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Original Issue


Yachtsman Bill Snaith is a refreshing storm center in New York's glacial ocean of glass and stainless steel

Park Avenue, New York City's most famous boulevard, is a changed place. The sidewalks where rich sports, dowagers and Pomeranians once walked are crowded with commerce. The glass-faced buildings lining the sidewalks stand tall, sterile and inhuman. There are scarcely enough baroque outcroppings left to accommodate the pigeons. The career women of Park Avenue are far better-looking than the dowagers of yore—their legs are trimmer and they carry their bosoms higher—but they are glass-faced like the buildings. In offices along the avenue the most eyecatching window display often is a portrait gallery of executives, each face grim enough to repel children and frozen sufficiently by Bachrach to qualify for a place in Madame Tussaud's waxworks.

But in one office on the east side of Park Avenue, nine floors up, there is one important executive whose face has not yet been frozen by Bachrach or anyone else. He is a Renaissance caveman named William Snaith. At age 58, Bill Snaith does not look like a Park Avenue man of distinction, nor does he act the part. He wears his hair longer than an executive should. His brindle moustache is shaggy and tends to wiggle recklessly around his face. At his desk Snaith` usually talks soberly, but when a matter at hand seems to be getting too serious he is apt to throw a leg over the arm of his chair and let go a freshet of Groucho Marxist nonsense.

Despite the burdens of his position, Snaith's ego is still full-blown; the panting animal in him has not yet succumbed. He is equally comfortable among high-and lowbrows, for his interests run the gamut. When Beethoven's Pastoral is done right, he applauds; when Rob Gardner of the Mets wins a 10-hitter, he cheers; when he notices ladies' hemlines inching upward, he rejoices openly. Given the right breaks in life, Snaith might have capitalized on his broad tastes and gregariousness by becoming a bartender. By the fate of things, he became instead an architect, decorator, designer, consumer analyst, painter, critic, writer, raconteur, casual musician, popular after-dinner speaker and ocean sailor. More specifically, he became managing partner in the firm of Raymond Loewy/William Snaith Inc.—a company that deals largely in industrial design but has more sidelines than a hock shop.

A company name like Raymond Loewy/William Snaith Inc., of course, sticks in the throat more easily than in the mind. Although most people are barely aware of the company, its impact is considerable. When a housewife spends money at spiffy marts like Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor, she is doing so in a seductive environment conceived by Loewy/Snaith. If a husband quits his job at a corrugated-box factory, it may be because he is tired of operating a cutter-creaser-stripper machine designed by Loewy/Snaith. In the near future if you, gentle reader, are mugged while riding on the New York City transit system, you will probably regain consciousness in a pool of your own blood, staring up at the new subway coachwork and backlit advertising panels designed by Loewy/Snaith. If you have ever consumed Shreddies or Oysterettes, Old Forester or Early Times, if you have used aureomycin hog cholera vaccine, or if you have ever bought a water-jet massager for your gums, you have been under the influence of Loewy/Snaith. One way to get away from Loewy/Snaith might be to cast yourself adrift on the sea, but even then you could not be certain. Indeed, if in a mid-Atlantic gale you should hear above the wind song and hiss of the sea a voice bawling out succinctly, "Goddam-it," it is a good bet that just beyond the next swell you would find Bill Snaith at the helm of his yawl Figaro IV.

For the past 20 years, in one or another of his four Figaros, Snaith has spent much of his time at sea, cruising and racing. He has been dismasted off Montauk and dis-keeled in the Gulf Stream. He has ghosted past Diamond Head and has slid on the scend of mid-Atlantic seas at better than 12 knots. He has often been hung up on Bahama shoals and has sat for hours in the windless languor of Long Island Sound. He has suffered in the slap-chop of the shallow North Sea, and he has wandered lost north of Scotland in The Bore off Mull Head. He came close to breaking his back once in the English Channel and nearly broke an arm trying to harpoon a mola mola in the waters off—of all exotic places—Greenwich, Conn. Thinking over his misadventures, Snaith says, "I have one motto which I keep repeating to the irritation of my loved ones: 'Any man who does not cross a starting line early at least once a season and who does not go aground while cruising at least once a year isn't really trying.' "

Between misadventures like these, Snaith has sailed many a pleasant mile through days of sun and wind, with everything shipshape, his socks dry and his position known, but when it comes to remembering anything about such revoltingly normal and untrying times his sense of recall is about even with that of a newt. But he has total recall about the miseries, humiliations and near disasters he has suffered at sea.

