Every sailing area has its own unique character or mystique. Nowhere does this character stand out more than on San Francisco Bay. It is one of the few areas of the world where ocean, desert, mountainous region, forest and islands, can be found all within one hundred miles. The micro-climates are numerous and give the area many peculiar qualities. I discovered this on my first day there, the Wednesday before the 1978 World's.
We had arrived at St. Francis Yacht Club in the late afternoon- just in time to catch the big boats taking off right off the club porch. The awesomeness of the sleek seventy-plus footers Merlin, Kialoa and Windward Passage was magnified many times by the bitter 30 knot breeze. Reefed to a minimum, the eerie giants sliced through the steep, short chop unaffected and within a couple of minutes vanished in the low, thick fog toward the Golden Gate - which we knew was out there somewhere. My wonder changed to uneasiness as they disappeared and I turned to see Buddy Melges standing there with eyes afire behind aviator sunglasses, the patented baseball cap with yachting crest, and an ear to ear grin. I had a strange feeling in me that he would win the 1978 Gold Star as I saw that half-crazed expression gazing out into the fog. It wasn't a psyche-job nor was it a wager, just a strong premonition.
Melges was later to
tell me that it was indeed at that same moment that he felt that he was
really prepared to win the series.
The weather situation the next day was somewhat different. We rigged our boat and went out expecting to encounter some heavy air in which to exorcise any last minute intimidation left over from the day before. But it blew no more than eight knots as we ventured east toward Berkeley. About thirty boats were holding a race in front of the yacht club but we elected to check out the racecourse and see what we could find. By the time we reached the edge of the Olympic circle it was too late to do anything but return to the club. We tacked back toward Fisherman's Wharf and as we approached the shore we notice that the current was carrying us east. We tacked out toward Alcatraz for fifteen minutes and then back toward shore again. We found that we had not made any headway at all and that in fact we had lost ground! After twenty minutes of going nowhere fast, the breeze picked up enough to help us override the tidal influence and we arrived at the harbor mouth at dusk.
After the measuring (I will never understand how 100 boats were measured so thoroughly in such a smooth, orderly manner and short time), came the tune-up race.
The Tune-Up Race
As often happens at major regattas, a wave of equipment paranoia hit the fleet before the first race. In this case it was bailing devices. In a matter of hours, the Bay area was completely depleted of pumps, splashboards and self-bailers. Nevertheless at the end of the first race there were three Star boaters who wished that this mass hysteria had struck them. All they had to do in order to be reminded of this was to glance at their half-sunken boats with masts and sails protruding out of the water two meters.
It was heart-warming to see former greats like von Hutschler and de Cardenas actively participating in Class affairs. In addition to the nine Gold Star titleists sailing in the regatta, six others were present as dignitaries, race committee or spectators. The non-Starboater would probably view the scene and wonder why all the fuss. George Elder probably caught part of it when he said, "All you have to do is win your first Star race-and you are an addict for life."
The wind was a bit stronger on the first leg of the first race than for the others (18-20 knots). Again most of the fleet sailed on starboard until clear air or a tack over to the right was attainable. Those who went right immediately after the start, however, suffered. About one-third of the way up the course we met Conner, who seemed to have a slight lead over Widgeon, 6346. But as the breeze piped in near the weather mark, Melges took the lead. On the first reach the iceboat experience paid off, and Melges' superior power reach technique increased his lead with each puff and wave. After Dennis came a trickle of boats in single file: Trask, Wright, Blackaller and Mogens Neilsen, the only Dane present. One of the most concentrated packs of Stars ever assembled met at that first mark. The current was running so strong to weather that one could tack short of the layline on starboard and have no trouble rounding, even in bad air. This only snarled things up worse. After witnessing that mess, I promised myself never to go into the yacht insurance business.
On the next reach, Blackaller worked his way up to fourth while Trask almost whittled away Conner's second place. Trask maintained his well-earned placing to the finish as Melges won by his largest margin (two minutes).
As we approached the finish I thought I saw two Lasers sailing around the line. Wondering why they had not been escorted out of the finish area I took a closer look, only to find that these were Star masts with sails, two boats that had swamped in route to the first mark because of lack of bailing devices. Fortunately there were no injuries. A third boat, 5861, decided to abandon its skipper and crew and join that legendary perpetual race on the bottom of San Francisco Bay. Although the USFB (Underwater San Francisco Bay) fleet does not have quite as many boats as her sister fleet, the (above water) West San Francisco Bay fleet, there are now the required number of boats to obtain a charter. Contact Tom Blackaller or Don Trask if you have a boat, which you would like to enter in this fleet. Crews will be accepted only with dues paid and full scuba gear.
