In­grained Ap­pre­ci­a­tion

A vin­tage wooden Star boat passes into the hands of its next care­taker, one who has a deeper aware­ness of its soul.

Sailing World - - Starting Line -

Thou­sands of Star class boats are spread around the world, each with a unique per­son­al­ity, and cer­tainly a unique story. It’s true that a boat can even­tu­ally re­flect the per­sona of its owner, and this is es­pe­cially true of the Star boat Gem IX, once the pride of Ba­hamian leg­end Sir Dur­ward Knowles.

Gem IX is an ap­pro­pri­ate name for this boat, for many rea­sons. Built by the late great Skip Etchells at the Old Green­wich Boat Co. in 1963, the hull is as stun­ning to­day as it was when Etchells sculpted its Port Or­ford cedar, a light, strong and fine-grained tim­ber milled in the coastal moun­tains of Ore­gon. The boat was com­mis­sioned and first owned by Knowles, my men­tor and dear friend. Knowles and Ce­cil Cooke won the Gold Medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo with Gem IX.

I first met Knowles in 1978, at the Royal Cana­dian YC in Toronto. I was crew­ing for an­other men­tor of mine, Thomas David Black­aller. At 18 years old, I was in awe of the Star class and the lu­mi­nar­ies who cov­eted rac­ing this spe­cial boat. In crew­ing for Black­aller, I was im­me­di­ately com­pet­ing against Den­nis Con­ner, Buddy Melges, Carl Buchan, Low­ell North, Ding Schoon­maker, Pelle Pet­ter­son, Joe Du­plin and many oth­ers. Knowles’ peers were North and Melges, the Gold Star and Gold- medal win­ners of the day. He stood out as an is­land boy, then even at the age of 61. He had an un­mis­tak­able re­laxed aura, and his ac­cent made him vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to un­der­stand.

After crew­ing for Black­aller, Bill Ger­ard and Vince Brun, I even­tu­ally be­gan skip­per­ing in 1983. A year later, at the Western Hemi­sphere Cham­pi­onship in Nas­sau, I won my first Sil­ver Star. At the time, I was a guest in Knowles’ home through­out the event. He would coach me ev­ery morn­ing on the wind and cur­rent for the day. He was a heavy- air spe­cial­ist, and I was too, hav­ing grown up sail­ing on San Fran­cisco Bay. Nas­sau was al­ways windy in April, and he loved that I was win­ning in his home­town.

I went on to win the Sil­ver Star four times in Nas­sau over the fol­low­ing 25 years. My crew and I were al­ways house guests of Knowles and his wife, Holly. He and I would sit up late at night, on his porch over­look­ing Mon­tagu Bay, and he would talk story to me. There was the trailer that broke away from his car in Alabama in 1947, Ba­hami­ans who couldn’t drive in the United States, split­ting tacks with Dick Sterns and Pet­ter­son on the last wind­ward leg at the Tokyo Olympics.

He took me down to the port of Nas­sau at 4:30 one morn­ing to bring a ship in with him. Once, he drove me to the air­port at 5:30, got in a head-on col­li­sion re­turn­ing home and spent two weeks in the hos­pi­tal. He trav­eled to San Diego in 1992 to bring ad­vice and sup­port to me in the Amer­ica’s Cup.

In 2015, Don Par­fet and Jon Van­der­molen, long­time Star sailors, had a vi­sion to re­store 12 wooden Stars as a way to cel­e­brate the his­tory of the class. They de­cided to or­ga­nize the first Vin­tage Gold Cup in 2017, hosted on Gull Lake, Michi­gan. I was in­vited as a guest skip­per, and know­ing my re­la­tion­ship with Knowles, they put me in Gem IX. Knowles was thrilled when I told him about the re­gatta. After the first day of rac­ing, I called him im­me­di­ately and shared that we had won two of the three races and were lead­ing the event. I told him I would or­ga­nize a call with him on Facetime the fol­low­ing day so he could see the boats. “See da boats?” he asked. “In da phone? No mon, not in da phone!”