For once in his life Bill Snaith was not among the skippers dropping anchor in Bermuda's Hamilton Harbor two weeks ago. He was under doctor's orders to take it easy for a while. But if you ask him about other Bermuda races, in which he has competed seven times, offhand he is likely to say: "I think I have been second, and fourth, and seventh, and lousy." He took first place in the Transatlantic Race to Sweden in '60, he was captain of the winning American Admiral's Cup team in '61 and first overall on the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit last year. Beyond these major victories, he is hard put to remember just what he was up to in any given year or how he fared as a racing skipper.

Too often a man who goes to sea for the love of it becomes in time a very dull fellow. Indeed, one of the easiest ways to plumb the depths of boredom is to ask a well-soaked skipper whether he has ever sailed in the tide race off New London or in the gut between Scylla and Charybdis. The mere mention of these classical names will release a flood of unintriguing episodes. "Oh, by God," the skipper will exclaim. "Indeed I know the Race and the gut off Scylla. I was stemming the tide once in the Race—or was it off Scylla? I forget. But anyway, the wind was force 7, and the crew had just split the last grunion on board. And, even with the grunion gone, we still made it through. You could never guess how. We simply riff-raffed a spud to the countertop. Then we pleated a weevil through the stallion, routed it around the stamen and fleeced it to the mullion just forward of the parboil. We had a time, but it was nothing compared to the year before off Scylla. Or was it the Race? Anyway,..."

After laboring as a deckhand for years and being force-fed sailing talk in her off-hours, the wife of one skipper said recently and wearily, "I was living with my so-called husband Jack before he married his first boat. He has married two more since, but he still remembers his first love. He says she had the damndest spreaders he ever saw on anything her size."

In some extraordinary way, in a short period of 20 years, Bill Snaith has become a very fine amateur skipper without alienating his family or friends or boring casual acquaintances. The sea game remains merely one of the major ingredients in the mess of enthusiasms that are stewing within him. He can talk boat talk, but it is not his only tongue. Half a year ago Snaith packaged the day-by-day logs of two of his transoceanic trips—one cruise and one race—in book form for public consumption. The book, Across (he Western Ocean, has been well received by sailors but, more significantly, it has even been read for pleasure by nonsailors.

A proper entry in a ship's log should read coldly and concisely: 1100 Hours. Course 105°. Wind SW at six. Distance covered: 167 miles. At 0925 hours Crewman Jonah of the starboard watch fell overboard and was eaten by a whale.

By contrast, in his log entries Skipper Snaith editorializes, romanticizes, digresses, exults, praises, mocks, scorns and cusses. His entry for 0700 hours one morning at sea reads: "The chief blind mouse, our navigator, claims we have come 1055 miles." In another entry Snaith is downright lyrical: "The boat rushes along in the night, a cushion of gray foam under her forefoot. She sets a tireless purpose. We are not so tireless, but we are with purpose. . . . There is in this tumbling waste a certain order and beauty."

In a log entry at the start of the 1963 Transatlantic Race, when he was supposedly aimed for England and very nearly ran into the good old U.S.A., he gives the reader a staccato report of the drama: "Breakers ho! For crissakes! Land right ahead! It is enough to give a man the yellow stain.... Our compass is eight degrees off on an easterly heading."

In another log entry written in mid-Atlantic, Snaith suggests that the noble quest of gallant men for England was more like a survival test in the Paris sewers. "The dawn struggles out from under a dense cloud cover," Snaith wrote on the 10th day. "If it were not for the fact that at sea one becomes long-suffering, I could get pretty tired of this kind of morning. We are all swarmy in our many layers of clothing, each man locked into his particular fragrance. This morning for instance, I thought I smelled a horse. When I turned around to look, there was nobody around but me.... This night ends like most others—drizzle and unloveliness. We have been rained on steadily. I feel webs growing between my toes."

In a Snaith log the reader not only shares the human experience but also gets a fund of information that he may never need. In his logs Snaith often wanders outrageously off the mark to discuss such things as hairdos at Bennington College, the Roman mile, the Papal Line of Demarcation, the uncommon anatomy of the common raccoon, the use of luciferin in chemiluminescence and the effect of private habits on mores in the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV.

"Why do I love the sea?" Snaith asks. "I have never answered that question to my satisfaction. I have written about the sea, but when I read what I write there are so many answers that there really isn't any. I do not know where it came from or why, but for all my remembered life I have had a passion for the sea."

Snaith's life, erratically remembered, began in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn back when it still had many vacant lots for boys. He saw his first cow in Brooklyn and made his first model boat in shop class at P.S. 164. Snaith is of Lithuanian stock and, while his forebears doubtless got here by boat, to judge by the best evidence Snaith has, they were unseaworthy people. He remembers a particular day long ago when his grandmother took a single step onto a Hudson River Day Line boat that was still snugged to the pier, then threw up.

