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'REACHING AND RETCHING' TO NASSAU
Carleton Mitchell
March 08, 1976
Strident winds and steep seas beset seasick sailors in the centerpiece race of the 1976 Southern circuit
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March 08, 1976

'reaching And Retching' To Nassau

Strident winds and steep seas beset seasick sailors in the centerpiece race of the 1976 Southern circuit

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For weeks it had blown fresh, the windiest Florida winter in recent memory, yet the opening four events of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference had fallen during lulls. Now, finally, an advancing cold front was synchronized with the starting gun. As 79 yachts carrying deeply reefed mainsails and oilskinned crews plunged beyond the protecting breakwater of Miami's Government Cut, they were met by cresting seas. Churned sand turned the shallows pale jade, laced by whitecaps. Spume formed a fine mist, softening the skyline inshore but not hiding marching hillocks lifting above the horizon in the Gulf Stream. There would be brutal tests of hulls and sails, crews and gear before lines could be put ashore 176 nautical miles away in Nassau.

When Class 1 of Division I crossed the starting line at 2 p.m. on that lively day last week the wind had clocked through west to east of north, and a bank of offshore clouds plus the normal weather sequence presaged a further shift into the east. It was only a question of time and place for each vessel until the close reach at the start would become a windward thrash. Baccara, skippered by George Coumantaros, who was supported by the redoubtable Arthur Knapp, plowed through the vintage big-boat class to an early lead. Fifteen minutes later came a second big-boat class composed of newer yachts competing for honors in Division II.

Although the attention of the few spectators braving the elements was undeniably focused on the dernier cri, young and old boats alike were greeted by an impartially wet welcome off Miami. The line between soundings and offshore depths was marked by more than a transition from pale green to purple-blue water. Peaked wavelets and smoky spindrift on the backs of bigger waves signaled the edge of the Gulf Stream, accompanied by the usual sudden increase in wind velocity. For the entire crossing, crews were to form human ballast along weather rails, rhythmically drenched by a fire hose of salt spray and occasionally taking a more solid clout as the crest of a sea broke and jetted over bowed heads. Winchmen on the lee deck knelt in rushing water as rails scooped, cockpits resembled bathtubs, and everything below was soon soaked. Chuck Coyer Jr. of Phoenix compared a trick on the helm to "driving a truck without a windshield in a sleet storm." Most competitors reported an average of 28 to 32 knots of wind over the deck throughout the race. Before dawn, sustained velocities of more than 40 knots, which qualify as a fresh to strong gale on the Beaufort scale, were recorded aboard a steamer in the area.

The course to Nassau is divided into roughly three legs by two lighthouses on cays at the corners of the Great Bahama Bank. The wind was just enough north of east to require a difficult decision: sheet flat and hold high, slowed by the seas, or slack off and go faster, but end up farther to leeward of the mark, requiring a short or long tack to round. As boats came together not only at Great Isaac, the first mark across the Gulf Stream, but also at Great Stirrup, where the fleet turns to head for Nassau, precious minutes were gained or lost.

For Baccara, a husky 73-footer of the old breed and first to finish, it was a wet but easy race. For others there were hairy moments. Ramrod broke a stay, Carronade had rudder failure, Charisma lost the top of her mast and limped under power into Freeport. "Yesterday's hero, today's bum," said helmsman Dennis Conner. He had won the 1975 SORC with the One-Tonner Stinger. Some episodes could be laughed at in retrospect. Robbie Doyle on Rattler stepped in leaking diesel oil below; coming on deck, his boots skidded. As he plunged headfirst through the lifelines he made a grab at a winch. The handle came off in his hand. "Save that winch handle!" came a shout.

Real tragedy almost struck before the fleet had cleared the Gulf Stream. Caroline Benson went below on the 40-foot sloop Mary E II at 6:30 p.m. to perform the heroic act of preparing dinner. At the time her husband, skipper Chuck Benson, put their position as some 23 miles from Great Isaac. Caroline called up that there was water in the bilge, and an electric pump was turned on. Fifteen minutes later Caroline again voiced concern. Soon it became apparent there was a serious leak. Seacocks were closed and spare pumps manned, but still the water gained. At 8:15 the first of 11 parachute flares was launched, and a Mayday was sounded on the radio.

Driving through the black night in 12- to 15-foot seas, other crews saw and heard the distress signals. Phoenix and J&B were the first to arrive. While several boats that had also peeled off course stood by, Phoenix took Caroline Benson and a girl crew member over the bow pulpit, plus three men from an inflatable rubber boat. Later, by shouted agreement, Phoenix went back on course, leaving J&B to finish the job. Co-owners Jack Sutphen and Mort Engel and their crew responded in the best traditions of the sea. The six remaining men aboard Mary E II were taken with their gear one by one from a rubber boat trailed astern of the sinking yacht. After a Coast Guard spotter plane came out from Miami, a helicopter followed to lower a pump. Two men were put back aboard the stricken craft, now wallowing deep, but the pump did not help. It was only when a Coast Guard cutter approached that J&B resumed racing at 4:50 next morning, shortly before Mary E II went down in 310 fathoms. A crack in the fiber-glass hull aft of the mast step was believed by Benson to be the source of the leak.

For those on J&B the next 24 hours came close to being pure hell. Now the wind had hauled farther east, so it was a dead beat not only to Great Isaac, but also most of the way to Stirrup. With 14 persons aboard, J&B met the seas sluggishly. Below, exhausted and seasick men sprawled on soaked seabags and sails. There was barely room to crawl. Finally, after turning the corner at Stirrup, sheets could be eased, so J&B came "reaching and retching" across the finish at 4:34 a.m. on Wednesday.

When all the boats were in, Australia's Bumblebee 3 had the best corrected time in Class 1 of Division II and fleet, with Salty Goose second. Seymore Sinett's Williwaw finished second in Class 2 to Golden Dazy. Williwaw, which at this point was the unofficial overall series leader, had endured a tense crossing. In the words of Williwaw's Lowell North (SI, January 26), "After Isaac we held close along the line of reefs. I left the helm to take a bearing, when suddenly Rod Davis saw a rock breaking 20 feet off the starboard bow. It scared the devil out of us. We quick-tacked, which scared the guys below even more, but came back after going out only about 50 feet." For Williwaw, the entire race was sailed on the ragged edge of disaster. A crack in the rudder, sustained during the Feb. 20 Lipton race, was not discovered until the day before the Miami-Nassau, and temporary repairs were not completed until hours before the start. The toothpick-slim experimental aluminum mast sheathed with carbon fiber took some fearsome flexes. (As a commentary on the trend in ocean racers, carbon fiber is classified as an "exotic material," banned as too expensive to be used on 12-meter yachts competing for the America's Cup.)

Boats going to the aid of Mary E II were given time adjustments, and ultimately first place and its points were shared equally by J&B and Phoenix . Vagary was given second place, and there was no third in class. Other class winners in Division I were Saudade and Andiamo Robin. Golden Dazy and Blind Melon topped classes 2 and 3 of Division II.

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