Chapter VI - Havana Ahoy!
Havana, Paris of the Caribbean, basking beneath the glory of azure blue skies and fanned by the soft tropical breezes from the Gulf, beginning in January, 1926, became annual winter rendezvous for Star skippers. For the first couple of years and, without any good reason, this winter classic was spoken of as "les petite Internationals." Henceforth it assumed its rightful title of "Mid-Winter Championship."
It is difficult to find adequate words to describe the gracious hospitality and good sportsmanship of the Cuban yachtsman. No effort is spared in providing entertainment and looking after the comforts of the visitor. Your Cuban skipper, when he loses takes it with a smile and, if he wins, he modestly attributes it to a stroke of good luck. That first year must have stretched the good nature of our hosts almost to the breaking point. Coming from an arid region of ice, snow and bath tub gin, into a Utopia, where a man could order any drink he could think of, did not help to preserve decorum among the visitors from the States. At that time we did not know each other too well. We were looked upon as "crazy Americans" and certainly acted the part. That we were ever invited again, considering the many things that happened that year, is surprising.
The prizes made our eyes bulge. The Cup of Cuba, for the Mid-Winter Championship, is the largest sterling silver cup I have ever seen. Ernest Ratsey, its first winner, has a photograph of his young son sitting in it, and all you can see is the boy's head. The national crest of Cuba was on every trophy, as the government sponsored the event. In those days we went by rail to Key West and took the ferry across the gulf. And how some of those old steamers rolled! When the steamer docked, Rafael Posso - who does not look a day older now than he did then - came aboard. All contestants were asked to step forward and, while the tourists awaited their turn, we were whisked through the customs. After being photographed by a battery of cameras, we were driven to our hotel or to the yacht club, where those going stag were quartered "for free" in the dormitory. And what a gorgeous club the Havana Yacht Club is! Then came those first few nights of sampling wines and cordials, the taste of which we had almost forgotten.
What many people do not know, is that the first Bacardi Cup was not for an open series, but the international team race. My own experience, in connection therewith, was not too pleasant. We only knew of three U.S. skippers, who were taking their boats to Havana. A fourth was needed to make up the team. I had sold my Star and my first Iscyra was being built. I did not have a Star at the time, but an American, George Elliott Patterson, who lived in Havana, offered to loan me his. I, therefore, volunteered to go down and make up the team. There had been some talk about Bill Inslee going. My mother was in Florida and I intended to spend about a week with her, before continuing to Havana. Before leaving New York, I phoned Bill just to be sure. I explained that Prentice Edrington, of New Orleans, would be my crew and that neither of us wished to make the trip, unless we could sail in at least one race. Bill assured me that his business was such that he could not possibly go himself.
The first person I saw, on reaching the Havana Yacht Club, was no other than Bill Inslee. "It's too bad, Bill," I said, "if you had known that you could come down sooner, you could have been on the team." "Oh! I'm going to be on the team," he informed me. He argued that his record entitled him to be on the team and that he had his own boat. That was true enough, but neither Edrington nor I would have made the trip, if he had not stated definitely that he could not do so.
The Cubans settled the matter by increasing the team to five. Al Buckley, from Narragansett Bay, had also put in an appearance without advising anyone, but he did not wish to be on the team. Prentice and I took out Patterson's Star, the Cygnet, in the first tune-up race, just to see how she went. What a boat. The mast had a forward hook, that we could not get out. She had the old bulkheads, fore and aft, and leaked like a sieve. On each leg downwind, I was obliged to stand and hold the tiller in a vertical position, while Prentice removed the hatch and bailed eight or nine pails of water out from under aft. The tiller had about a three inch play in it. When we reached our mooring, in the Almendares river - where the boat house is located, about two miles from the yacht club - we decided not to sail her again before the team race, for fear that she would fall apart and we would not get into the event after all. In Havana, each visitor is allocated one of the club sailors, who looks after his boat, hauls it out, polishes the bottom or does any work you wish. We turned the Cygnet over to our boy with instructions to try to locate the leak and fix the tiller.