Snaith the boy read pulp thrillers, real history and fictionalized history by men like G. A. Henty. "I read the Civil War," Snaith recalls, "written by—who was it? Joseph Altsheler?—all about Antietam, Shiloh and the Crater. I read all about the Wyandottes and the Wild West and Nick Carter, but I never wanted to be a cowboy or a cop. I read Tarzan. yet I never wanted to swing through trees. For me the most fascinating reading always was the sea.

"For sport I ran and swam," Snaith says. "I ran the 440 and was no good. I was a fair swimmer, 100-yard freestyle and relays, but those were bad times for ordinary men because we were up against a beast named Johnny Weissmueller and one named Arne Borg. There was a pretty little swimmer named Eleanor Holm, and it was a goddam hopeless job even trying to beat her. The only thing I got out of swimming was shoulder muscles."

Snaith was a consistent hooky-player in his high school years. He spent his lunch money on movies and vaudeville shows and left without a diploma. While working for a lithographer, he developed a taste for the arts. He subsequently made up his high school deficiencies while studying architecture at New York University, but before he completed his degree at NYU he got a fellowship and went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Although architecture elsewhere was marching ahead under men like Waller Gropius of the Bauhaus, at the Ecole the profession was still hung up on the buttresses of yesteryear. Disappointed, Snaith gave the Ecole only modest devotion and rounded out his time abroad as a Left Bank painter and part-time bouldevardier. Reviewing the hops, skips and gaps in his academic life, he says, "I have only one diploma, from P.S. 164. But for the grace of God, I could have become a bum. But then, who knows how any career is really made?"'

Snaith did not own a sailboat until he was well established in the U.S. as an architect, decorator and designer. By then he was 38, an age when many blue-water sailors are already on their second boat and dreaming of one still bigger. Snaith's first boat was a 19-foot sloop that he and his wife, Betty, named Cleody Skipper after their eldest son, MacLeod (then age 4), and their second son, Sheppard (age one and nicknamed Skipper). The Cleody Skipper was essentially a day sailer, but in it the Snaiths roamed the length of Long Island Sound. The kids slept on sailbags. Betty cooked with Sterno. The three Snaiths aboard who were at that time housebroken used a galvanized bucket. In those days Block Island, 90 miles from the Snaith anchorage in Westport, Conn., was Ultima Thule, the final goal, the mystery land that lay somewhere out in the mist half a day from the mainland across waters infested by ferryboats and submarines. "'When I made it to Block Island by dead reckoning," Snaith says beaming, "I felt like Columbus."

In Cleody Skipper Snaith experienced the usual griefs of the novice. In her first summer the boat sank three times and doubtless would have kept at it if Snaith had not found a knothole near the water-line and plugged it with a cork. The auxiliary power of the little sloop was a lawn-mower motor with a mind of its own—at times harder to start than a mixed gate of mares and stallions. Once started, the motor would not always stop when asked. Snaith sometimes struck it with a hammer. Close friends believe that both Snaith and his vocabulary are stronger today because of the motor in the little sloop.

In the past 20 years, typical of the breed, Snaith has gone ever upward, leaving one good boat for a better one. His present 50-foot yawl is greatly admired as an outstanding compromise between racing efficiency and cruising comfort. And—oh, wonder of it all—despite the many boats in his life, Snaith's wife and three sons remain loyal to him. "If Betty does not like sailing," Snaith says, "'it has been a secret all these years, and one that we hope will never come to the surface."

All three Snaith boys have served on their father's transatlantic crews, and still they love him and the privations of the sea. The youngest Snaith, Jocko, races planing center boarders. The two older Snaith boys skippered their college teams, capitalizing on disciplines they acquired as sprouts in the Blue Jay class. The Snaith boys learned early that a racing man must always operate at the top of his form, and in this regard one episode in the career of his son Cleody stands out in Bill Snaith's mind. While Cleody was racing one day in air so light it barely moved the boat, his brother Skip, serving as crew, rebelled. Under ordinary circumstances, such mutiny would have resulted in scuffling, blows and bodily kicks. "But Cleody knew," Bill Snaith points out proudly, "that any arm-swinging, any real disturbance in such light air could kill the momentum of the boat and ruin his chances in the race. So, with barely any movement, he leaned forward and bit his brother."

To the distress of sailing parents, children in their formative years often do a complete about-face, rejecting the sport. When it is time for a family sail, they ask to stay home. Sometimes they sneak off and ride in powerboats. A few years back the two older Snaith sons fell into worse ways: they started riding motorcycles. "Although now married, my son Cleody not only rides motorcycles," Bill Snaith admits with distaste and wonder, "but sometimes drives places in a car with his motorcycle on a trailer. Then he gets on the motorcycle and rides it."

