THE GOLDEN AGE
In an excerpt from his new book, Dick Carter decribes an icy voyage south
Back in the early days of modern yacht racing, Dick Carter was one of winningest designers around, with boats known as much for innovation as sheer speed. In this expert from his book Dick Carter, Yacht Designer: In the Golden Age of Offshore Racing, Carter recounts his early experiences going offshore.
The Medalist I bought in 1962 was designed by Bill Tripp and built in Holland by LeComte. The hull was fiberglass and the interior finished to a very high standard in wood. Bill Tripp was a big man and the scale of the boat reflected this. A combination of wide beam and high freeboards made for a very spacious boat: a 33-footer on a mere 22½ ft waterline. It fitted my requirements perfectly. Looking back, I realize that I really lucked out in finding the Medalist design; Bill Tripp showed me what a decent cruising boat could look like belowdecks.
After a shakedown cruise, I entered an offshore race for a bit of fun. It was a race in Massachusetts Bay starting off Marblehead to a buoy off Scituate on the southern side of Boston, over to the tip of Cape Cod, a long stretch to Gloucester on Cape Ann, then back to Marblehead—a distance of approximately 100 miles. Everyone onboard, including myself, couldn’t wait to get back on shore. One tends to forget when you’re 20 miles offshore from Boston, that you really are out in the North Atlantic Ocean with all of its vicissitudes. I have no recollection of how we did in the race, only that it was a miserable experience.
In retrospect, it is surprising to me that I then decided to race in the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit (SORC) off the Florida coast. For years I have said that sailboat racing is an addiction. The SORC was a series of ocean races, many over long distances, sailed off Florida and the Bahamas and attracting the very best big-boat sailors in America—and the top designers.
The first step was to get Rabbit (the name of my Medalist)
to St. Petersburg on the west coast of Florida. It was already late in the year to start a 1,500-mile journey, particularly when most of the trip would be along the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs along the Eastern Seaboard from Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, to south Florida. I wanted to get Rabbit to the entrance of the waterway at Norfolk, Virginia, before Christmas. It was not easy to get a crew. A typical phone conversation would be as follows:
Dick Carter: “Hi, Bill, (or Bob, or Tom, or whomever), How would you like to go sailing?” Bill: (pause) “Off Marblehead?” Dick: “No…from Cape May, New Jersey, to Norfolk, Virginia.”
Bill: (longer pause) “Gee, I’d like to, but I haven’t done my Christmas shopping yet. But thanks anyway.”
Finally I found John Bower, a grizzled veteran who had sailed tankers across the Atlantic during World War II, and Fred Scheck of the Massachusetts of Technology. I had great respect for their courageous decision to embark on such a crazy adventure.
We flew from Boston to LaGuardia Airport in New York, rented a car and drove to Cape May. It was like driving to a funeral. Several times on the radio station we heard, “We interrupt this program to bring you the latest weather report. It is 4 degrees above zero.”
When we got on board Rabbit, it was like walking into an icebox. After a fitful night, we woke in the morning to storm warning flags whipping in the wind. It was blowing around 25 knots out of the northwest and still very cold. I knew instinctively the old saying was absolutely true, “He who hesitates is lost.” “C’mon, let’s go!” Fortunately, the engine started. We hoisted sails, and I took the first watch.
I had prepared for such weather. I had been able to buy two Army surplus wading suits that enclosed the whole body in rubber. A wool Peruvian ski mask and mittens completed the outfit. Sufficiently warmed, I would call below, “It’s great up here,” for morale purposes. We reached across the Delaware Bay at high speed. Icicles formed on the bow pulpit, but were not a cause for worry. The worst problem, ironically, was trying to sleep during the off-watch. I remember lying in the bunk at night shivering inside my sleeping bag. It was so cold that I couldn’t wait to get back on deck in the warmth of a rubber suit.
