Chapter XIII -
The Four Skipper Series
Due to transportation difficulties, the World's Championship was held as a skipper series four times. It was the only way it could have been held during those war years. Skippers brought their own sails and used them on whatever local Star they happened to draw for each race. Early in the spring of 1942, we knew that shipping priorities and gasoline rationing would prevent entries from taking their own Stars. To ease the minds of a few, who were skeptical about the patriotic angle, we wrote to Washington and were advised that such races would not interfere with the war effort. Then we went ahead with our plans.
The Star class was lucky again. Harry Nye had brought the '42 Gold Star event to Chicago on aggregate points. It was probably the only spot in the world, at that time, where enough Stars were in commission to make such a skippers' series possible. Furthermore, there were no special navigation restrictions on Lake Michigan to seriously bother us. Much thought was given to the method of drawing for boats, in order to eliminate the element of luck insofar as possible. Since the system devised, to the best of the writer's knowledge, has never been used by any other class, it should be described.
The required number
of Stars were divided into two groups, A and B, the former presumably
the faster boats. A couple of spares were provided in each case. This
had to be done by a local committee, familiar with We reputation of each
boat. Age could not be the basis, as some old Stars are in better condition
and reputed to be faster than new ones. A line was drawn through the middle
of the entry list, which is printed in the numerical order of the skipper's
own sails. A coin was tossed to determine whether the upper or lower half
should draw the A boats for the first race. The second day it was reversed.
For the first four races, therefore, each entry drew an A boat twice.
Drawings were at ten o'clock a.m. daily. No one could sail the same boat twice, nor his own, if in the pool. If either happened on the last draw, then the boat was exchanged with the first skipper that drew and so on down.
Those four skipper series proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that winning depended upon the man and not the boat. The same skipper did just about as well with a B as he did with an A boat. If the boat played any part, it was a negative one. You could not blame the skipper, if something broke, for the condition of another man's property. Sails were a factor, but good skippers always have good sails. Ability counted and anybody in the know could come pretty near naming the winner in advance, as usual. If a dark horse came into the picture, the records show that he was a potential champion, just coming into his own and continued his winning ways after the World's Championship was restored to normalcy. Breakdowns and disqualifications affected the score now and then, but skippers run into the same hard luck when racing their own Stars.
To those from coastal areas, Chicago was like old times. The streets were brightly lighted at night. If there was a food or gas shortage we did not notice it. We spent a glorious carefree week in Chicago and the war seemed very far away. Headquarters were at the Columbia Yacht Club, a converted lake steamer, tied up to one of the municipal docks. It was only a short distance from the Blackstone, where most of us stayed.
I was there as a contestant, with my wife as crew. That was a welcome change. We did poorly, but the gout and not the boats I drew, was my alibi. When I placed in the middle of the first race, I only had it in one foot. The following day it was in both and I could not enter the next two. We tried the fourth one, sailed in a thick fog. We had a backstay jamb at the start. I could not get up and help. To avoid a foul, I tried to go about without headway, and put the boat in irons. Once we got started it went like the very devil, but we were far behind and only caught six boats. We only started in two races out of the five, but at that we did not finish last in the series.
That Star was one of Nye's Gales, later re-named Gusty, and I am not apt to forget it. Because of my feet, I could not get out of the cockpit. A young fellow had to bend on and take off the sails for me. The bolts, which held the floor boards, had never been filed flush with the nuts. They chewed off the entire seat of my pants and shorts, leaving nothing but bare skin. I went back to the Blackstone on crutches, with a sweater tied around my waist backward, as a rear guard. Soaking wet, we waited in the lobby for an elevator, with pools of water spreading around our feet. It was at the height of the cocktail hour, but no one seemed to mind. They just smiled and tiptoed around the puddles. We were not told how to dress, or use the garbage elevator, when going to a race and return. That is the nice thing about staying at a hotel with a long established reputation. It knows when to make exceptions, without fear of criticism, and does not pester its guests with small-minded regulations.
Speaking of correct attire, Ben Weston once told me a true story worth repeating, although it had nothing to do with Chicago. A prominent movie actor was strutting through the yacht club, which he had recently joined, all dolled up like Mrs. Astor's pet horse. Ben was a very good friend of his and thought he would appreciate a little well-meant advice.
