Years Among the Stars
Chapter IV - World War I and the Late Teens
A racing yacht was an extravagant luxury, a millionaire's hobby, which could well be dispensed with in times of strife. To the public the very word yacht meant grandeur. We were living in the age of the great racing yacht and its professional crew. Even the owners of those majestic creations did not consider a cheap little boat-a yacht. Yacht racing was unpatriotic and was discontinued while the United States participated in World War One.
On Sundays, in 1917 and 1918, Stars sailed inter-club races on Manhasset and Little Neck Bays. The Port Washington, Manhasset Bay and Bayside Yacht clubs each held a Sunday series and the Star Class Association of America gave inexpensive series prizes for the over-all result. Nevertheless, there were some conscientious objectors. They would have preferred, I suppose, to have had those ineligible for service spend Sunday afternoons at a movie or in a speakeasy.
Prohibition had descended upon us in the guise of a war measure to conserve grain. I went to a couple of cabarets (they were not called night clubs then) just before the lid was clamped down. They were crowded, but otherwise normal. No one took it seriously. Long lines waited in front of wholesale grocers and the like, on the final night, with baby carriages, wash tubs and most anything to help them carry bottles home. It was a huge joke and could not last for more than a month or two, but they were wrong. We were on the eve of a long arid period of bathtub gin and racketeers, when even the usually abstemious delighted in circumventing an unpopular and unenforceable law.
In those so-called dry years, I visited a lot of clubs in various parts of the country. It seemed to me that more alcohol was consumed then than at any time before or since. Lockers were well stocked, mostly with bottles of synthetic Bacardi. If you gave one to the bartender and ordered half a dozen cocktails, knowing that only one-third would be used, it was the last time you ever saw that bottle. It was too general a practice to have been a coincidence, but no one cared. If you ran short there were ways and means of replenishing your supply, provided you were known and had the price. Legitimate clubs were not molested and that sense of security was worth putting up with a minor racket.
During the two war
years there was only one open regatta on the Sound. It was held by the
Indian Harbor Y.C. for the benefit of the Red Cross. A five dollar entry
fee was charged as a means of raising money. This is mentioned because
entry fees are quite common in some localities but, to the best of my
knowledge, that was the only one ever charged for a yacht race on the
Sound. Against a field of about eight Stars, Bill McHugh won the silver
medal for first and I took the bronze one for second. Only a handful of
comparatively small yachts, of miscellaneous classes put in an appearance.
The answer is simple - there were none in commission. It could not have
been a very profitable experiment as it was never repeated.
Only two were produced that year. However, it was enough to keep our record intact. The increase, in what later became the Western L.I.S. Fleet, was caused by Stars from nearby places, where all racing had ceased, being brought there by new owners. Some went to the clubs on the Bays that were holding Sunday races and others were distributed along the clubs on the north shore of the Sound. Quite a few of the latter came over on Sundays for the inter-club events.
The greatest influx was of Versoy built Stars from New Haven. The best known of these was sailed by Pingree and VanWinkle. Van, who was never an international officer, played quite an important role in local affairs and still is an associate member. Bill Inslee brought the Shadow from Gravesend to Bayside. Previously there had only been a single Star, No. 1, that came out of Little Neck Bay, but during the war the Bayside Y.C. group grew rapidly. Of course there were Stars by other builders than Versoy and many new names. They did not mean much then, although many among them became famous in Star circles later.
The Rocky River Dry Docks built sixteen Stars for Rochester in 1917. The Star Log shows that the Rochester Boat Works built those boats, but I know that the original lot was built at Rocky River. They probably did some racing during the war, but, like Nahant, Rochester remained an outlaw group for a couple of years after the I.S.C.Y.R.A. was formed and their early races are not recorded. Those boats had two inches more beam than the average Star. It was perfectly legal, as Gardner's specifications read, "... no narrower than ..." That additional beam was intentional and supposed to produce a boat better suited to conditions on Lake Ontario. This is a good example of why our original limitations had to be so liberal. Actually they proved to be slow Stars in any locality.