I said, “Yes, mon! I will call you to­mor­row.”

The next day, I shared the boats and some of the skip­pers he knew over Facetime. He was in­cred­u­lous of it all. Can you imag­ine a 100-year-old see­ing peo­ple and boats live through a phone?

The first time I sailed Gem IX, I ex­pe­ri­enced sen­sa­tions I’ve never felt in the two dozen other Stars I’ve raced in my 40 years of Star sail­ing. It was per­fectly bal­anced, which con­cerned me about point­ing, but it proved to be a strength. Fast is high! As a 55- year- old wooden boat, it re­acts dif­fer­ently to gusts than a stiff and rigid fiber­glass hull; it torques and works its way to wind­ward.

How it feels un­der sail re­minds me of some­thing Knowles used to say when giv­ing me ad­vice on sail­ing through the chop in Nas­sau. “Slack da hand, mon,” he used to say. “Let de boat walk.” Knowles was like Gem — re­laxed and for­giv­ing, not rigid and stiff.

Knowles stopped rac­ing as the years passed, but I al­ways made time to see him or call him to stay in touch. Some­times I made spe­cial trips to visit him: for his 100th birth­day party, and sev­eral times dur­ing the Star Sailors League event in 2017. But some­thing called me to Nas­sau in Fe­bru­ary 2018. I was in Mi­ami, rac­ing in the Star Masters at the time, so on Mon­day, after the event, I hopped on a plane and had a lovely lunch with him, Holly and their old­est daugh­ter, Jill, on the very ter­race where we’d spent so many nights talk­ing.

The next day, I re­turned to Mi­ami for the Star Mid­win­ter Se­ries, and Van­der­molen said to me, “Paul, you should buy Gem. She’s call­ing you.”

He was right, so I did. I was ex­cited to be the cus­to­dian of such an im­por­tant part of Star his­tory, to own a boat that was so dear to Knowles.

Two weeks later, his youngest daugh­ter, Char­lotte, called me and told me he was in the hos­pi­tal. I asked if I should fly there. She said he had an in­fec­tion in his lungs but it seemed to be un­der con­trol. At 100, it’s hard to shake an in­fec­tion, even if you are the Sea Wolf. I told Char­lotte to tell him that I had bought Gem and that I would take care of her. She said he smiled broadly.

He passed away on Fe­bru­ary 24, 2018, as the old­est liv­ing Olympic cham­pion. He was the pride of the Ba­hamas, be­ing their first Olympian. He was ded­i­cated to his church, his coun­try and his fam­ily. He was an icon far out­side of his tiny is­land na­tion. I am lucky to have hap­pened into his life, to have him take me un­der his wing. Gem rep­re­sents all of this to me.

In Septem­ber 2018, I in­tro­duced Gem IX to its fu­ture cus­to­dian, my son Danny, a third-gen­er­a­tion Star sailor be­hind his grand­fa­ther, Pet­ter­son, and me. In a fit­ting trib­ute to Knowles, we won the Vin­tage Gold Cup, Danny got his first gold wreath and Gem IX stands un­de­feated on Gull Lake. I am cer­tain Sir Dur­ward is smil­ing, as am I, for the boat is now part of my fam­ily, where it will re­main long after my time on this planet. Q

The first time I sailed Gem IX, I ex­pe­ri­enced sen­sa­tions I’ve never felt in the two dozen other Stars I’ve raced in my 40 years of Star sail­ing.

P H O T O S : WA LT E R C O O P E R

The au­thor (left, and above with crew Brian Fatih) fur­thered the legacy of Sir Dur­ward Knowles’ 55-year-old Star boat, Gem IX, with a win at Gull Lake YC’S 2018 Vin­tage Gold Cup in Min­nesota.

P H O T O : WA LT E R C O O P E R

Sir Dur­ward Knowles’ Star boatGem IX re­mains in gold-medal­win­ning rac­ing trim.

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