Ac­tor Ster­ling Hayden re­mained a sailor right through to the end

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Back in the 1930s, the next most im­por­tant match rac­ing event in com­pet­i­tive sail­ing af­ter the Amer­ica’s Cup didn’t in­volve yachts but fish­ing ves­sels. The Sir Thomas Lip­ton In­ter­na­tional Fish­ing Chal­lenge Cup en­joyed only a brief ten­ure, but com­manded ma­jor me­dia at­ten­tion at the time. Ef­fec­tively a grudge match sailed be­tween Cana­dian and Amer­i­can Grand Banks fish­er­men, the event was run just three times, and each time fea­tured the same two com­peti­tors, the famed Cana­dian schooner Bluenose and the Amer­i­can schooner Gertrude L. The­baud.

Bluenose was renowned for her speed, but the The­baud crew pulled off a great up­set in 1930 when it de­feated its Cana­dian ri­vals 2-0 in the first se­ries. Bluenose had her re­venge, though, best­ing The­baud 2-0 the fol­low­ing year. The very last event, a best- of- five se­ries sailed out of Glouces­ter, Mas­sachusetts, in Oc­to­ber 1938, was by far the most dra­matic. The­baud, in mod­er­ate weather, barely man­aged to win the first race by 30 sec­onds, but in the se­cond her nav­i­ga­tor got lost, and Bluenose romped to an easy vic­tory. As an an­ti­dote, The­baud’s skip­per called a young 22-year-old mast­head­man, Ster­ling Hayden, down from his reg­u­lar post and anointed him nav­i­ga­tor for the third race, which was sailed in an east­erly gale.

In driv­ing wind and al­most zero vis­i­bil­ity—this in the days be­fore GPS and other such magic—Hayden some­how man­aged to find the wind­ward mark af­ter a rau­cous 15-mile beat, and so led The­baud to a 2-1 lead over her ri­val. As Hayden re­mem­bered it in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, when the great schooners tacked you could hear the can­vas flog­ging half­way to Bos­ton, and he was as sur­prised as any­one when the buoy he sought showed up dead ahead. “I saun­tered aft,” he wrote, “look­ing the world in the eye, vin­di­cated, my belly afire with pride.”

Alas, Bluenose took the next two races and won the se­ries 3-2. But for Hayden the event trans­formed his life, as the Bos­ton press, which cov­ered the rac­ing avidly, took spe­cial no­tice of his strik­ing ap­pear- ance. “More than a few of the scores of women who viewed the ves­sels in­quired as to his iden­tity,” wrote the Bos­ton Post. The dogs of celebrity were let loose and Hayden soon was work­ing as a mag­a­zine model. From there he signed a film con­tract with Paramount Pic­tures, which hailed him as the “Most Beau­ti­ful Man in the Movies.”

Hayden ap­peared in more than 35 films dur­ing the course of his ca­reer, most of which were re­leased dur­ing the 1940s and 1950s. He was best known in his prime for his lead­ing roles in westerns and noir films, such as The As­phalt Jun­gle and Johnny Gui­tar, and later gained more no­to­ri­ety play­ing sup­port­ing roles in Dr. Strangelove and The God­fa­ther. But Hayden al­ways de­spised the film in­dus­try, and he de­spised him­self for fall­ing prey to it. “I spent a life­time sell­ing out,” he once wrote. “I al­ways hated act­ing, but I kept on act­ing…a com­muter on a tin­sel train.”

Hayden al­ways yearned to re­turn to the sea, and the whole point of his ca­reer in Hol­ly­wood, as he saw it, was to earn the cash he needed to do so. “Wind to a sailor is what money is to a life on shore,” as he put it. And with that wind he bought him­self a 98ft an­tique San Fran­cisco pi­lot schooner, named it Wan­derer, and in 1959 be­came the talk of tabloids ev­ery­where when, in de­fi­ance of a court or­der, he kid­napped his four chil­dren from a failed mar­riage and sailed off to Tahiti and be­yond.

Hayden had many other ad­ven­tures dur­ing his var­ied life, in­clud­ing serv­ing as an OSS agent be­hind enemy lines dur­ing World War II, and at the end of it was grate­ful to have an op­por­tu­nity to again walk the deck of a Grand Banks fish­ing schooner.

This was Bluenose II, a replica of the orig­i­nal Bluenose, which ap­peared in San Fran­cisco dur­ing an ex­tended cruise in 1986. Hayden spent a day sail­ing the bay as a guest of the schooner’s crew and no doubt re­called the pride that lit him up dur­ing that dis­tant gale-rid­den day off Glouces­ter. Just a few months later, un­for­tu­nately, he died of can­cer and so passed on to a place where nei­ther wind nor money could do him any good. s

the Ster­ling Hayden was a man of star sea be­fore he be­came a movie

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