There were also some Stars on Lake Erie, some at Toledo and a few at Cleveland, that may have raced in the war years. Their owners were members of the Star Class Association of America, but no effort was made at that time to keep records. Al Wakefield joined the Cleveland group in 1918. He had been an international Star officer of high rank for quite a number of years and is still an active skipper. Al is the only one, who may, in recent years, have eclipsed my record of thirty-three consecutive years of Star racing. He cannot remember whether he skipped a couple of seasons or not and the records do not show it one way or the other.
Most of us were too busy with war work, during those two years of Sunday racing, to remember about them. I know that I was. Only two incidents are clear in my mind. In one race hailstones fell with such force that it was impossible to keep your hand on the tiller. All one could do was crawl under the deck and let the boat take care of itself. All the Stars went aground. None were damaged, but it was already late in the evening and no one was able to push off and finish before the sundown time limit. Races were not scheduled for every Sunday. On open dates we held impromptu ones. I cashed in some United Cigar Store coupons and provided prizes for one such event. It was won by Buck Hyde. Port Washington Y.C. Stars, with Inslee added, continued to dominate. I evidently placed in some of the inter-club series, according to the inscription on a few of my trophies. Pop won the 1917 Captain's Island race and Ed Willis took the honors in 1918. I am sorry, but that is about all I can remember about that hazy and hectic period.
Mars finally sheathed his sword and departed from this terrestrial sphere to hibernate for another quarter of a century. The return of peace found racing to be in a very precarious state. None of the really big fellows, and only a few of the semi-large yachts, had been put back in commission. The innumerable little one-designs throughout the country had been wiped out. Only one or two scattered remnants of those pre-war classes were left and they had nothing to race against. The Star Class was the only exception, it was bigger and better than ever.
The early Sound regattas of 1919 were sad affairs indeed. Aside from the Stars, no more than two of a kind started on any gun. A N.Y. 40, two 30's and a large handicap boat, for instance, would race together on time allowance. The press did its best. It gave the corrected time of the mixed or special class, the elapsed time of the two 30's and listed the other two boats as having won a sail-over. This was repeated down along the line, where miscellaneous one-designs and handicap boats, of about the same size, raced against each other. At first glance the summaries were impressive. If you read them carefully, however, you could see that the same names were repeated and that, except for the Stars, the total starters did not amount to more than about fifteen. Twenty-six Stars were in Larchmont Race Week, which was by far the largest class. By that time the Victories, another Gardner product, were racing and several reasonably large yachts had joined in. That relieved the tension somewhat. A total of thirty-two Stars competed in the Sound Championship that season. The fact is, that if the Stars had been subtracted from any of those open regattas, there would have been mighty few entries left.
The foregoing, mind you, refers to conditions at the western end of Long Island Sound, which was then the mecca of yachting. Elsewhere things were very much worse. Places that had been quite well established in racing did not have any yachts with which to even hold a token regatta, in an effort to revive interest in the sport. In such places the fate of the game hung in the balance for nearly a decade. Had the Star not led the way to an era of organized small one-design racing, there might easily have been no yacht racing to speak of today.
In one respect, all this may have been a blessing in disguise. The rocking chair owner was a thing of the past. No longer did very rich men feel that their social prestige demanded that they own a large racing yacht. No longer did they sit around the club and sip highballs, while their professional crews were trying to win silverware for them. The larger yachts, which had a short revival on the Sound, were being skippered by Corinthians, usually their owners. They had a skeleton crew of pros, to keep the yacht in shape, but the majority of the racing crew consisted of amateur friends. Only those who really loved yacht racing were connected with it. The old theory about a professional skipper being better than a good Corinthian had been exploded. That influence extended even to the few remaining races for t he America's Cup. The skipper and afterguard became Corinthians and the size of the yacht was reduced, until owning even a small one became too great an expense and the famous Cup was put away in moth balls, perhaps never to be raced for again.
That first peace time season was probably Willis' best. He won every major Star series, except Larchmont Week, which was won by Inslee. It was also the last year in which the Port Washington Y.C. group, generally speaking, dominated Star racing on the Sound. After that the balance of power shifted to the boys from Bayside, at least for a time.