The Bacardi Cup was a beautiful thing, far more elaborate and expensive than those presented in subsequent years for the open series. What to do with it, if we won, was a problem, since each skipper was from a different club. This was also true, to some degree, of the Cuban team, which was made up of skippers from both Havana and Cienfuegos. Before the race we drew lots to see who would have permanent possession of the cup. And who do you suppose won? - Bill Inslee. The others were each to get a pair of very fine binoculars, in a leather case, surmounted with the crest of Cuba in solid gold. Those were the four original individual prizes. It was because of this complication about what to do with a team race cup, that henceforth it was presented for an open series.
While the team race was the last event of the week, I might as well complete the story at this point. The U.S. team won by a score of thirty-nine to fifteen, but the entire team almost fouled out. All five U.S. boats reached the windward mark in a bunch. We had just eased sheets and started downwind when the five Cuban boats, closed hauled, loomed up right in front of us. There seemed to be no space to get through. In some way Ratsey, Hayward and Inslee managed to do so, but Bedford and I were forced to make a complete circle and head back toward the mark to keep clear. The Cygnet was not leaking too much, but the tiller got loose again and it was almost impossible to put her about. At that, only one Cuban beat us.
The Cygnet vanished in the 1928 hurricane. Several years later a gang of workmen who were digging near the bank about three miles up the Almendares river unearthed the transom. This was the only piece of the good ship that was ever found.
Commodore Corry arrived a couple of days after the rest. That evening, everyone had their own private little dinner parties arranged. The tables were set up, with the usual floral decorations, on the veranda of the Havana Yacht Club, overlooking the moonlight beach and sparkling waters of the gulf. When Pop learned of this, he said that it would not do at all. Star members must eat at the same table. The tables were dismantled, taken inside (where it was much warmer) and rearranged as one long table. Many objected, as they had already carefully selected their menu and the wines to go with it and were entertaining guests.
Once Pop made up his mind to do something, however, all objections were overruled. He had not yet learned that, while you might order at seven o'clock, no one ever sat down to eat before ten or later. He fussed and fumed and looked at his watch. Then he did something I never saw him do before or since, he had cocktails. Some Cuban member told him that a Presidente was a lady's drink and he probably thought that meant a soft drink. It tastes sweet and harmless, but has a kick like a mule. At long last the crowd assembled. Everyone was at that long table except four men, wearing business suits, who were seated at a small table in a far corner of the room.
The commodore took his rightful place at the head of the table and his chest swelled with pride. There must have been seventy or eighty Star members present. He even made a couple of impromptu speeches, which did not make too much sense - the Presidentes were working. All went well, however, until dinner was over and a waiter handed him the check. Pop turned scarlet, choked over his coffee and tried to explain to the waiter, who could not speak English, that he was not going to pay for the whole gang, but individual checks should be made out for everyone. Then the captain came over. He could speak some English. What the commodore wanted could not be done. He no longer remembered what each person had been served. No, the check could not be divided by the number of people there. Some had ordered little and others a rather expensive meal, with wine. He would, however, talk with the manager and see what, if anything, could be done. Within a few minutes the captain was back. Everything had been taken care of. The check was paid. Who paid it? The commodore of the Cienfuegos Yacht Club. Which was he? Pop could not remember having met him. Why he was one of the four gentlemen seated at the little table over in the corner, the only four people that Pop had not invited to join the Star party.
Before getting off the subject of Presidentes, I recall a remark once made by Miguel (Mike) Rival. A Star skipper and at one time commodore of the Havana Yacht Club, Mike represented Havana in the 1929 World's Championship at New Orleans and was always very popular. He said, as if it was a problem which caused him great concern - "Somehow or other I cannot seem to drink more than 14 Presidentes before my dinner." I can sympathize with him. For some reason I cannot drink seventeen martinis before my dinner - I tried it once. Mike was a famous swordsman. I understand that he once challenged Patterson. It is too bad the latter did not take him up - then I would never have had to sail the Cygnet. Miguel Riva later became Cuba's minister to England, where he died.
