THE GOLDEN AGE

In an ex­cerpt from his new book, Dick Carter de­cribes an icy voy­age south

SAIL - - January 2019 Vol 50, Issue 1 -

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

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