Perhaps the most important development in 1919 was the creation of a "B" division. That eventually led to the Novice (green star) Championships, which are now being held by most Districts of the Star class. The "B" division was in no sense a junior proposition. It included all, whose combined average the year before, had been fifty per cent or less. It was optional. If any skipper felt that being rated "B" was a reflection, he could elect to race with "A" only. In like manner, the officials of the class could rate any dark horse as an "A", if they felt his showing in some other class made him ineligible as a "B." Both divisions started together on the same gun. A separate score was kept of the "B" group, regardless of how many "A" entries finished among them. Hence a "B" skipper could win both an "A" and a "B" daily prize This applied to Sunday Star racing only, but it increased interest tremendously.
Another interesting thing happened in 1919. Donald Cowl put the first short Marconi on the Mara, Star No. 46. The rig was designed by Gardner himself. The Mara was not allowed to enter any open races with it. A lot of scrub races, however, were held in Manhasset Bay. All the good boys raced No. 46. It had very wide spreaders and a steam bent hollow mast. The result was a rank failure. No one was able to place much better than last with that boat and the Marconi rig was temporarily ruled out.
A professional, as crew, was allowed by the old association and carried over as a fleet option by the new one, but professional crews were barred from any form of inter-fleet competition. put through the original rule for the sake of his friend Commander Fry. The old commander was the racing brains of his Star, but was not spry enough to do any heavy work and was dependent upon his regular pro crew. The ostensible purpose of the rule was to ease the minds of parents who wanted their children to race a Star. This was absurd. The Star has always been a class for adults and the competition too highly developed for the average kid. I know of less than a dozen child skippers in the past forty years. Only one of them had a pro crew for a couple of seasons, hence the professional crew has played a very minor role indeed in Star racing. I refer, of course, to the old type of dyed in the wool Layman, once held in high esteem. Most of them only had a scanty knowledge of the more common rules and believed in ignoring them, if smart enough to get away with it. They were not a good influence as a regular racing companion. No longer does anyone take advantage of this option and, like all obsolete rules, it should be weeded out of the book.
The first division "B" championship was won by a real junior, Gordon Curry. At the time he was a fat little boy, with a shrill voice that could be heard all over the Bay. His crew was a youngster of about the same age, Fred Richards, and my how those kids could eat! We made the mistake of once asking them aboard the Dawn II for a slice of cake. It was a large cake, that had never been cut. Between them they finished it in a few moments. One grew up to be a tackle at Harvard and the other to tip the scales at about two hundred and thirty pounds.
In 1920 the balance of power shifted from the Port Washington Y.C. to the Bayside Y.C. Star group. Gordon Curry's Acquilla ended the season by winning the Captain's Island race. I won a two boat attempt to revive Atlantic week, which has already been related. Otherwise, Bayside took all the honors. Inslee, who was sailing No. 1, the Taurus, won the Sound Championship. Ben Linkfield took Larchmont Race Week. Ben is the only Star sailor that I ever heard of who became an expert skipper in middle life. In that respect he stands alone. He was good, make no mistake about that. If I recall correctly, Fred Teeves also came into the picture for the first time by winning the division "B" championship. I do not remember who won all the individual races, but the Bayside boys won the lion's share of them.
"Buts" Whiting, who owned Star No. 2, was a great hand for trying innovations. He tried an airplane wing as a rigid sail. To go about, the wing had to be turned end for end over a short mast. He also tried to incorporate the parachute spinnaker idea with a hole in the mainsail. There were a hundred odd flaps, about two inches in diameter, cut in a semicircle and wired, so as to open when running before the wind. He was allowed to race with that sail, but it never worked. "Buts" was chairman of the Larchmont R.C. for a time and introduced new courses. The first leg was to a buoy off Execution. It applied to all classes. The idea was to separate the yachts, by giving them a short beat, and avoid a jam at the first mark. It was discontinued the next season.
