Late Friday night, the boats were jammed together on the beach, moonlight twinkling from their 28-foot aluminum masts, which stood like trees in an orchard. The halyards, encouraged by a tropical Gulf breeze, were clanking rhythmically against the masts, and it sounded almost as if the cats were talking to one another. "The night before a race," said one skipper, "you fall asleep with the clanking in your subconscious, secure that you have wind. If the clanking stops in the middle of the night, you miss it and you wake up. You listen again and, if you still can't hear it, you go back to sleep anticipating bad news in the morning."
But the news was all good when the sailors awoke on Saturday. The halyards were clanking wildly, either in delight over the 25-knot winds or in fright over the roiling seas they were about to face.
Saturday morning's point leader was 23-year-old Russ Eddington, a college student ("well, it's only a part-time deal") and native Texan who has been sailing off Padre Island for 10 years. But Eddington and crewman Billy Smith didn't make the start of the first race. An aluminum corner casting cracked; they heard it snap just as they were sailing toward the starting line. They wheeled back for shore and frantically lashed the casting with line, but didn't make it back out in time for the start.
It may have been the luckiest thing that happened to them all day. Out on the course, several of the cats were capsizing in the rugged seas. There were also collisions. One of the crack-ups disabled two boats—one with a hole in its fiberglass hull, the other with a snapped bridle, the wire that supports the mast. As that boat wobbled to shore with mast atilt, Eddington noticed that it was the very boat he had drawn for that afternoon's final race. Repair would be possible, he figured, but it was a portent of the day for him.
Hobie Cats were rocking and pitching, now and then rising far up on one hull and teetering there for breathless seconds. On one downwind leg, parallel to shore, a few boats got caught in the four-foot waves and were carried like surfboards toward the beach.
The second-place boat, skippered by a South African painting contractor named Mick Whitehead and crewed by his 13-year-old son Colin, returned to shore midway through the race with a frayed mainsheet that made control of the mainsail difficult. "When we tacked, I almost capsized," Whitehead said, "so there was no point in carrying on."
The final race was delayed 2� hours to wait for a squall to ease up. The sailors used the time to repair their boats. Then 13 teams pulled out, complaining that the weather was too severe, and their beached cats were quickly cannibalized to replace broken parts on the boats of those still enthusiastic enough to take part in the final grueling two-hour race.
Despite their misadventures that morning, Eddington and Whitehead were still first and second in the standings. And both were optimistic. "Billy and I really like wind, and I know these waters," said Eddington. "This is our kind of weather here," said Whitehead.
And then the weather got worse, with winds gusting to 40 knots. When the race got going at least eight boats capsized, and three of those lost their masts and mainsails forever to the Gulf of Mexico where they turtied. At the finish, near dusk on a day that had looked like dusk since dawn, the Whiteheads were the 16-foot world champions. They had finished third in the final race, Eddington and Smith seventeenth. Neither boat had capsized, but all four of the sailors had been knocked overboard by waves at least once.
"It was just too rough for us," Eddington conceded. "We couldn't get the boat to go fast." "The waves were so high they were hammering down on us," said Smith. "I don't think they should have held the race."