"You should have black buttons on your yachting coat," Ben said, "only paid hands wear brass ones."
exclaimed the indignant actor, "those buttons are made of twenty-four
Buddy Ibsen, another Santa Monica Star skipper and former district officer, served on the I.R.C. by day and played in his own show at night. The theater was only a block from the Blackstone. He reserved a block of seats and the Star group saw the rollicking comedy, as his guests, on the night of the first race.
The stellar role at Chicago, insofar as class history is concerned, was played by Charlie de Cardenas. His entry kept the event international. His son, Carlos, Jr., was the youngest crew that ever competed for the title. Charlie suggested continental vice presidents that year, but action was deferred for the duration. The series was required to leave the continent of North America the following year, but conditions made that impossible. The meeting, therefore, voted to discontinue series points, as of 1943. Charlie, however, accumulated enough points at Chicago, plus those of the two previous years, to take the World's Championship to Havana, as soon as transportation would permit.
It should be explained that Cuba was then within the territory of a South American Star district. Cuba and the Bahamas were not shifted to the Third District, located in the southeastern part of the United States, until a couple of years after the World's Championship was sailed at Havana. The Seventh District originally consisted of fleets in the West Indies and one at Maracaibo, Venezuela. Eventually most of these small island fleets folded and the Star class began to spread in South America. Had Havana and Nassau been shifted before the Star class began to develop on the mainland, there would have been no Seventh District left. I just want to make it clear that Havana was legally entitled to hold the World's Championship in 1946 and that it was not due to any technicality.
The late John Pirie
handled all advance arrangements and did the lion's share of the work
on the I.R.C. John, although better known as his brother's crew, sailed
Stars since he was a little boy and was himself among the best skippers
in the class. It was our first skipper series and had it not been for
John's efficient management, it could have easily resulted in a terrible
In 1943 the G. C. had to select a fleet equipped to hold a skipper series. It could not ask Chicago to do so twice in a row. The Great South Bay was willing and seemed to be the best bet, although it did not have enough Stars. There were several neighboring fleets, who were able to get sufficient gas for a short haul, that trailed over one or two Stars each. Jack Wood, then a lieutenant in the Coast Guard, towed down two more from the academy at New London. They saved the day. At that we were always skating on mighty thin ice.
It was no easy matter to divide the few available Stars into A and B groups. To make it worse, the local boats had never raced against a number of the imported ones, nor had some of the latter competed against each other. In many cases there were no comparative records to go by and it was all pretty much guess work. Horace Havemeyer's Gull, formerly Frank Campbell's Rascal, was a real poser. Its phenomenal record on the Sound and the fact that Horace had won the Atlantic Coast title with it that year, seemed to place the boat in a class by itself. The Coe brothers, of West Jersey, drew Gull for the first race and solved the problem very quickly. In a tune up spin, they carried away the mast before the race started. That left us with only one spare.
Headquarters was at
the Bay Shore Y. C. Regardless of the wind, all races were started about
one hundred yards off shore. That was because the committee boat, Bill
Picken's cruiser, could not obtain any more gas and had to stay put. Jack
Wood's little power boat, of course, was not rationed. Otherwise, I do
not see how the marks could have been placed. So again the Coast Guard
came to the rescue. Adrian Iselin was to have been chairman of the I.R.C.
He was called home, due to an emergency, the night before the opening
race. Ted Everitt, the only other major officer present, automatically
became chairman. The other four I.R.C. members had to be elected from
the floor. Around half a dozen Stars were owned by competing skippers.
Since they were not allowed to sail their own boat, or the same one twice,
that complicated the draw daily. Yes, there were many obstacles to surmount
that year, but they managed it somehow.
Bay Shore was no longer the quaint little rural village of my boyhood. A few things, however, remained unchanged. Some of the party boats, among those at the dock, were the same. Engines had been installed and spars removed, but the names and those of their captains (sons and grandsons of the original ones) were the same.
Many of us stayed at the renovated Courtland House, another old landmark. It had a modern ship's bar, where we spent much of our leisure time. One evening we returned with sopping wet sails. It was still raining and there was no place to dry them. The management shooed the regular guests out of the reception room and let us hang them up in there. What more co-operation could one ask?
A dinner at the hotel, the night before the first race, and another at the club, on the last night, were the only formal entertainments. There were some impromptu cocktail parties, of course, but the rest of the time we were on our own. There were no prearranged functions, which we had to rush back and get dressed for after each race. It was a welcome change, which the boys liked - I know that I did. Yes, I raced each day, finished around the middle and that was just about where I belonged.