Snaith is not altogether dismayed by this decay in his family. He figures the kids will tire of cycles before they are 50. He is, furthermore, tolerant of such defections since he was nearly lured away once by a Swiss client of Loewy/Snaith Inc. The client, one Ernst Feuz (as Snaith remembers the name) was, unbeknownst to Snaith, a mountaineer of repute. After driving Snaith around Switzerland for much of a night, the client put him up at his chalet, where there was literature on mountaineering. "I took a book called something—I forget—to read myself to sleep," Snaith says. "But I was fascinated by it. In three or four pages I read that my host, Feuz or Fuzz, was a famous mountaineer who had established many firsts—walked up the Eiger backwards, or on his hands, or something. You don't simply climb a mountain anymore. It's how you climb it—in the dead of night, or in a blizzard, or in some other equally miserable way.

"When I woke up in the morning, the sun was just up, and there, for chrissakes, framed in my window, shining bright, bright, was the Jungfrau. I never knew before what it meant to love a mountain, to respond to an enormous pile of stone that has been there for a millennium. It was about 5:30—colder than hell—and I walked around this little place, whatever it was called. I could see the Zugspitze or the Weisshorn. I saw the Eiger and the Jungfrau. I bought books on mountaineering, and I spent one whole day in Zurich trying to buy climbing shoes, but nobody knew what I was talking about. Apparently, to buy them you have to go to a big place called Kandahar. For some reason, just about everything to do with mountaineering is called Kandahar. I felt I ought to start making some practice climbs against the day when I would make a big climb. In almost no time it had become something I had to do. But then I found another man in the hotel who had been reading books on mountaineering and was very serious about it. The two of us got together and talked ourselves out of it.'' Thus shaking off his Alpine euphoria before he had even struggled 100 feet up the north face of Mt. Masochism, Snaith returned to the sea, where a man does not have to be miserable all of the time.

When Skipper Snaith comes back to port after a casual day's sail aboard Figaro, counting from the time the spring lines are set, it often takes him half an hour to travel the 100 yards from his boat to his automobile. He is bound to stop and trade ideas with—and heap abuse on—every rival skipper. It is sheer pleasure for him to lure a good friend and archrival like Skipper Richard Nye of Carina below decks, where they can insult each other in comfort. In such bouts, by custom, each insulter refers to the insultee in the third person, and the guest skipper is allowed to open. Setting down his glass, Nye will begin: "Bill Snaith once went to his psychiatrist because he was frustrated. The psychiatrist delved into his subconscious and said, 'You are frustrated because Nye beats you so often. So the thing for you to do with all your money is to go out and build yourself a better rule-beater.' So Snaith built this better rule-beater, which in his hands is a very comfortable cruising boat."

Snaith replies: "Nye is mad at me because his banker is mad at him. His banker is mad because I take more of Nye's money than he does. When I beat him to Bermuda, Nye says, 'I don't happen to have the $50 right now.' Then later he says, 'Bill, this is getting too commercial. Let's forget betting.' And then, without paying me, Nye proposes that for the race to Sweden the losing skipper buy dinner for both crews and their friends—which would be more than $50. So when I crossed the finish line at Skagen, I asked only one question. I didn't care about anybody else. I asked what time Nye finished in Carina. And then I shouted down the companion-way, 'It's pheasant under glass for every man aboard.' "

Paintings by William Snaith have been hung a number of times in New York museums and galleries and have been praised by the critics. Snaith, himself, has been hung by the critics once. Five years ago, becoming a critic himself in a book, The Irresponsible Arts, Snaith protested the incipient sterility and inhumanity that he found spoiling various forms of expression. Seemingly aroused because an interloper was milking their sacred cow, the critics lit into him. Instead of criticizing the book itself (which needed it), they protested his protests. They became fleas on a flea, thus proving to some extent just what Snaith claimed: that the arts were crawling inside themselves. The whole fight died out quickly and is of no matter now except that, like Snaith's brief romance with the Jungfrau and his quest of Block Island, it helps to explain something of the man and his loves. Snaith the sailor, like Snaith in tota, is man unconfined, usually human and still unsterilized—a painter often in need of a canvas larger than he can stretch on a frame. In discussing the technology of sailing recently, Snaith gave a clue to this. "Sailing is an exciting, inexact science," he said. "Where an airplane often might be reduced to certain constants, a sailboat cannot, because it has no constant environment. It is on the surface and in the water and in the air. It changes its angle. It changes its shape. It contends with actions of water and differentials of wind. How can you have an exact science? Someday, perhaps, they may make sailing exact, eliminate the human element, but they haven't yet, thank God."

When they do, Bill Snaith will probably head back to the Jungfrau.