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Gene Walet, skipper in the Dragon class (right) of the U.S. Olympic sailing team, spoke up sharply about his chances at Melbourne. "Of course I'm confident," said the handsome 20-year-old. "If I were not, I wouldn't go. I don't feel overconfident, though. Everybody I have to sail against at Melbourne will be the best Dragon sailor in his country. It's the toughest competition in the world. But it's this way: in sailing you have to go into a race and feel you can win."
Walet has had this confidence ever since he burst into national prominence in 1953 by winning the North American sailing championship at the tender age of 18. Gene remembers that series well. It was held at Larchmont, N.Y., in International One-Designs, a class he had never seen before the regatta.
"All the famous skippers were there," he recalled, " Corny Shields, Arthur Knapp and the others. The day we arrived Arthur invited us on his boat to get the feel of an International. We were running on the downwind leg in a race, about a hundred yards behind Corny Shields. Arthur asked me if I wanted to take the tiller. Of course I did. When we got close to the stake I expected Arthur to take the tiller again, but he didn't say anything. And so I handled the boat as we made the roundup. He still didn't say anything, and I started tacking. We kept gaining on Corny and finally crossed the finish line only 20 feet behind him. Arthur looked at me and said, 'Son, you can sail a boat.' I had to burst out laughing."
A number of other famous yachtsmen have since made the same discovery about Walet. In 1954, sailing a Lightning, he again won the North American title, the first man ever to take it twice. Last year he made the finals again, this time in a Luders 16. And although he wound up third, no one else has ever come close to arriving at the finals three years in a row. In addition, he has a list of victories and top placings in national and international regattas as long as your arm, including a first in last year's Pan-American Lightning championships and a tie for first in the St. Petersburg Midwinter championships. In fact, his worst performance in a major regatta over the past three years was his seventh in the Lightning Internationals last September, a finish which he regards as anything but disgraceful.
"There were 38 boats," he says, "and a seventh-place finish really wasn't too bad. You've got to lose sometimes. When you win a few, people begin to expect too much. I just made a mistake in tactics in the first race. We were running well, with boats spread out on both sides of us. I chose to go up the middle instead of covering the boats on either side. I made a mistake, but when you do you have to follow it through. There's nothing to be gained by changing."
It is precisely this mature confidence and patience that have made Walet one of the deadliest competitors in the history of yacht racing. "I'm a series sailor," he continued. "Points are what you have to figure with. I always carry a sheet with the points on the boat with me. Maybe there are as many as 67 boats in one race. You don't have to worry about most of them after the first race because they're out of it already and don't figure. You have to pick out the ones in contention and watch them. In the Lightnings, I've sailed against about all of them, and I know what they will do. I know which ones will get rattled. I take mental notes on them.
"The start is very important. We practice before the race. We'll go over it a dozen times, finding out just what we have to do to get a good start without beating the gun. If you beat the gun you're out of it because you lose so much time starting over, and you have lost all of your rights to the boats coming from behind you.
"Before the start of every race I check the boat. I feel under the bottom to make sure it is clean. Sometimes I even go overboard to make sure. We take care of our own boat, painting it and hand-sanding it. You have to spend hour after hour. Then there's the tuning. You have to work and work to get the mast and the sails just right. Sometimes a quarter of a turn on a turn buckle can be the difference between winning and losing. I have one advantage in that I sail from 120 to 150 races every year. The average skipper may sail in 40 or 50."
Like all top racers, Walet knows the importance of a good crew. "Your crew is two-thirds of your success. They have to be well trained and quick. Every second counts in a sailboat race. I count half seconds. My crew can get a spinnaker up in seven seconds. We carry two spinnakers so we won't have to waste time remaking a sail after we've used it on a run."
He also knows who to blame if a race goes wrong. "If you lose a race, it isn't the boat, it's you."