Charlie de Cardenas was again headline news. With two firsts and a third under his belt, he drew the Star that was leading in the boat score and entered the final race with a three point lead, a heavy favorite. After a reach and a run, he hauled on the wind in third place. The two ahead of him did not have enough points to be dangerous. He elected to follow them up in under the shore. It had paid off on a previous day, but it was clearing and the fitful easterly was getting ready to shift. His real rivals split the moment they rounded and tacked out in the Bay. They held the wind until it died and began to swing clockwise. Charlie did not cover. He sailed into a soft spot, fell back to eleventh and lost both the race and the series.
One of the cardinal principles of yacht racing is to keep between your nearest competitor the next mark. Charlie did not do it. Charlie was a stranger and could not have been expected to know the weather, but he could have covered the local skipper, Bill Picken, who was behind him. Charlie was inclined to blame the boat for being sluggish in light air, yet that same Star won the boat score two years later, in the lightest of all skipper series. The wind had shifted and, no matter what Star he had drawn, I do not see how he could have extricated himself from the predicament he was in. At that he saved enough points to place third in the series. Always a serious threat, it was the nearest Charlie has ever come to winning a Gold Star.
While the "grandpappy" fleet of them all was dwindling numerically, it still had a wealth of talent. Art Deacon won another world's title for Western Long Island. He did it the hard way, finishing third twice, but never worse than fifth. Art is one of the very few skippers that has ever won the classic by consistent sailing, but without taking a single race.
The late Bill Picken, sailing on his home waters, was runner-up. It was the best World's Championship performance of his career. Bill was both mother and father to the Great South Bay fleet. His boathouse and hoist were available to all. Wherever he competed, good old jovial Bill was the life and soul of the party. A Picken Memorial Trophy is now raced for every Labor Day weekend at Bellport, Long Island. Because of Bill's popularity, the event-always attracts many entries, even from far distant fleets.
Cliff Baker, of Lake Ontario American, crashed into the hall of fame by winning the third race. Cliff is also among the departed. A few years later, having been advised that Star racing was a bit too strenuous, he bought a Six Metre and succumbed to a heart attack at its helm. Cliff was another of those likable fellows. During his Star years he covered a lot of territory representing his fleet, including Cuba and California.
The Rochester skipper made the front page the next day, the day of the big rains, but in quite another way. Shaving it too close, he slammed broadside into the committee boat, when his keel caught on its anchor cable. Knowing he had fouled, as a number of people had finally pushed him clear, he started to withdraw, but was told to go ahead and race. Cliff was still laughing about it the next morning at breakfast. He could not understand why he had not been disqualified, nor could anyone else. When will committees ever learn to stop being softhearted? It only breeds disregard of rules and subjects them to criticism from the very ones they seek to please.
The 1944 skipper series was again sailed on Lake Michigan. I was not at Chicago that year and, therefore, only have hearsay information about The event. Shore activities were pretty much a replica of 1942 and so, to some extent, were the results.
Once again the same skipper won the first two races, one with an A and one with a B boat, again proving that it is The man and not The boat. In This case it was Gerry Driscoll, of San Diego, who also won another race, but he won The series. With an eight-point lead, he just played it safe on that last blusterous day to make sure of finishing in one piece.
Bob Lippincott was runner-up. The West Jersey skipper was on his way to fame, but attracted very little notice that year. Bert Williams placed third, winning the last race, in which his weight was an advantage. On that final day the Windy City really lived up to its name. There was such a sea that the race was started from the breakwater. Five entries did not even venture forth. The sixth non-starter had already withdrawn from the series.
That was the first year that Watt sails began to attract general attention. Driscoll used them, but Skip Etchells did also, when he made a clean sweep of the five Atlantic Coast championship races. Ed Ketcham duplicated this feat in 1947.
In 1944 occurred the end of an era in the Star class. On a cold, stormy night in early January, our grand old man passed away. Pop had been bedridden for nearly a year, nevertheless, it came as a terrific shock to the whole yachting world. There never has been and there never will be another Pop Corry. The class went into mourning and many displayed a band of black crepe across the Star on their sails.