After the first of
many long beats to the yacht club, we were exhausted. There were a few
surprises in the first race, the biggest being Melges' convincing victory.
Bill Buchan could not release his sheets in time to duck the transom of
Bill Gerard, and he was forced to withdraw. Wright, better known for his
light air talent, finished a strong fifth. Nielsen and Trask both sailed
good races. The beefy pair of Conner and Anderson failed to win in what
would normally be considered "their air."
That night Conners
remarked on how shook up he was that Melges had such speed when the breeze
came in. He knew that if he didn't do something the next day his hopes
of a third Star World Championship would have to be postponed to another
Melges caught Conner
upwind and for the third straight race was able to hold him off until
the finish. Not far behind was the speedy Wagner. Gerard's upwind speed
enabled him to come out on top of the other three for fourth. Blackaller,
although he finished the race in protest, was also over early at the start
and thus was forced to use up his throwout race.
The last race was heavy air from start to finish and matched only the first race in velocity. The fog rolling in off the Golden Gate Bridge was an indicator of how it was to blow for the day. This morning the fog came in early, low and thick - a sure sign of a wild ride. Before the start we saw Conner hawking over Schoonmaker, apparently in preparation for one of his Twelve-Meter starts. Blackaller and Trask got off the line perfectly at the boat end while Henderson, Gerard and Wagner stayed in the middle. Down toward the pin, Conner buried Schoonmaker, his only real threat in the standings. Blackaller, Trask and Wright dueled all the way up the right side. Gerard, after a bad start, went to the right corner uncontested with Henderson. Wagner found himself in the middle of the fleet soon after the start, and had no place to go to catch up. The pair of Henderson and Brymer, weighing together no more than 340 pounds (154 kg) led all the way around.
Gerard's last ditch run for the right corner was successful as he wound up in second. Blackaller, Trask and Eduardo de Souza Ramos, the top Brazilian, followed. There were strange spots of no wind mixed in with the twenty-two knot breeze. On the last leg the right side was so heavily favored that places changed five or six times in fog so thick that most crews timed their tacks up to the finish line. I.Y.R.U. Vice-President Paul Henderson found himself with two very well deserved gold Chevrons. Blackaller sneaked into third place overall by grabbing third in the race. He seems to get really fired up under pressure. Bill Gerard's fourth place overall was his best in a World's to date.
Together with the thick fog, steep chop and fierce breeze, this day reminded me of that first Wednesday. A very fitting end to a great regatta and an eerie farewell to a very mystical sailing area.
Melges and his crew actually did quite a bit more than win the 1978 Star World's. They used initiative, intelligence and originality to build a better mousetrap, starting with a bare Gerard hull, without keel or skeg. Melges and his wife somehow trailed the hull back to Zenda, Wis., on top of his Soling after the Soling North Americans at Newport Beach. At Zenda, he added stiffening, a computer-optimized keel section and a standard Spartech D-section mast. All of the rigging and sail design were an expression of Melges' ideas about how a Starboat should be set up and operated.
In addition to its
inherent stiffness, Melges' Widgeon has a reinforcing strongback
down the centerline. This allows for port and starboard buoyancy tanks
forward of an A-frame bulkhead at the mast step, which is four inches
wide at its base and two inches wide at the top, and which helps keep
the hull rigid under loading from the rig. Coupled with a bulkhead at
the after end of the cockpit, Widgeon has 27 cu. ft. of buoyancy
. . . Melges claims Widgeon could be sailed dry (upon being fully
The I.R.C. did an excellent job of insuring square lines and good starts. Probably the single most important reason why the 100 boat fleet encountered only one general recall was that the I.R.C. refused to recall unless absolutely necessary. Often a clump of boats would be seen starting early. Spotters waited until the clump dispersed enough to read the sail numbers then immediately dispatched one of two Zodiac rubber boats to individually recall each boat. The pin end boat and committee boat both had high towers upon which the spotters kept vigil. Nineteen boats were individually recalled in one race.
Another unique policy of this committee was to split up the committee into two groups to hear protests. One group would hear only port-starboard situations while the other would be concerned with mark roundings and luffing rights situations. Chairman Bobby Symonette did a remarkable job of coordinating the activities of the committee. A copy of his report is on file in the Central Office for anyone wishing to use it for future reference. Also on file is the report of Roger Eldridge whose crack team of measurers easily handled the seemingly insurmountable task of measuring 105 boats.