I am not apt to forget Larchmont's spring regatta that year. I had a newly launched Smith Star, the Saturn. Most of my belongings were on the Dawn II, which had not yet reached Port Washington. Nevertheless, we sailed her over to Larchmont and started. The leg to Execution was a reach that day and a squall was making up in the Southwest. It turned black as night and broke just as the Stars rounded. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a couple of long tows out in the channel that had put up their running lights. Then the rain came down in sheets and obliterated everything. The rain and wind stopped as suddenly as it had begun, but left a dense fog over the water. I never saw anything quite like that before or since. It became light overhead but you could not see fifty feet. We must have sailed around in a circle for a long time. Finally we almost hit a buoy and tied up to it. It was the same buoy we had rounded three hours before. We knew where we were and stayed there. Except for the cry of a few gulls, we did not hear a sound that afternoon. Execution never blew its fog signal. We had no oilers, dry smokes nor anything, but a pint of whiskey, which we polished off. Pretty soon a cruiser loomed up out of the fog. It was also lost, but offered to take us aboard and tow the Saturn to Bayside. The fog did not lift until the moon came up that night.
In taking it for granted that none of the Stars finished, I was mistaken. It seems that Canis Minor, with Charlie Davis at the helm and Sig Adler as crew, was the first yacht in any class to cross the line. They swore that they sailed the course. I believe them, as that sort of thing has often happened, but the R.C. thought it impossible that Canis Minor had finished before all the larger yachts and refused to award it the race. Little Dipper crossed half an hour or so later, but several large yachts finished ahead of her. That satisfied the R.C. and Pop won. I did not hear about all this until the following morning. When I saw Pop, I asked him how he managed to locate that second mark in the fog.
"Well, I actually did not see it," he admitted. "I hailed a Victory to leeward. They told me they had hailed another yacht to leeward of them, which had spoken to still another that had rounded. So you see I must have rounded also." I did not see and asked him how long after the alleged rounding, by the unknown yacht, did this hailing business take place. "By gad," he replied, "I never asked."
I let it go at that. Winning had become a rarity for Pop, who honestly believed he had sailed the course. Perhaps he had and perhaps he had never come within a mile of passing that second mark on the required side. It was one of those things that no one, including himself, could ever prove. His claim to the race was just as valid as the handful of other Stars, that finally found the line. That is one reason why we have always had an official at every mark in a Star World's Championship.
Pop inadvertently talked himself into another first during Larchmont Week. A light fluky wind had brought the yachts astern up to the leaders and left them there. A bunch of yachts, from different classes, crossed the line at about the same time. Their mainsails were held out, to catch what there was of a following zephyr. It must have been very difficult for the R.C. to spot the numbers. Bill Inslee and I were crossing quite near the committee boat. His bow may have been just overlapping my stern and the distance between the hulls laterally was no more than a foot. I know he was behind, as I had to turn my head completely around to talk to him. We had seen the Little Dipper at the stakeboat end of the line, where Pop could harden his wind, and were wondering whether he could beat us. Passing under the white flag, we had a good view of the line and agreed that Pop had not yet crossed. As soon as he had a chance, Pop sailed over to the committee boat and yelled, "I guess I won." After quite a pause, a voice answered, "Yes, Mr. Corry, I guess you did."
The summaries the next morning credited Pop with first, Inslee with second and I was placed eighth. Probably my boat had been cut off from view entirely by another sail and the R.C. had not noticed my number until later. I rushed ashore, phoned Inslee and asked him to sail over to the R.C. with me that afternoon and explain that I had beaten him. He said that angle might have been deceptive. Deceptive my foot! His boat could not have crossed ahead of mine unless we had been drifting over the line stern first. I called his attention to the fact that the fourth Star had not even been in that bunch that crossed together and asked him how five Stars could have possibly squeezed in between us. He stuck to the deceptive angle theory. I have never forgiven him for that. Pop had not seen either of us and my case was hopeless. To argue with an R.C. in those days was like trying to argue with a baseball umpire once he had made his decision.
But race committees are human and the best of them can make mistakes. Larchmont is supposed to have a pretty efficient R.C., yet I saw it start the Stars one minute too soon. I must have knocked off the end of a cigarette, which had burned its way into the kapok of a life vest that I was seated on. I noticed that it was getting rather warm and, believing that we had a minute to spare, we went about putting out the smoldering mess. I heard a signal, looked up and saw the Stars had started. All the others agreed that the gun was a minute fast, but the R.C. time is always official, even when wrong. That is one thing you cannot protest. If you could, any skipper whose watch was a few seconds fast or slow, could protest a race.