The commodore must have foreseen the end. Shortly after his death we learned that he had given the Little Dipper away the previous year. The new owner, who was going to condition and race it, generously offered to present it to the association, if the latter paid the yard bills. That was taken care of by small contributions and the overage given to Ma Corry. The Manhasset Bay Yacht Club, located at Port Washington, Long Island, agreed to keep the Little Dipper. It was only fitting that Star. No. 1 should rest at the club, of which Pop was the number one member. The first Star built can be seen there today, where it stands as a tribute to the yachting career of Commodore George A. Corry, the most beloved and never to be forgotten of all Star owners.
The Stamford Yacht Club, which did not have a single Star of its own, was our host for the fourth and last of the skipper series. It was a picturesque headquarters and Stamford gave the boys everything but wind. It was a good thing it was the last series of the sort, as I doubt very much if we could have held another one successfully.
Most of the Stars used were provided by the Central Long Island Sound fleet, although neighboring ones contributed a few. Fearing a shortage, we offered a boat score prize as an incentive, but it did not help very much. Few, if any, name Stars were among those in the pool. No equipment had been replaced for four years and, like the one-horse shay, many of them began to fall apart at once. It could not have been due to inexperienced handling, as the skippers were among the best in the class; nor to wind, since there was none. After each race, a launch from the local shipyard towed away a number of Stars, which had to be repaired. We never knew until the next morning how many of them would be ready and could be drawn for that day.
The war was just over. Gasoline restrictions had been relaxed somewhat, but practically no powerboats were in commission. We were allocated a small Coast Guard boat, without which it would have been almost impossible to manage. There was only one stakeboat available, hence a government buoy had to be used instead of the other. It was no easy matter to establish a standard Star course using a fixed mark. That was a grueling series for the contestants and a nerve-wracking one for the race committee, which never knew where it stood and which taxed its ingenuity to the utmost. Last minute arrangements had to be improvised constantly to make a race possible and to complete the series.
Each morning there was a veritable epidemic of complaints about the boats drawn. Some were justifiable and some due to force of habit. The bolt rope of the sail the skipper wanted to use would not fit the grooves. Turnbuckles were frozen and he could not adjust the shrouds. Fair-leaders were stationary and he could not properly trim his jib, etc. The I.R.C. was forced to get tough. If a Star was sailable, the skipper had to do the best he could with it, or stay out of the race. We could not give him another boat, as we had none. The situation was getting out of hand.
There was never enough wind to get any of the scheduled races started until late afternoon and the entries did not get back to their moorings before dark. Had there been a little breeze, the starts would not have been delayed. The I.R.C had been over-lenient for three years, because of the difficulty a skipper had in getting another's Star ready to race. They were beginning to take advantage of that. When the majority were at the line, a few were always missing. They knew the race would not be started without them and were just taking their own sweet time about coming out. Usually the Coast Guard boat had to be sent back to the harbor for them and that took another half hour. Yes, it was high time that that sort of racing came to an end.
Three different skippers won the first three races, namely: de Cardenas, Cowie and Etchells. Burnham took two seconds, otherwise a different skipper was among the first three each of those days and it was anyone's series. On the second evening, the light southerly was steady enough for a windward and leeward course - the only one of the week.
It was overcast on rest day, with a really nice sailing breeze. The I.R.C. wanted to hold a race, but the boys were tired and insisted on having the day off. On Friday it was raining and blowing great guns from the east. Ordinarily there would have been a race, as the heavy weather boys have as much right to their weather as the drifters. Considering the condition of the boats and the fact that there were not enough power craft to serve as a rescue squad, it would have been too dangerous to risk. It moderated in the early afternoon, but many of the entries had wandered off and could not be found.
We held a double header the next day, hoping to complete the series on time. The start was bright and early, but after two hours no one had rounded the first mark and the race had to be called off. Stars had to be changed for the afternoon race. A launch was sent back for sandwiches and beer. The I.R.C. did the drawing. A flat calm made it possible for Stars to tie up all around the committee boat. Contestants stepped from one to another, until they found the one they were going to race. Then came hours of waiting. Several times little overshots caused us to start giving signals, but they always died out.