Let us get back to the trials and tribulations of Commodore Corry. Breakfasts were served upstairs to the inmates of the dormitory. Pop told me one day that it was a shame how our boys from the States cussed at those nice Cuban waiters. He, Pop, was always first up. There was always plenty of coffee, he said, and all the food he could possibly eat. Come to find out, breakfasts were ordered by the others the night before, but not by Pop. What he had been doing was eating the breakfasts ordered by the rest. Of course, the waiters, who could not understand English, did not know what the boys were complaining about.
Quite late one night, Prentice Edrington and Gordon Curry, who was crewing for Al Buckley, returned to the club in a taxi. They did not make a price with the driver, which you are supposed to do. They considered the fare he demanded out of reason, which it probably was, and paid him what they had been paying before. The enraged taxi driver returned to the club with two gendarmes, who started to search for the culprits. Pop was sleeping in the first room they entered. He was dumped unceremoniously out of bed upon the marble floor before the taxi driver would admit that he was not one of the offenders. One of the club members intervened at that point.
Since Pop, Prentice and I were the ranking officers of the association, we were asked to assist the race committee in conducting its first championship. Off we went in a private yacht, a fifty-foot cruiser, belonging to one of the club members. The start and finish, in those days, was off the Maine Monument, so that the public might see the races. There was great interest, especially that first year. The sea wall, which borders the Malecon, was lined with spectators. It was a natural grandstand, since most of the course kept the yachts near shore. Naturally it was a fine day, for otherwise seas would have been breaking over the wall. On such days, even cars can only be driven on the in shore side of the Malecon, if at all. We were a little late in starting out and all the competing yachts were waiting for us, but the cruiser kept right on going toward Havana harbor. Inquiries revealed the fact that there was no ice aboard. The owner of the cruiser must go and get some, as he could not properly entertain his guests without having ice in their drinks. Prentice exploded. "Did you all ever hear," he shouted, "of a race committee in a civilized country postponing a race, because they have no ice for their drinks?" When we docked in Havana harbor, we were politely requested to go ashore. The owner decided that his country had been called uncivilized. There we were, stranded in Havana, eight miles from the yacht club, and with no means of communicating with the contestants, who had already been kept waiting almost an hour. If you ask me, we were in the middle of a hell of a fix.
Luckily a vessel of the Cuban navy, I believe her name was the Yara, was tied up at the same dock and under a full head of steam. It only took Possito a few minutes to arrange matters and we moved aboard. Our troubles had just begun. The Yara was a big heavy ship, of extensive beam and a towering superstructure, topped off by a spacious bridge, which we shared with the officers. The first shock came upon reaching the line, when the commanding officer informed us that he could not anchor. He was perfectly right, but not understanding conditions, we thought it unreasonable. A rather shoal ledge runs out one hundred and fifty yards or so from the shore and then the bottom takes a sudden drop to a depth of about half a mile. This has always made it very difficult to establish courses at Havana. A wind shift was eminent. Quite a swell was already rolling in from the gulf. While a small yacht could have anchored at the edge of the ledge, the Yara, with her draft and scope of chain necessary to hold her in a stiff onshore breeze, would have swung on the rocks. The commanding officer, however, assured us he could hold her in a fixed position. That we doubted with such a swell under the stern of this big unmanageable craft, to say nothing of the Gulf Stream set. Whoever he was, he deserves a lot of credit for doing as well as he did.
The Tower of Babel had nothing on us. Orders were given in English, translated in Spanish to the officer in charge, who repeated them to some sailor. Everyone tried to outshout the other. From our lofty bridge, we had a fine bird's eye view of the situation, but it was like running a race from the top of the Statue of Liberty. The gun was on the lower deck and the visible signals were being hoisted on a yard somewhere behind us. To synchronize these signals with the clock was some job. We finally worked it out by having an officer on the lower deck watch a handkerchief which was dropped when it was time to fire. Commodore Corry was seated on the deck of the bridge, over in a corner, as far from us as he could get. I can see him still, in his white turtle neck sweater, with a red star number one on it, a cigar in his mouth and an amused twinkle in his eye. I went over and said, "George, why not give us a hand?" "Me," he replied, "I'll have nothing to do with any such mad house business as this." He would not even look at the start, being fearful of what he might see - and he would have seen plenty.