After crossing the Delaware Bay, we continued reaching southward, but as our course was parallel to the land, we were in the lee and in smooth water. We made good time. We crossed the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, arriving at the Hampton Yacht Club near the entrance to the Intracoastal Waterway. We were stunned—the weather was balmy, spring-like. It was from one extreme to the other. People sitting on the porch of the yacht club couldn’t believe it either. Here was this small cruiser showing up of out nowhere with icicles hanging from the bow pulpit. Somebody called the local newspaper. The photographer asked us to get back in the suits and took one of my favorite photos.
The next step was to get Rabbit down the Intracoastal Waterway to Florida. My cousin Bob, a non-sailor, volunteered as crew. We left Chesapeake Bay on January 2, 1962, just as skim ice was forming. We were roughly a day’s run from Charleston, South Carolina. We had anchored for the night and were having drinks when Bob casually mentioned he had arranged to meet a friend in Charleston tomorrow morning at 1000.
“Jeepers, Bob, why didn’t you tell me before? The only way we can make it is to run the boat at night.”
The moonlight helped make our motoring uncomplicated until we entered a narrow river that flowed through a swampy area. There were no straight runs here, only a series of twists and turns that were indicated by wooden pointers attached to poles. These pointers, just visible in the moonlight, showed the direction of the channel. I had Bob take the helm while I went up to the bow, so I could signal by hand whether to turn left or right. The system worked well. Meanwhile we had the throttle wide open and were pushing Rabbit to maximum speed. Our wake, instead of being V-shaped, consisted of two waves at right angles behind us—a real wave train. We were making good progress, but around 0200 I lost a bit of concentration, lifting my left arm to turn left at a time when, unfortunately, the channel went right. Sure enough, we ran aground in the soft mud of the left bank. In a flash, I realized that nobody would be cruising down the river at this hour to pull us free, so we’d have to do it ourselves.
As I was running back to the cockpit, I saw the wave train. Bob had already put the clutch in neutral. No time for words. I jammed the clutch into reverse and gunned the engine. Then, with fingers crossed, I watched the first wave of our wave train lift the big fat stern of Rabbit. “C’mon, c’mon!” I prayed. I could feel Rabbit respond, freeing her-
self slightly from the muddy bank. Then the second wave of the wave train arrived. Again the stern lifted, and with our propeller churning in reverse at maximum revs, Rabbit slid back into deep water. I was ecstatic at finding a solution to our dire predicament. I quickly resumed my position at the bow. Now fully awake, I made no more mistakes, and Bob made his 1000 appointment in Charleston.
After that we continued on to Port St. Lucie, Florida, where I dropped Bob off. I then motorsailed solo through the Cross Florida Canal, reaching the Fort Myers Marina on the Gulf of Mexico after four days. The morning after my arrival I awoke to a nor’wester blowing 20–25 knots. The dockmaster tried to persuade me not to take off. He even offered to transport me to shore so I could see for myself how rough it was. I should have listened to him, but I didn’t.
I set off with reefed main and working jib. As soon as I cleared the harbor, I got my first real taste of the weather as I hardened up to sail closehauled, parallel to the coast heading north. The steering was a bit awkward as I had to face away from the stinging salt spray. As an experiment, I attached a line to the tiller, put it around the windward winch and lead the line belowdecks so I could attempt to steer from the saloon. This setup gave me only a few moments to study charts or make a sandwich before Rabbit would start rounding up. The Medalist’s unbalanced hull (sharp bow and fat stern), required concentrated steering in rough conditions.
My real problem, though, was navigation. There was never sufficient time to plot my progress along the coast. To make it worse, the Florida coast was endlessly flat with absolutely no landmarks. It was impossible to mark my progress visually. I was getting hungry and also needed more energy. So I dashed below, spread a thick layer of peanut butter on some bread, topped it with jelly and rushed back on deck before Rabbit went totally out of control. I felt much revived. But it was now abundantly clear I didn’t know where I was.
