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Original Issue


Fire almost made a tragedy of the famed San Diego to Acapulco ocean race but it all had a happy ending

From San Diego to the rock-rounded harbor of Acapulco, Mexico is 1,430 miles of blue Pacific salt, and the front-runners in the San Diego-to-Acapulco ocean race were nearing the midway point when fire welled out of the generator locker of one of the fastest boats in the fleet—the 69-foot ketch Celebes of San Francisco. In last week's issue, thanks to abbreviated ship-to-shore radio messages, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Ezra Bowen, aboard the Escapade, told the story of the fire and of Escapade's rescue of the Celebes' 12-man crew.

As Escapade made port in Acapulco last week, Bowen sent the rest of the story and dispatched a photographic record—in pictures taken by himself and others (see below) of a race that almost ended in tragedy.

One of the decisive men of the story is James Camp of Bakersfield, Calif., Escapade's owner. It was Jim Camp, a stocky, big-shouldered man with a habit of clamping cigars between his teeth at an upward angle, who looked at the column of smoke pouring skyward from the distant Celebes and decided that this was no mere cook-stove misadventure. "Start the engine," Camp ordered.

Now an ocean racer's power is obviously not to be used during a race, and to set a propeller turning means automatic disqualification. On Escapade they did not hesitate; they headed for Celebes under full power. It was not until later, when the Coast Guard radioed a "well done," that Escapade could sail for Acapulco again. And the five hours Jim Camp's ship had spent in its rescue mission—and in standing by until Celebes finally sank—were written off the record.

By this time the spunky crew of Celebes were laying to with a will. Camp had offered to put them ashore at the nearest port; they had voted unanimously to go on with the race, this time as Escapade hands. It was a sporting decision, for until the fire Celebes had been sailing well ahead of her allowance time. She was, indeed, seemingly on her way to winning a major ocean race.

When Captain John Hedden's men clambered aboard the rescue ship they were asked: "How did the fire start?" It is likely that the complete answer will never be known. What is worth recording is that Dennis Jordan of the Celebes, speaking for them all, answered up: "We were going so fast we just caught on fire."

Near Acapulco word reached them by radio of the record-breaking time (eight days 12 hours 34 minutes) achieved by Windward, the handsome 81-foot scratch boat. Later they were able to congratulate the little Carousel, 40 feet, winner on corrected time. But the big moment was when Escapade put in—third in elapsed time, 10th by corrected time.

Acapulco's harbor fleet escorted them in. Jim Camp ordered his Escapade crew aft. "Celebes crew up forward," he shouted. "I want Celebes to finish first." Quiet Captain Jack Hedden of Celebes told Camp: "Jim, I've been thinking for four days what to say and I can't."

Life raft, for which the 12-man Celebes crew abandoned blazing vessel, is brought alongside after Escapade spotted its orange tarpaulin.

Just before sinking Celebes, burned to waterline except for bow and pulpit, trails her ballooner in the Pacific. Moments later she disappeared in 300 fathoms.

Raft made fast to Escapade, crewmen haul Celebes' grateful survivors aboard. Several of the men were burned, but none seriously. All were tuckered and chilled.

Spectator fleet of 23 boats escorts rescuers and rescued into Acapulco harbor after Escapade crosses the finish line. Firecrackers, set off on the heights above the harbor, popped an added greeting. The Acapulco arrival party, which is often described as more exhausting than the race itself, was staged with more zest than ordinary to celebrate the rescue.

"Escapade's" crew, gathered for album snapshot, are (standing, left) Dick Dixon, Sigurd Wagner (seated), Ray Wallace, Ezra Bowen and Joe Linesch. In the second row is Lauri Suikki (dark glasses), then Carl Stewart, Joe Teagarden and Escapade Owner Jim Camp. In the back row, peering around shipmates' shoulders, are Stuart Devonald, Stan Sponholz and Don Hart.

The two skippers share wheel as Escapade crosses finish line. John Hedden (left) lived aboard Celebes even in port and had no regular home ashore. Jim Camp of Escapade made the courteous gesture of sharing the wheel to show his respect for the race Celebes had run before fire broke out aboard her.

"Celebes' " crew are (first row) Nick Kushelevsky, Dennis Jordan, John Hedden. Second row: John Loughlin, James Pell, Dean Morrison. Third row: Fred Herrington, Frank Kent, Strat En-right, James Hurst Jr. Rear: Wellman Farley, Charles O'Brien.

Ballad of burning "celebes," composed by Stuart Devonald, guitar-playing member of Escapade's crew, was sung to admiring crowds after ship tied up at Acapulco. One stanza suggests racing sailor's competitive impulse: "What shall we do? What shall we do? We can sail right by and let the devils fry." But idea was rejected.