Some of the yachts were working into position from the committee boat end of the line. About thirty seconds before the start we saw that the Yara was drifting down on them and cutting off the little air they had. The skippers began to shout at us to move the committee boat. "Who in hell ever heard of moving the committee boat," Prentice shouted back. Technically he may have been correct, but if the committee boat fouls a racing yacht, what then? The Yara could not be moved sideways, so we backed her up. That gave these skippers a little better start than they were entitled to, so those at the other end of the line told us what they thought of us. Up to this point, the club's little signal cannon had been used. The officer on the lower deck, however, did not feel that it was suitable for such a momentous occasion as the start, so he had a blank charge put in the swivel gun, which must have been a five pounder, and which was trained across the line. Inslee made a perfect start, right under our bow. The concussion almost capsized him. The wad hit his sail and made a black spot fully two feet in diameter. Bill was almost stone deaf for a couple of days.
Not to be outdone by the lower deck, a junior officer on the bridge thought it might be a good idea to salute the visitors with a long blast of the siren. That would have been a recall. Prentice saw what was about to happen and saved the day. The young officer's hand was already reaching for the whistle cord. There was no time to argue with him through an interpreter. Employing football tactics, Prentice threw a block, preventing contact between hand and cord by a split second. We had visions of "Peaceful Prentice" spending the rest of his days in a dungeon under Morro Castle, for assaulting an officer of the navy. It took a deal of explaining to avert an international crises, but it was managed and all hands were good friends again. Needless to say, they did not use the Yara again. A club launch became the committee boat. Pop's policy struck me as being a pretty good one. Let Possito run his own ding busted championship. I viewed the next two races from a taxi cab, driving back and forth along the Malecon. It was much more restful.
Ernest Ratsey's name is the first to appear on the Cup of Cuba. With his father George, as crew, he took two firsts and a second, to win the Mid-Winter title by a safe margin of four points. His Irex was nosed out by inches in the last race, giving Jim Hayward of New Orleans, for whom Peter Donez tended jib sheets, runner-up by a single point over Bill Inslee and Fred Bedford, who tied for third place. That was the only exciting incident in an otherwise cut and dried series, the outcome of which was never in doubt. Al Buckley was next, followed try Tolo Pons and Filippe Silva, representing Havana and Cienfuegos respectively.
The Havana Yacht Club has always been the scene of the final banquet, except for the first couple of years. Then it was held by the Vedado Tennis Club, to which quite a number of the Havana fleet belonged at the time. It was the initial appearance of Havana's fair sex. They were seated at small tables at one end of the room, while the yachtsmen occupied a horseshoe table at the other end. This may have been a local custom, since those were still the days of the duenna, when women were not allowed in a bar and a lady could not venture upon the street without a male escort. Perhaps they just felt that the ladies were not interested in yachting. This was obviously the case. When the after dinner speaking began, the gals must have been discussing Paris fashions, or something, for you never heard such an incessant chatter.
Whether the speeches were in Spanish or English, some could not understand, but that made no difference, as you could not hear what was being said anyway. Even the magnificence of Pop's full dress commodore regalia made no impression. He tried to talk against this clamor for about ten minutes, then sank back into his chair, with a gesture of resignation, admitting defeat for the only time in his career. Now, of course, all that has changed. The ladies of Havana are ardent Star fans and take an active part in all our social affairs. Outstanding among them is Luisa de Cardenas, Charlie's charming wife. While raising four husky lads, to perpetuate the de Cardenas name in Star circles of the future, she found time to attend more major Championships than any other Star wife. No big event would be complete without her. She deserves an "Oscar," or something, for her unequalled enthusiasm. Sometimes she gets a bit mixed up in her English and orders a "scotch and whiskey," or writes to tell us that young Carlos "bit" her husband in a race, which is quite "understoodable."