St. Petersburg, my destination, was certainly out of range, so I decided to head for Venice, which had a small harbor where I could find refuge. Late in the afternoon I sailed past a settlement that was possibly Venice, but I wasn’t sure. I also couldn’t see anything more promising ahead. What to do? Meanwhile, the sun was sinking fast. I decided to head back toward the settlement and get a closer look to determine once and for all whether it was Venice. If, in fact, the town was Venice, I would find a safe harbor. If it was not Venice, it wouldn’t change a thing.
As I closed on the shore, I realized the town was definitely not Venice and that I was now exhausted from sailing to windward all day. As I headed back offshore, the sun rapidly disappeared over the horizon, and I wondered how I was going to make it through the night. Suddenly, it occurred to me, “How deep is it here in the Gulf?” I rushed below, looked at the chart and saw to my relief that it was only 35 feet. I could anchor! Down came the sails, though it was not easy because Rabbit was bouncing erratically in the rough water. At last I secured the sails and retrieved the fisherman’s type anchor with 100ft of line. Unfortunately, there was also 8ft of chain, which made the anchor awkward to carry. I moved forward gingerly with this load, and just as I reached the foredeck a wave hit Rabbit, and in a flash I lost my balance and slid to leeward on the sloping deck. I checked myself by grabbing the lifeline.
Momentarily stunned, I collected my thoughts. I had come really close to going overboard. If that had happened, the chance of getting back on board the Medalist, considering my state of exhaustion and the high freeboard, would be slim. Although the wire lifeline prevented me from going overboard, it certainly didn’t give a feeling of security, since the wire gives a bit under pressure, unlike solid handrails on top of a coachroof. When I recovered from the shock, I heaved the anchor overboard, eased out most of the anchor line, made it fast on the mooring cleat and went below. I took off my foulweather gear, ate another peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and crawled into an upper berth. I felt immensely grateful to be out of the wind and salt spray for the first time all day as well as proud of my unorthodox solution of anchoring five miles offshore. I quickly fell asleep.
I woke up in the morning to a flat calm. I retrieved my anchor and started motoring. I reached Venice in an hour and carried on to St. Petersburg to prepare for the 403-mile St. Petersburg Fort Lauderdale Race.
After rounding up a pickup crew, we made a frenzied effort to meet safety regulations and prepare Rabbit for long-distance racing. The start was almost a chance to relax. We were by far the smallest boat in the fleet, and we started alongside some much larger boats. It was a wonderful beat out of Tampa Bay in a light to moderate sou’wester. At sunset, I could just make out a few boats on the horizon, but we never saw another boat for the next three days until the finish. Rounding the Keys south of the tip of Florida, we encountered a fresh northwester just as we were entering the Gulf Stream. There is probably no racing condition in the world that can equal the sheer violence of beating up the Straits of Florida in a 25-knot northwester with 4 knots of Gulf Stream under one’s tail. The waves become “square,” and there is a tendency to sail off the top of a wave and experience a shuddering drop on the other side—a real test of seaworthiness for any boat. It was quite nerve-racking, wondering whether Rabbit could take the punishment. We were also given a lesson with respect to apparent wind. As we were sailing upwind in these harrowing conditions, a crewmember commented that the wind seemed to be lightening. Then it dawned on me that the wind wasn’t diminishing: we were simply sailing out of the strongest current of the Gulf Stream. The only solution was to tack back into the roughest water to gain maximum speed to windward.
The race was a great learning experience, but it was very disappointing, even embarrassing, from an offshore racing point of view. We never saw another yacht after the sun went down off St. Petersburg, and when we arrived at the finish line, there was no committee boat on station to greet us. They had given up and left. I guess our 33ft Rabbit was eight to 10 hours behind the last of the big boats. I couldn’t blame the committee for not waiting for us to show up. The 28-mile Lipton Cup Race off Miami was a different matter. In a fleet of 50 boats, we managed to get third overall on corrected time. This was followed by a fourth overall in the Miami-Nassau Race. My appetite for offshore racing was whetted. s
For more on Dick Carter’s career and work, or to order a copy of Dick Carter, Yacht Designer, go to dickcarteryachtdesigner.com