The mooring breeze sprang up even later than usual. The sun was already sinking in the west, when in desperation we gave them a reaching start. The leaders were not quite holding their own with the time limit at the end of the first round, but the wind was freshening somewhat. Through the glasses we were just able to see the first Star round the last turning mark. There was no moon and it was black as pitch. The breeze had just hauled enough to make that last leg a dead beat, instead of a long and short one. We kept our searchlight trained on the line stakeboat. The Coast Guard tied up alongside. Its searchlight was waved vertically to call attention to the line. We had run out of liquor and had to wet our whistles with soda pop. Of course no one swallowed any, just gargled with it. It was a very weird experience. We could not see twenty feet away and did not know what was going on, as the minutes ticked away.
That was the only night finish in the annals of the World's Championship. With five minutes to go, we began shouting through a megaphone, to find out if any Star was within earshot. An answering hail came out of the ebon void. It sounded far away and wanted to know how much time was left.
"About four minutes, can you make it?"
"Yes, I think so."
With more than a minute to spare, Bert Williams' sail cut the beam of our searchlight. A gun barked and the race was official. Malin Burnham flashed across a few moments later, again finishing second. Then came a regular photo finish between Ceb Lee and Skip Etchells. While you can only see the yachts for a couple of seconds, numbers can be distinguished more clearly and close finishes judged more accurately by searchlight than by day. Cebern won his gold chevron by inches, but there was no question about it. Every now and then a ghostly apparition would loom up and the lookout shouted, "boat" a jiffy before it streaked across the line. After seventeen Stars crossed, there was a long pause. No hails were answered and we weighed anchor and returned to the harbor.
It was Saturday night, the night of the final banquet. The club was crowded, when we finally got back, and the improvised bar at the end of the dance floor was a welcome sight. The Star contingent monopolized it for awhile and then went to the Star table just as they were. It had been a long, long day. The contestants had been in their Stars for nearly fifteen hours and, because of the early start, some had not shaved since the morning before. The witching hour of midnight struck before the first course was placed before us. The cordial Commodore Beck was M. C., but only daily prizes could be presented. He and the other Stamford flag officers did everything possible to care for our needs during that week.
The final race was sailed on Sunday morning in a puffy northwester. That was lucky, as it was blowing a full gale by early afternoon. Skippy Shaw went A.W.O.L. to complete the series and was probably thrown in the brig for doing so. Bob Lippincott rounded up and said he could not keep the mast in the boat he had. He asked for a postponement, while he went back for another, but the request was denied. It was tough on Bob, as it did him out of a chance of placing third, but he was thirteen points behind the leader and could not have won. In any event, we had to get that race started before all those boats fell apart. Bud Jahncke had jib trouble and did not start until five minutes after the rest. The New Orleans skipper picked up a lot of boats to finish fifth and win the Distant Fleet trophy.
Ted Clark and Bert Williams parted their main halyards before they even reached the first mark. Charlie de Cardenas was first around it, but was misdirected by some youngster, who was a guest on the marker yacht. He should have paid no attention, but by the time Charlie found he was holding much too high for the next mark, he was no longer ahead. In trying to clear a jammed mainsheet, Harold Halsted fell over. The crew did not see it happen and the boat went sailing off by itself. An unidentified motorboat passed and someone threw a life ring. It hit Harold and promptly sank. He was picked up about twenty minutes later by the Coast Guard and a serious accident narrowly averted.
Jim Cowie started with a four point advantage over the field. The 1940 champion, of gigantic roach fame, was expected to win again, but he too had sail trouble. Jim managed to repair it, however, and finished seventh, to become runner-up. Skip Etchells finished ninth and, with Lippincott out of it, was an easy third in the series.
Malin Burnham, who crewed for Driscoll the previous year, won the race and gave San Diego another gold Star. Considering the weather and condition of the boats, Malin turned in a superb performance. Whether sailing an A or a B boat, he finished second or better in every race but one. He and Lowell North, his crew, were then in their teens. They still are the youngest combination that has ever won the title.
The last race was
a sort of anti-climax. Prizes were hastily presented on the club lawn,
while the newly crowned champions were still wet and shivering from the
traditional ducking. We were all glad that fateful series was over. Those
four years should have taught everyone a lesson, but it was quickly forgotten.
Within a couple of months, owners and prospective owners were again discussing
the relative speed of Stars by different builders. Even the most inexperienced
secretly believed that he could win, if he only had the right Star. It
will be ever thus and perhaps it is a good thing, as it helps hold the
interest of the rank and file. Otherwise those with latent talent would
probably become discouraged and drop out before giving it half a chance