There is usually an aftermath to all championships. The Ratseys carried off enough watches to open a jewelry shop. Can you imagine watches worth around one hundred and fifty dollars as daily prizes? We went part of the way home together. When we boarded the train at Key West we were not in the same car. A part of the train, including Ratsey's car, pulled out of the station. We were told that it was going only to the switch yard and would return shortly. It never did, but went on as section one. The porter got some of our luggage mixed. The conquering heroes arrived in New York, in a driving snow storm, wearing white flannels and straw hats. They had my share of liquor. NO, we did not smuggle it in. Every taxi driver had a price list. You could order what you wanted. He would dash up to town and bring it back in a two dollar suit case.
The Mid-Winter Championship is the only silver star event which is held at the same place each year. No such exclusive franchise can be granted today. The reason should be explained. At that time, Cuba was the only place having Star fleets where an event could be held in winter. Of course there was New Zealand and Hawaii, but they were too far away to draw much of an annual entry. We did have some fleets where the climate was such that off season events could be held, but they copied the northern customs at that time and their clubs went out of commission during the winter months. The Mid-Winters have now become a fixture, established for over twenty years. To some extent the same holds true of the Spring Championship, which started eight years later. Fleets are constantly requesting the privilege of holding an annual silver star event. With one hundred seventy odd fleets in the association, there would not be enough weeks in the year to make that possible. Silver stars would not be worth ten cents a dozen and they would all be cutting each other's throat and have no entries. Aside from that, today we have district championships so that almost every fleet, if it can win, has an opportunity to hold a championship.
There is not sufficient space to give a detailed account of each championship series, for the cup of Cuba, or the accompanying open Bacardi series. A list of the winners of the Mid-Winter title will be found at the end of this chapter. I will, however, relate such highlights as I can remember. If I elaborate more upon the years when I was present, it is because I know what happened then. For other years I must depend upon hearsay, which is none too reliable. That an entire chapter is devoted to this silver star championship is because, next to the World's Championship, it is the oldest international Star series and, therefore, rich in tradition and fond memories.
The winter classic follows a pretty set pattern. The races are held in the morning and usually enjoy a moderate breeze and no sea - just a gentle ground swell. You start at the beginning of the northeast trade which is light, but increases gradually to twelve or fifteen miles before the race is over. Special mention is made of this, because some people may have gained a false impression about Havana racing, from having seen photos of the gigantic seas and read of the rugged going, which was encountered during the 1946 World's Championship. That event was held in November, when weather conditions are different than in late January. Sometimes, during the Mid-Winters, there is an off-shore breeze. In the old days, when the races were sailed off the Malecon, this was very tricky, the wind being deflected by the buildings and city streets. If such a wind does not veer back into the northeast, as I understand it, that is a danger signal and heralds the coming of a norther. These northers last for two or three days, blow up to eighty miles or more and all racing is suspended. The majority of the Mid-Winters have been subject to such an interruption, but the schedule allows for it. I do not mean to say that there have never been any rough days. There have, but they have either been in the afternoon races of double-headers, due to a postponement, or in the morning after a norther, when the wind has subsided but not the sea.
There are some who prefer the Mid-Winters to the World's Championship, because it is not such a serious business. They get in their racing, but also enjoy an ideal winter's vacation. You are back at your mooring by about one o'clock and have the entire afternoon and night to play. There are the horse races, the casino and many excellent cafes. You can play golf at the country club, go fishing or just sun yourself on the beach. You are a good eight miles from the city and in no way mixed up with the tourists and get an entirely different view of the real Havana. Stars can be shipped from New York or New Orleans under a special rate, which is very reasonable, nor are the hotel rates high for Star members. You are not subjected to the petty nuisances of getting a pass port or a lot of shots, which usually applies, when leaving the States for another country. I have only one complaint - the gamecocks. There always seems to be one of those dern birds parked beneath your window. They start crowing their challenge to the gamecock world at midnight and keep it up until sunrise.
