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Sailor with but a single thought

A California skipper used every gimmick from gamesmanship to a soggy sweatshirt for his victory

Racing a boat singlehanded is different from any other kind of racing. There is, among other drawbacks, no crew to bawl out if something goes wrong or a race is lost. The singlehander has to handle the sheet, raise and lower the centerboard, steer the boat and keep an eye on the competition all by himself. Meanwhile, he is likely to be hiked out over the water like a circus aerialist balancing on a high bar.

Currently, the best singlehander in the country is a tanned 17-year-old from Newport Beach, Calif. named Henry Sprague. Henry showed his prowess recently when he beat 18 other topflight singlehanders from Canada, Florida and points east and west during the 10-race O'Day Trophy series sailed off Long Beach on Alamitos Bay.

"Henry's a heavy-weather sailor," said those who had sailed against him in the past. "He used to go best in light air, but now he likes it to blow." Sprague bore out the morning line by faring dismally, for him, in the first three races, sailed in moderate winds. Then he got the blow he was looking for, and while his competition battled to keep their boats under control and right side up, Henry scudded around the white-capped course in the fourth and fifth races like a puff of blown-off beer foam. The following morning the wind disappeared, and Sprague got a 15th. "See," said the experts, "he can't make the thing go now." On the final day, however, Henry scuttled the touts. Although the air was again light, he came through with a first, a second and a fourth in the last three races. That was good enough to give him a 1¾-point margin over his nearest rival, Earl Elms of San Diego. "I checked every tiny detail in the boats I used," said Sprague, rubbing a large brown toe in the sand, "and that seemed to do the trick for me."

The boats Sprague referred to (in many national championships each sailor uses a different boat for each race) were Finn Monotypes, the world's largest and now its definitive singlehandling class of sailboat.

Not too many boats can be successfully raced by one man. There are little training boats for children like the Optimist Pram and the Sabot. There are the more sophisticated boats like the Elvstrom Jr., O.K. Dinghy and Moth. The most aristocratic of all the singlehanders is the International Decked Sailing Canoe, a delicately balanced needle-shaped sloop, whose skipper-crew is constantly beset by the exhilarating feeling that he is hurtling to oblivion aboard a seesaw traveling at a high speed. But the Finn has taken over from them all, especially among young, athletic sailors like Henry Sprague.

The Finn is a slightly more docile, sawed-off version of the Canoe, designed for the 1952 Olympics by Sweden's Richard Sarby. It is a 14-foot-9-inch cat-rigged racing machine that carries 108 square feet of sail and has been clocked over a measured kilometer at the fantastic (for a single-hulled sailboat) speed of 24 mph.

One of the main reasons the Finn performs so well is its single, highly flexible mast that is completely unencumbered by any sort of stays or other standing rigging. Because it bends at the helmsman's will to make the sail flatter in high wind or give it more belly in light air, the mast gives the Finn a good range of aerodynamic efficiency. Sprague and other Finn owners spend hours selecting the best mast for the conditions they expect to sail under. It has been found that a bending mast frequently favors a lightweight sailor, while a stiffer mast is better suited to a heavier singlehander such as the 175-pound Sprague, since his weight makes up measurably for the rig's reduced flexibility.

Way out and way over

There are problems in racing Finns that one doesn't normally encounter in other boats. "Running downwind some first-time Finn sailors let the sail out too far because there aren't any stays to stop it," grins Sprague. "The result is always the same. The boat goes faster and capsizes quicker."

The cause of the trouble is the top of the sail which curves around the head of the mast, pressing it unnaturally to windward and making the boat roll with wild abandon. Before the novice singlehander can figure out what to do to damp the roll, he is in the water with a new problem: how to get his boat right side up again. During the O'Day series more than one competitor performed spectacular capsizes as he rolled over to windward. Weight is a particularly important factor in Finn sailing, since the skipper cannot recruit a heavy crewman to make up for any lack of his own.

Like most planing boats, Finns do best when sailed as nearly upright as possible. And the hiked-out weight of the skipper is a prime factor in maintaining this balance. This requires strong leg and stomach muscles since the skipper may spend hours stretched out over the water with his toes hooked-under a hiking strap. Paul Elvstrom, the Olympic Finn champion, gets into tone by putting his feet under a dresser, then leaning back 25°, while he reads the morning paper.

Finn skippers resort to a startling collection of tricks for adding extra weight. Sprague can add a good many pounds to his total quite simply. "I put on eight sweatshirts," he says, "two sweaters, two pairs of socks and sometimes a pair of football pants." The football pants have padded knees which cushion the jolt he gets as he drops to the bottom of the boat during a violent jibe. To soak up additional poundage, Henry, looking like the Michelin tire man, jumps into the drink.

Strategies such as these form bones of contention that Finn sailors like to chew on. Generally, the argument rages between the heavyweights and the lightweights. As one bantamweight at Long Beach wistfully put it, "What's the difference between wearing eight sweaters dunked in water like Sprague and a nice life preserver with a 15-pound hunk of lead in it?" But Henry Sprague seems less concerned with winning arguments than with winning races. The gamesmanship he applies to this purpose was well illustrated at Long Beach during the break between the sixth and seventh races of the series.

"I took a 15th in the morning that really se me back. I was up against it, and I had to finish high up in the fleet to hold off the others in the last four races," explained Sprague. "I needed wind, and I didn't think there was nearly enough around." So Henry stalled.

Hoping that the wind would pick up in the afternoon to favor his ability to go in rough stuff, Sprague sailed over to the committee boat just before the start and complained that the boom on his boat was broken. It obviously was. "Take the spare boat," shouted the committee. "I don't want it," yelled back Sprague. While Sprague moved in slow motion, all the time looking upwind to see if the breeze were increasing, the boom was replaced. Still no breeze. The boom operation completed, Sprague let his boat drift far downwind from the line as he busied himself coiling lines like an automaton. Finally, he sailed back to the committee boat. "I need time to tune up," said Henry smoothly, and the race was further delayed. When the race finally was over, Henry finished a healthy fifth. Afterward Sprague said of his delaying tactics, "Any Finn sailor in my position would have done the same." And on the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club beach there were few of his defeated rivals who would deny it.