The Star's evolution from a cheap little one-design to a racing machine actually began in 1921. Notwithstanding its failure two years before, the use of the short Marconi was again made optional. Star skippers were beginning to think. To eliminate the overlapping gaff would reduce weight aloft and should make the boat faster. A still more important consideration was that sails could be changed in a few minutes and taken off entirely between races. Sail specifications were unchanged, so all one had to do was get a track mast and sew slides on the hoist of an old sail. Hollow and steam bent masts were barred, but the diameter and rig were optional. Most Stars already had some crude fittings that made a certain amount of tuning possible.
The good skippers, who did not start off with a Marconi, changed to it before 1921 was over. There were all sorts of rigs: wide wooden spreaders, short metal ones and some even had two pairs of them. The rigging method also differed. Bill Inslee and Ben Linkfield, both with wide spreaders, finished Larchmont week in a tie for first. Inslee, however, won the Captain's Island race and Atlantic week. There were only two Stars left on Gravesend Bay, Murad and Ray Findlay's Meteor. For that matter there were only a few yachts in any class on the lower bay, but there was quite an invasion from the Sound that year. That was the last of the old Atlantic weeks ever held. I believe that Carl Searing won the "B" Championship, making it a clean sweep for Bayside, except for the Sound Championship.
The Saturn did not change to the Marconi rig until mid-season. It was the only Star of the lot that used it without any spreaders at all. My mast was light and, while I did not realize it at the time, believe it incorporated some of the advantages of the flexible rig. After an inauspicious start, the Saturn really began to go. The season ended in my winning the Sound Championship. I just got in under the wire, as that event was still considered top honors in Star racing. While Ben Linkfield won the next three consecutive years, with Maia and Maia II, he was just one year too late. After 1921 the Star class had its own World's Championship, which was quickly followed by the Mid-Winters and several District Championships. The Sound Championship became an event of local significance only. Ernest Ratsey, sailing Irex III, won in 1925 and 1926, then I repeated. It did not amount to much in Star circles, but that medal probably represents the closest percentage series ever won. Pop was second and Duncan Sterling third, but it was necessary to go into the fourth decimal to determine the order of finish.
There is another incident connected with the early Star era that deserves mention. On September 25, 1921, the Indian Harbor Y.C. held a team race for the small one-design championship of the Sound. The Stars were represented by a boat from each prominent club - Willis, of Port Washington (who won); Curry, of Manhasset Bay; Inslee, of Bayside; and Ratsey of Larchmont. It was blowing half a gale and conditions could not have been more adverse against larger and round bilged boats. Two of the Stars were reefed. The results were: Stars forty-two points, Stanford O.D. thirty-two points, Indian Harbor O.D. fourteen points and the Seawanhaka Fish two points. Going back to 1916, the Stars defeated the "X" class, on Gravesend Bay fourteen to seven, winning the Barstow Cup. Up-to-date Stars have never been defeated in any sort of competition against other small one-design classes. In races for the Child's Cup, where they have raced with spinnakers, on their rating time allowance, they have been beaten.
The first Marconi rig facilitated tune. It brought with it the sliding partner and mast raker, so that the position and rake of the mast could be changed quite quickly. Those fittings, however, had not yet been perfected to the point where this could be done underway. Turnbuckles became an important consideration. The old frozen turnbuckle had to b* replaced with one that locked, as any change in the mast changed the tension of the shrouds. The position of the latter might also have to be adjusted. That meant chain plates with a number of holes so the turnbuckles could be moved. Backstays still had to be fastened to a cleat by hand. Track and slide spars included an outhaul and a downhaul. The tension of the bolt ropes could be governed, even while racing, and a sail could be made to set properly for the first time.
Those who knew something about tune, even by trial and error, had a great advantage. A skipper also had to know what a sail should look like, in order to keep it that way. The old fellows, who depended entirely upon helmsmanship to win, did not fare so well. The change was not as drastic as the two that were to follow, but it took its toll. A number of the old timers could no longer win and new names came into the limelight. For the most part, however, the good Star skippers were able to weather that first change without much trouble.