Peaceful Prentice liked Havana so well, that he brought his own Star down there in 1927. The Sparkler, with beautiful red sails (which were the envy of a flock of semi-tame flamingos) defeated Ernest Ratsey by one point, for the Cup of Cuba. Edrington was able to sew a gold star over the silver star the following year. He was a much better skipper than most people realized and did much to make the New Orleans fleet known in the Star class. Adrian Iselin, sailing Ace, won the Bacardi Cup. This was the first time that it was raced for as an open series. Incidently, this is not a perpetual trophy. A new Bacardi Cup is presented each year. At that time, only one entry from each fleet was allowed in the Mid-Winters. Iselin and Jack Robinson, both former world's champions, went down for the open event only. These two, plus Ratsey and Edrington, qualified for the U.S. team. As crew, Jack had Jack Dalton (of the U.S.A.). After the team race, Jack Robinson wanted to protest another U.S. teammate for not giving him room at a mark. That's one for the scrap book.
The next year, Frank
Robinson, from the Peconic, and Tim Parkman, our hard-working international
secretary from Gravesend Bay, tied. Frank won the sail-off. Competition
became so equal and ties so numerous that sail-offs began to disrupt departure
schedules and prize presentations. A few years later, the association
adopted a rule to correct this condition. It was very simple and I wonder
why more organizations do not use it. The entry that finishes ahead of
he other in the most races, automatically becomes the winner. Since our
championships must consist of an odd number of races, the possibility
of a sail-off is practically nil. It could happen in the case of a dead
heat, or, the still more remote chance that there might be as many entries
tied as there are races in the series and that they finished in reverse,
with respect to each other in each race. Had the present rule existed
in 1928, Tim Parkman would have been the winner. J. E. Gorrin, of Havana,
defeated Ratsey by two points, in a field of eighteen starters, to win
the Pan American series. While this has been lost sight of, throughout
the years, Gorrin is the first Cuban to win an international Star event.
Fred Bedford won the title the next year and romped away with the Bacardi series. He won the hard way. Colleen leaked so badly that his captain, whom he brought with him, was obliged to stay up and pump all night, to keep the boat from sinking at its mooring. Bill McHugh bailed continually throughout each race. He did this with a dipper lashed to the end of a long pole so he could keep on bailing while lying on the weather rail. Bill said his right arm was so tired that he was forced to drink with his left. The restraining influence of his skipper was probably a greater handicap than that sore arm, but Bill may have felt that a more tangible excuse was necessary to account for his exemplary behavior. It was a memorable year for me, as I almost won the Cup of Cuba, and would have, probably with a clean sweep, except for a comedy of errors, in which I had a strong supporting cast.
We were on a broad reach, with one more mark to round, then just a short run home. Enrique Conill was out in front. He only had a couple of points and I would have been glad to see him win that race. Bedford was my concern. I had a nice lead over him and was ahead in the point score. Unfortunately Iscyra II was rapidly overtaking Enrique's Talita. I could have driven under his lee and been inside boat on the jibe. It was the thing to do, if I was trying to beat him and he should have realized it. It would have meant, however, that he would have camped on my stern all the way to the finish, and might have slowed me up enough for the Colleen to overhaul me. I wanted him to round first and go on about his business that I might keep my wind clear. Then Bedford never could have caught me, on that short run. So I edged up to windward, expecting to see Enrique bear off for the mark, which was getting close. Instead, he began to work windward also. He kept looking back at me through that damned monocle of his, which to say the least was disconcerting and an alibi in itself. I motioned to him, but he did not grasp my meaning and I doubt if he does to this day. I had just decided to give it up and drive for the mark, and so told my crew, Jack Robinson, when the latter yelled, "Luff quick." I did so instinctively. I believe that any skipper would have done the same. I thought that Jack had seen a log or something in the water, if I thought at all. Enrique luffed sharply, European fashion, dead into the eye of the wind. I had no choice but to respond, Iscyra II having shot forward enough to have a slight overlap. There we both lay in irons, while the rest sailed past us. He lost the race and I lost the series by one point, in spite of having two firsts. It does not always pay to think too far ahead. In that split second none of us did Our cause any good, Enrique, Jack or I.
