The best woman sailor in the country this year is a tall, thin, tousle-haired Long Island Sound skipper who talks like a foghorn undergoing a change of voice. To the many friends and acquaintances of Mrs. Allegra Knapp Mertz, otherwise known as "Leggie," it was an occasion for rejoicing when she won the Mrs. Charles Francis Adams Trophy last month, and therewith the women's national sailing championship. Leggie had been chasing the Adams Cup for more years than many of Long Island's youthful skippers can remember, and had done an awful lot for sailing on the way.
CARELESS AND COLORFUL
Leggie, in fact, practically personifies the sport on Long Island Sound, where champions are bred. The high screech of her excited voice is as familiar to sailors old and young as a sea gull's cry, and just about as omnipresent. Her language is as colorful as her appearance, which a euphemist would describe as "careless." After her Adams Cup victory, she found a comment in a New York paper to the effect that there is more good sailing ability than good looks among the girl skippers on the Sound. "Hey, Mertz!" yelled Leggie at her husband, James M. Mertz, "here's a guy who thinks I'm a good sailor!" And she roared with laughter.
The casual visitor overhearing stray comments about Leggie on any Long Island dock would probably get the impression that no more disagreeable personality ever held a racing vessel's tiller. He could scarcely be more wrong. Leggie is noisy, opinionated, and hopelessly sentimental when it comes to kids. She has a way of adopting almost any junior sailor who may cross her path, generally with more vigor than diplomacy. "Every kid in the club hates my guts," she says. "I'm always giving 'em hell for the sloppy way they keep their boats and the damn fool things they do." But what she doesn't say is that there isn't a kid around who, as he grew older, didn't wind up thinking the world of Leggie Mertz. She makes them better sailors and she gives a "shipshape" prize each year to the one who keeps his boat best.
Nobody ever stays mad at Leggie very long. Those who know her best and longest like her most. The loser in an argument with her usually realizes that she was right after all: and that, anyway, anything she says or does is not for selfish interest but because she feels it's best for sailing, which she passionately loves.
She's had a lot of things to do besides win races in latter years. Her two children, Jamie, aged 13, and young Leggie, 10, took more of their mother's time than most because she was determined that they would be good sailors. They each have boats of their own. A week after Leggie won the Adams Cup little Leggie came home for dinner wearing a big smile. "I just won three races at the club this afternoon," she said. "My God," cried Leggie. "How'd you do it? I didn't know you even knew how to round a mark the right way."
"I don't know, Mother," said little Leggie, "but now can I crew for you in the Adams Cup?"
"Hell, no," was her mother's fond reply. "You're not allowed to crew until you're 15 and I don't know if I'll last that long."
Neither Leggie nor little Leggie, of course, believed a word of that. Two years ago, when Leggie finished seventh out of nine in the Long Island championships, a fatherly old member of the host club who should have known better counseled her to quit. "You're getting too old," he said. "After all, most of the competition are still in their 'teens."
Leggie didn't forget that. When she was asked how it felt to be the best woman sailor in the country again, she answered: "It feels terrific. It feels even better than in 1950 'cause I proved that fathead who told me I should quit was nuts. After all"—and she grinned maliciously—"I'm forty-one!"