Aside from trying to master the intricacies of the short Marconi, 1921 turned out to be a pretty busy year for me. At the annual meeting I had again introduced my pet scheme of forming an international association. More to keep me quiet than anything else, I was appointed as a committee of one to arrange a match race between the best Star on Lake Erie and the best one on the Sound. No one really thought it could be done. Why it would cost almost as much to ship a Star from the Lakes to the Sound and back as it would cost to build a new one. Only Pop was carried away with the idea. "The Lakes versus the Sound. My gad, just think of the publicity," he shouted, "I'll get Seabury Lawrence to spread it all over the sporting page of the Herald."
From that point on I am afraid that I exceeded the authority vested in me. I first contacted the Lake Erie boys, who already belonged to the association we had, although it had nothing to offer them. Then I located half a dozen or so Star owners, who raced on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair and called themselves the Detroit Star club, or something like that. Eugene Bussy was their key man and a most enthusiastic one. I found that five Stars were being raced at Black Point, which is at the extreme easterly end of the Sound and only a couple of miles from New London. They did not even have a club, which accounts for the original rule about a member having to belong to a recognized club, if any, existed in the locality. There was also a Star group being formed on Narragansett Bay. They already had three Stars, bought from Nahant. That was how we first learned that a Nahant Bug and a Star was one and the same thing. The Narragansett Bay owners also established the precedent that a minimum fleet must consist of three Stars. I explained my idea of starting a parent association and holding an annual championship. They were all for it and pledged their wholehearted support.
With Star owners at Nahant (which is near Marblehead) and at Rochester it was a different story. A few answered in a vague sort of way, but you could see that they were not interested. Some large yachts were being raced in their vicinity and they suffered from the same inferiority complex as my own group on the western end of the Sound. The latter had become the most highly developed racing center in existence. The yachts were not as large or as plentiful as before the war, but semi-large yacht racing was enjoying a temporary revival. A Star was just a cheap little one-design and Star owners had become reconciled to their ignominious status. The Star was a fine little boat for local racing, but that was about as far as it went. They just could not visualize any small one-design being successfully developed on a widespread scale. Their yachting horizon was limited. They knew that yachts were being raced in some other places, but it was too far away to amount to much. It is difficult to understand such a frame of mind today, but conditions were very different then.
Everyone lost sight of the hundreds of small clubs that were scattered all over the United States. The fact is they did not know about them. I refer to clubs that were off the beaten path of the large yacht and had never come under its influence. The great majority of them before the war had a handful of little one-designs, which had been designed and built for their private use. Those classes were gone and racing activities were at a standstill. The Star offered them something they had never enjoyed before - a chance to compete on an equal footing with any locality. The real problem was to tell those clubs our story. We did not know then how to reach them, nor would the yachting publications stick out their necks by printing propaganda for any given class.
I have been speaking of the United States only, because early Star development was confined to it. Europe must have been hit as hard by World War One, but it had its I.Y.R.U., an established parent body. Few people over here had ever heard of the I.Y.R.U. The N.A.Y.R.U. did not yet exist and we actually had no uniform code of rules. Many of the small clubs I have mentioned did not even belong to one of our regional Y.R.A.'s, none of which had any connection with the rest. An effort was once made to unite them. I forget the name of the organization, but it never got to first base.
The moment my own group of Star owners on the Sound heard that four other localities were anxious to form an association and hold an annual championship, their entire attitude changed. If some were still skeptical, they kept it to themselves. No one could ask for more co-operation than I received. Had it not been for their untiring effort, we could never have held our first few championships and I doubt if there would be a Star class today.
An organization meeting
had been arranged and I spent the closing weeks of 1921 drawing up a tentative
constitution and set of by-laws. It was not as easy as it sounds. There
was no precedent to follow and I had to do the work at home on an old
invisible Remington typewriter. It was a grand old machine. You could
have hit it with a sledge hammer and it would have come up smiling and
unharmed. I must have re-written both documents at least half a dozen
times before they satisfied me. The delegates to that meeting would only
have about half a day to transact their business. I was asking them to
adopt my plan and it was up to me to put something concrete before them.
If I was able to cover the essential requirements of the proposed association,
then they could make whatever changes they saw fit and there was a good
chance that the business could be completed at one session.