinger led Country Woman and Inflation by a narrow margin at Isaac. Inflation, sailed by a crew of "out-islanders"—not Bahamians but from Hawaii—had lost five minutes at the start by being over early and missing the recall, so had to play catch-up all across the Stream. From there on it was a three-boat race.
Working to a game plan based on the arrival of the front, Bob Barton on Country Woman anticipated the shift some 15 miles east of Isaac and forged ahead by being the first to set a spinnaker to the nor'wester. Stinger gained back the lead by standing farther onto the Great Bahama Bank and crossed a boat length ahead before reaching Stirrup. Inflation closed in, so for a while the three surfed abreast, first one then another surging to the front. Although Stinger led around Stirrup, Bob Barton worked Country Woman to the inside along the tricky Berry Islands shore, skimming the beach closer than Conner cared to follow. Leading on points in the SORC, with only defending champion Hood close enough to be a threat unless Stinger came to grief, Dennis felt, "We were doing too well to take a chance." Gradually Country Woman opened out on successive jibes—50 yards, 60 yards, then spurted when Stinger blew out her 1.5-ounce spinnaker 10 miles from Nassau, for a lead at the finish line of two minutes, 20 seconds. Inflation was third and the 1-2-3 order among the One Tonners represented 1-2-3 in overall fleet honors as well.
"There couldn't have been a better weather pattern for the little boats," exclaimed Greg Gillette of Inflation on coming ashore. Class E began a downhill spinnaker sleighride close to Isaac, the Tonners were favored by the new wind not long after, and then came the turns of Classes D, C, B—beyond Stirrup—and finally, nearing Nassau, A. Kialoa III's speed kept her ahead of the front the whole way; for her the shift came after she was docked in Nassau. Adding insult to injury, on corrected time the first boat to finish dropped to 88th in fleet—dead last. Only the still smaller boats of Class E shared the top spots with the Tonners as Hot Foot, a seven-year-old Gurney design, took fourth overall.