The quickest way to forget that we are in a recession is to stroll the docks of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. Last year 26 of the 72 boats in the six-race series were new. This year there are 41 new hulls in a fleet of just under 100. Because the cheapest of these beauties costs more than $100,000 and the biggest more than a million, in the world of ocean racing at least, things seem to be looking up. What is most astonishing for anyone with a logical, cash-register mind is that although the annual expenses of the Southern Ocean fleet exceed that of all the teams in the NFL playoffs, not one skipper gets back more than a piece or two of second-rate silverware—and that only after having taken strenuous part in a series in which, because of the many whims of God, the yachtsman often never has a chance.
To predict an overall winner of the Southern Ocean circuit is foolish, if not impossible, but this much can be safely said: this year, as so often before, the honor will probably go to a craft between 36 and 48 feet overall. It might be an old boat with a famous name like Robin, so blessed with age allowance on her handicap rating that, short of swamping, she cannot help but do well. It might be a new hull such as Louisiana Crude. More likely the winner will be a brand-new boat, born just yesterday and already on the brink of obsolescence, but with a familiar name such as Williwaw, Acadia or Aries.
Big boats don't win. In 1971, Running Tide, a 60-foot sloop built somewhat along the deep, narrow lines of an America's Cup contender, did take the overall title in a series marked by heavy seas and windward work that were to her liking. The nine years since have been bad for all the biggies except one: a 79-footer called Kialoa, the third ocean racer so named and owned by John B. (Jim) Kilroy, a California real-estate developer who has always operated slightly in defiance of the pregame odds. From her debut in 1975 until her retirement last year, Kialoa (a Hawaiian word for "long, beautiful canoe") took part in 24 SORC races. Time and again she was first across the line only to have some little 42-foot creep bring the wind from behind and beat her on corrected time. Still, Kialoa won four of her 24 SORC tests on corrected time—a remarkable showing, considering that in the same period only three other biggies out of a total of 19 won so much as one race without benefit of age allowance.
To handicap boats that are far different in size, under the International Offshore Rule just about everything is carefully measured except the diameter of the owner's bankroll, the navigator's IQ and the length of the crew's fingernails. For all the exactitude, though, there are inequities. In the case of Kilroy's third Kialoa, it was her displacement. According to IOR measurement, she was rated at 66,000 pounds, while she truly weighed closer to 89,000. To put it simply, in all her trials and triumphs on seas near and far—in the Sydney-Hobart Race and the Jamaica Race, in the Transatlantic, the Transpac, the Edlu, the Fastnet, the Channel and the St. Pete-Fort Lauderdale—she was lugging more than 11 tons for which she got no credit.
Although far from old in capability or configuration, the third Kialoa is now up for sale at a bargain-basement price of $850,000. For this year's SORC series, Kilroy has a new, bigger, lighter and faster Kialoa. Although it is safe to say the new girl will whomp the rest when it comes to crossing the finish line—she has done so twice already—how she fares on corrected time depends on how the wind blows and the Gulf Stream flows.
Two weeks ago, the current SORC began for the big boats as so often before—only worse. In the course of the first race, a 138-miler from St. Petersburg to Boca Grande and back, which 79 boats started, fine weather deteriorated into a soggy mess of fitful squalls, leaving some craft stalled while others forged ahead. Despite a bad stall, the new Kialoa finished first and took seventh in fleet on corrected time. The 48-foot Williwaw won.
Two days later, a dark, filthy cold front was sweeping across the U.S., so for last week's second, and most important, race of the series, 370 miles from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale, there was promise of stiff conditions—through which big boats could plow while lesser rivals would likely stagger up one side of a deep sea and fall off the other. But the nasty weather front tarried to the north, flooding roads and blowing off roofs, as the SORC fleet headed south to round the Keys under 25 knots of southeast wind. By nightfall the leader, Kialoa, had only two rivals in sight, both well behind.
If the front had come through in normal fashion, with only modest slackening as the wind clocked around to the north quadrant, Kialoa and the other biggies would have had it all their way, but, alas, it was not to be. The dying southerly left a big windless hole between itself and the approaching front. Early on the second afternoon, as Kialoa ghosted along, struggling to keep under way, her crew could see the dark cloud line of the belated weather front climbing in the north sky, and under it the bright spinnakers of smaller boats that had no business being in sight. "It was like suddenly seeing a cavalry troop charging over the horizon," an on-board photographer, Dick Enerson, said. "They were headed for our water hole, and there was no way of stopping them."
The big wind that the little boats brought with them—steady over 30 knots and gusting to 50—not only dashed the chances of the big boats, but was also sufficient to do in 14 craft. Two boats went aground southwest of Key West; five abandoned the race with minor failures; seven were dismasted, among them the new 45-foot Scaramouche, which had had as good a chance as any of winning the whole series.
By the time everyone had limped into Fort Lauderdale and the computers had finished their work, Kialoa was 50th in fleet, well behind the race winner, the 36-foot Robin. But once again Kialoa was first across the line.