Having a gold star skipper as crew has both its advantages and disadvantages. The mast in Jack's Little Bear was undersized, hence his boom was closer to the deck than that of other Stars. From this he believed in the theory that one's boom should be as low as possible, even in light air. Mine was up to the top of the goose-neck. We were in the lead, but Jack tried to persuade me to lower it. I said no but he attempted it of his own accord. The halyard got away from him and a good two feet of slides came off the track. With his feet braced, Jack was trying to get the sail up again. "Jesus," he said, "I can't do it." How we ever got that sail up again I still do not know.
Jack, who had never crewed before, was complaining that he barked his knuckles, because my cleats were too close to the deck. He wanted to put a block of wood under each cleat. The afternoon, when he got that bright idea, I was going to the race track. He told me to go ahead and that he would attend to it. On my way home, I stopped at the Vedado Tennis Club, where the boat was hauled out. There was not a cleat on the boat. Jack and the Williams brothers were asleep in the baseball grandstand, but Jack finally heard me shouting and came over. He showed me the little blocks he had cut out. Why, I asked, had he not finished the job. The bolts, he said, were not long enough. Then put the cleats back on the deck, I suggested. "Can't" said Jack, "I threw the old bolts overboard." Jack was obliged to get up at five o'clock the next morning and go into Havana in search of bolts. The only ones he could find were the same length as those he threw away - so the cleats went back on the deck.
There was just one other incident which I cannot resist relating. One night we were eating some sort of Cuban dish - rice, with a lot of things in it, covered with a rich yellow sauce. At the bottom of it all was a little octopus, about the size of a silver dollar. When Jack uncovered his baby octopus, he let out a blood curdling scream, dashed from the table and it was the last we saw of him that night.
Just to be consistent, before leaving I also made a grave social error. The only inscription upon Dally prizes was the crest of Cuba. It was not a bad idea, as it gave the committee sufficient leeway to see that winners got what they really wanted. Since I did not win the series, I was taken aside and asked which two of the three daily firsts I would prefer. I picked a watch, for dress occasions, and an onyx and silver bureau set. The piece de resistance, however, was a dozen cut crystal wine glasses with a silver base which must have been a foot in height. I would have liked them but did not see how I could get them home unbroken. I was too stupid to take the hint, when asked if I was sure I did not want the wine glasses. Later that evening, when the trophies were given out, I learned that those glasses were a special prize presented by the president of Cuba. It must have looked as if I did not think much of their president's trophy. That was about the last year of fabulous prizes. They still give very fine ones, better than you get elsewhere, but the daily prizes for those first half dozen years had no equal in yachting or any other sport.
Colin Ratsey still is the only skipper representing a European fleet to have won the Cup of Cuba. This is not surprising, since Colin was at the peak of his Star career in the early thirties. Next in '31, came the Atkin brothers and de Cardenas won the Bacardi cup. The latter was hailed as Cuba's first major triumph, but it was not, as deSena won a three race series against twice as many entries a few years before. It was also deSena who drew first blood in a World's Championship. His record at home and abroad entitles him to much more recognition than he ever received. I believe that '31 was the last year the races were held off the Malecon. I too was there that year, although as far as the racing was concerned I might as well have stayed home.
