It is hard to believe that the costly game of sailing in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference could have begun when it did or could have lasted as it has. The idea of the SORC was conceived in a Havana bar in 1930, on the leading edge of the Great Depression. The competition was organized as a series of races a decade later while the whole country was mustering up for the worst of all wars. And though it prospers for much the same reason that saw it through its doubtful early years—the sailor's yen to beat the best—it is certainly not now what it once was.
In its beginnings the SORC brought together an odd lot of yachts, some seaworthy and some seaworn. In the first formal championship, in 1941, Stormy Weather, a yawl designed to make the most of the handicapping rules, tied for the overall title. Seven years later Stormy, the rule beater, won it outright at the age of 14. Today a 14-year-old hull has as much chance in the SORC as the three lateen-rigged Columbian caravels that Queen Isabella backed in 1492. Six of the last eight winners have been one-year-olds off a fresh set of line plans.
But the more things change.... Today on the southern circuit there is lament about the early obsolescence of expensive boats, about professionalism and about the inequities of the rules. In some form the same protests have been flying for 20 years. In the mid-'50s the SORC was dominated by two little yawls: a centerboarder named Finisterre and an oddball called Hoot Mon. The harshest critics could not decide whether Hoot Mon was more unsightly than unseaworthy. Although Finisterre, comparatively, reeked of orthodoxy, because of certain features she, too, was termed a rule beater and was further damned in excess of the facts for having "the best amateur crew that money can buy." In the early '60s Paper Tiger, a rule-beater hull with a steel-pipe skeleton, took two SORC titles, and 10 years later along came Cascade, a cat-rigged schoonerlike ketch summarily described in the press as "the ugliest ocean racer in sailing memory." Kooky Cascade failed to win the 1973 SORC only because she short-cut a buoy in one race.
Many of the best performers in the early SORC were designed for cruising as well as racing. By contrast, today's pacesetters are hulls of stark purpose, about as homey and comfy below as an unrenovated Quonset hut. Because she was a bit beamy, in her heyday old Finisterre—a comfortable cruising racer—was described as a "chunky bulldog." Compared to the beamy boats that are now stealing an extra sliver of a knot out of every condition, Finisterre was as swanlike as an early Herreshoff. Viewed along their major axis, the smaller of the new hulls resemble fat corn-fed mallards sitting on the water. Their bilges are as bulgy as the bear that ate Algy, and their maximum beams are so far aft that from aloft they look like bulbous teardrops. Swanlike they definitely are not, but they go like the dickens, and they cost more than most men could sell their souls for.
In this age of synthetics and super alloys and instant navigation, the most constant plaint on the southern circuit is the cost. A competitive custom boat that 10 years ago went for $60,000 now brings almost twice that. The doomsayers point out that the expense has already driven some sailors from the game and will force out more, and there was some cause for concern because of the marked drop in the size of the fleets in the past two years. But now the decrease seems to have been more a result of the general recession than specific cost, for entries for the 1976 SORC starting next week are being made at about the same rate as last year—and 22 of the first 27 applications filed were for new hulls.
When there is so much good trophy-ware to be won in more casual competitions at a tenth the cost, why do sailors, even in the best of times, devote themselves to the expensive SORC? The most likely answer lies in an old truth: in many sailors there is an atavistic itch to beat the very best of boats in a boat that is better yet.
Anyone doubting this old truth can easily become a believer by observing a San Diego skipper named Lowell North, who has had the itch for most of his 46 years. Today Lowell North is best known around the world as a skilled sailmaker, but describing him only as that is no more accurate than calling Thomas Alva Edison a successful phonograph manufacturer. North is in essence a noodler and a fiddler, taken by the notion that any fast boat can be made faster still. He is forever coming up with ideas as fresh as tomorrow, and many of them work.
Tom Blackaller, once a world Star boat champion, earns his living now as a working shareholder in North's sail making empire. To explain the success of North, his boss-partner, Blackaller said recently, "If a boat is slow, if a sail is slow, if a crew is bad, Lowell will be the first to realize it, and he will know why. Lowell is a genius inventor. Every minute he's into things like turbulence and moment and stress. I can stand about one day around him, and then I have to go off and breathe some simple air."
To judge by the abuse Blackaller and other admirers love to heap on him, the way to find Lowell North among the 700 or more sailors competing in this year's SORC is to search the docks for the boat that an hour before each race looks least likely to be ready by the five-minute gun. On that boat you will find a man who is still trying to jigger something around on the deck with a drill or God-knows-what tool in his hand. That man is Lowell North. Among his rivals in small-boat classes, North enjoys a comparable reputation. According to them, in the process of getting everything just where it should be on a new hull, North drills so many holes that the deck of his handsome craft ends up looking like a platform-tennis paddle.
In yacht club bars, after important matters like the outcome of the Super Bowl have been laid aside, occasionally a minor question arises: Who is the world's best skipper? Is it Paul Elvstrom, the moody Dane from Hellerup, or Lowell North, the San Diego noodler? On the strength of his versatility alone, Elvstrom deserves the nod. But in a single class, no one has a record quite like North's. Although he has won other honors, like the One Ton world championship last year, for more than a quarter century the Star boat was his specialty—and the Stars are a classy class. Star championships are a big deal, but because of fleet and district eliminations the finals are not cluttered with mediocre local yokels. The roster of Star world winners includes sailors like Gerry Driscoll, Bill Ficker, Elvstrom and Dennis Conner, better known for what they have done in other hulls at other times.