One day a norther was not only expected, but you could see it coming. A long black cloud, with curling pink jellyfish-like tentacles beneath it, stretched across the northern horizon. Those who were weather wise said it would not hit until late afternoon. George Patterson and I refused to sail down to the Maine monument. We were called yellow, but they started us off the mouth of the river and the norther struck five minutes after the last boat got back to its mooring. If we had not had our way, it would have been a repetition of 1928, when a howling norther hit in the middle of the race. The yachts scurried for Havana harbor, under jib only. Tim Parkman made it under full sail, in a wind estimated at eighty miles an hour (probably over-estimated) with no greater casualty than a couple of broken battens. It would be foolish for anyone to attempt to get back to the Almendares river, for within a few minutes it would be impossible to cross the bar.
he Malecon course is very dangerous under such conditions, because of large concrete blocks which extend out from the sea wall. If a boat was washed up on that lee shore, those aboard would be dashed to pieces before they could reach the sea wall, even assuming that someone was there with a rope to haul them up.
From this point on, we must skip quickly over the years. While the Mid-Winters have lost none of their glamour, the event has become more conventional. Everyone, of course, comes back with a story to tell, but that is true of any Star championship. The wild crazy days of yore are over. This may have been due to the same crowd, a more sedate group (with some exceptions, such as Sam Smith) going down every year, or the repeal of prohibition in the States may have had something to do with it. The story, however, is not finished. There are a few more incidents to relate.
The Sea Wolf dinner, was at one time quite an affair. The room was littered with old rusty anchors, pieces of rope and other marine debris. The boss Sea Wolf, whatever his title may have been, sat at the head of the table in a chair at least fourteen feet high. It was mostly a red wine jamboree. Like other stag affairs, it has been abandoned. Today there are too many members of the fair sex that attend championships, and they object. Then there is the Bomba, a quaint Cuban custom. You are given a tall glass, containing about a pint of red wine. I do not know the words to the Bomba, but it has something to do with killing you, if you do not toss off the wine without taking a breath. They keep up the chant until you have gulped it down. Then everyone cheers, slaps you on the back and tells you that you are a real man after all and a worthy companion. That, at least, is the list of it.
One morning, while out for a tune up spin on the Gulf, Adrian Iselin bumped into a whale shark. They are supposed to be perfectly harmless playful little fellows, about sixty feet in length. When the Ace disturbed the whale shark's morning nap, it flipped its tail some twenty feet out of the water. Adrian beat it back to the Almendares as quickly as he could get there - do you blame him? It evidently was not too gentle a bump, as Adrian claims that, when the Ace was hauled out, there were scales on her keel.
From 1932 on, skippers
formed the habit of winning the Mid-Winters two years in a row. They were,
in order named: Harkness Edwards, Adrian Iselin, Harold Halsted, Harry
Nye and Woodie Pirie. Only twice was this cycle broken. Once by Pirie
in 1937, which makes him the only skipper who has won the event three
times. In 1942, Charlie de Cardenas was the winner. That was fortunate,
as the cup remained in Havana, where it belonged, during the six year
intermission caused by the war. That series of '42 was risky business.
Four U.S. Stars were shipped down from New York and returned safely, although
German submarines were playing havoc with shipping along the North Atlantic
coast. The sinkings became so numerous, about that time, that the Spring
Championship at Nassau had to be called off. In this respect we always
have been very lucky. All entries in the 1939 World's Championship, held
in Germany, when the war first started, reached their home ports safely.
The title reverted to the United States, the only country in which the
event could have been held throughout the war years.
If you think that
I am trying to sell you on the idea of going to Havana, either as a contestant
or spectator, during the period of the Mid-Winters, you are perfectly
right. Each fleet is entitled to two entries, but few of late have availed
themselves of that privilege. This means that if you own a Star and wish
to go, there is nothing to prevent it, as We rules provide that a fleet
must name any member willing and able to represent it, if those entitled
to prior right, by reason of where they finished in the eliminations,
do not exercise that right. This is one trip which every Star owner in
the States owes it to himself to make. Do not be deterred by the fact
that you feel you have no chance of winning or may make a poor showing.
Even if you should finish last, no one will care and you will never regret
the experience or forget it. Where else within such an easy reach can
Star owners in the United States step right into an old world atmosphere,
with their own crowd, and enjoy a week of racing? It is completely different.
Havana is a happy land of laughter, where you are royally entertained
and where a Star membership button is open sesame.
NOTE - *: Fleet defunct.