Publish date:

Vacation is time for school

'Why waste winters up North,' say the founders of Sailing Symposiums, Inc., 'when you could be in the Bahamas learning how to win races?'

All over the U.S. this summer a lot of former hackers may suddenly emerge as first-class racing sailors and a lot of good sailors may be better ones thanks to a new school that is just completing its first semester. The school is popularly known as Bahamas Race Week because its principal classroom is the waters off West End, Grand Bahama Island. Officially known as Sailing Symposiums, Inc., it was the invention of Steve Colgate, 32-year-old president of New York's Offshore Sailing School, and Knowles Pittman, editor of One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman, sailboat racing's best magazine. From October to April, these two reasoned, many a frustrated sailor is simply sitting, oiling his turnbuckles and waiting for the spring thaw. Why not give him a chance to combine a winter vacation with a chance to really learn the techniques of his favorite sport in a balmy climate with some of the best racing sailors around to serve as instructors?

"People can talk all they like about sailing for esthetic pleasure," says Chuck Ulmer, who makes sails in City Island when he is not winning races elsewhere, "but sooner or later most every sailor will want to take up racing." Ulmer was quick to accept an invitation to join the symposium as a guest instructor, as was another sailmaker, Owen Torrey, a bronze medalist in the 1948 Olympics.

Torrey and Ulmer were on duty in the school's late sessions three weeks ago, along with Don Loweree, one of the permanent instructors and a highly competent sailorman with a master's degree in, of all things, music. During earlier weeks the roster of instructors in the Bahamas had sparkled with the names of the great and near great: George O'Day, who more than anyone else may deserve the title Mr. Yacht Racing; Wally Ross, president of Hard Sails Inc.; Canadian Olympian Bruce Kirby; former World Star Class Champion Dick Stearns; Dr. Stuart Walker, who has done as much to encourage small-boat racing as any man in the nation; Harry Sindle, six times national champion in the Flying Dutchman class; 5-0-5 champ John Marshall; et al., et al. In pairs they had faced each new group of students as it arrived, about 25 sailors per session, lecturing them long and hard at the blackboards and giving them solid tactical training in the school's fleet of Norwegian-built Solings.

Now it was the turn of Ulmer and Torrey—Ulmer the pragmatist, Torrey the intellectual. "If it works, do it," says Chuck. "If it works, why does it work?" wonders Owen. "Most people lose races because they ignore the obvious," says Chuck. "If you have three alternatives," says Owen, "you ought to be able to determine scientifically which of the three is best."

The student sailors facing Professors Ulmer and Torrey ranged in age from the mid-20s to the mid-50s and in skill from hopeless to promising. The youngest, 28-year-old Bob Benkert, owns a man's apparel store in Birmingham, Mich.; the oldest, Dr. John Thomas, 57, practices pediatrics in Omaha. There were five doctors in all, including a pathologist and an orthopedic surgeon, a florist, four attorneys, a cookie manufacturer, a real-estate man, a printer, a paper manufacturer, a pile-driving contractor, a safety-equipment manufacturer, a painting contractor, a lieutenant colonel stationed with the U.S. Continental Army Command in Virginia, and Charles Owens, founder of the Owens Yacht Co. Most of the men had brought their wives along. Three of the wives, having crewed at home for their husbands, signed up for the course.

In assigning crews, bachelor Colgate promptly separated husbands and wives. "Women tend to defer too much to their husbands," he explained. "Or else some husbands are too concerned about what their wives are doing, which distracts them from what they're supposed to be doing. When men sail with their wives, they frequently get too bossy. In this symposium, everyone has to take his turn skippering and crewing. I remember one couple I separated and found, at the end of the week, that the woman had the best record, her husband had the worst."

The students were divided into two groups, A and B, depending on skill and experience, "If the air isn't too heavy," Colgate announced to B group, "we'll have a spinnaker drill." "Oh, Lord," moaned Harriet Golden, a housewife from New Rochelle, N.Y., "I can never get that damn spinnaker up." "Or down for that matter," muttered Harriet's husband.

Getting safely out of the harbor was B group's first challenge. A bootlegger's haven during Prohibition days, the harbor is narrow and sheltered by a line of cays that run roughly north and south. When a boat emerges into the sea, it must fight its way through a channel bucking a strong current. A tremendous turbulence may send three-to-five-foot waves across the bow before a boat breaks through into quiet water.

Loweree and Ulmer followed the Solings in a Boston Whaler. Colgate and Torrey manned the committee boat. Chuck Ulmer, who had been full of charm and humorous anecdote in the classroom, was all business once sailing instruction got under way, stern of demeanor and loud of voice.

"Where is the first mark?" shouted a crew member of No. 10.

Ulmer looked incredulous, then raised a horn to his lips. "Figure it out! In a race no one is going to tell you where the mark is."

A red flag was hoisted on the committee boat, and one short blast of a horn signaled the start of the race. The boats tacked toward the start, all but Soling No. 11, which was blithely sailing off in the opposite direction, carrying confused Skipper Peter Starrett, Fore-deck Man Allan Bridge and Jibman Harriet Golden. Reported Dr. Starrett later to his intrigued classmates: "In no time at all, not only could we not see any of the marks, we couldn't even see the other boats."

"There are lots of holes in the air," Ulmer shouted to No. 11 sometime later, "as you ought to be able to see, and if you don't get some wind, you're not going to make it."

Now he was after No. 14: "Trim your main! Bring her upwind."

"Tighten your luff, No. 11. Your jib's got some scallops in it."

"Hey, No. 10! Your mainsail is out too far. So is your jib. Do you see what's on the water ahead of you? Look at the telltales. See those cat's-paws coming toward you? That's wind. You should be able to react to it."

At last it was spinnaker time, and Ulmer had his work cut out for him.

"Keep your eye on the competition," he shouted at the colonel. "Are you ready to set the chute? That sheet is leading from the wrong place. When you trim a sail, look at it! Your headboard is jammed on the backstay." (One suspected that Ulmer, a graduate of the Naval Academy, enjoyed giving the Army hell.)

"Get the spinnaker out from under the jib, No. 13. Now it's wrapped around the bow. Free it. Your pole is too high. Why is your crew looking around? They should be trimming the spinnaker."

"Don't roll the jib until you set the chute, No. 14. Your spinnaker sheet is running through the reaching block. Now trip your guy. Now ease the sheet some more. Now go up and roll the jib, get it out of the way...."

Spinnakers, brilliantly colored, rose and billowed.

"My God!" said Ulmer feebly, and he sat down in the Whaler, watching apathetically as the incorrigible No. 11, now being skippered by Bridge on a port tack, headed straight for Soling No. 14, on starboard, which is about as illegal as crossing a highway against a red light.

"Starboard tack! Starboard tack!" screamed the crew of No. 14. Soling No. 11 sailed blithely on, and No. 14, at the last possible moment, bore off. Sailors Finder, Kahnweiler and Levy raised their protest flag with a cheer. After lunch they met in the Set 'n' Be Damned bar lounge of the hotel (while A group was out on the water) to wash down their indignation with martinis, and pen their protest. This document eventually filled six pages of the small, gaily decorated stationery provided by the hotel.

At the afternoon meeting, which took place daily in the Eleuthera Room, it was read aloud, all six pages.

"It was a clear case of port-starboard violation," Colgate ruled, adding with a sigh, "I suppose that before the week is over we ought to take up the matter of how to present a proper protest."

By the middle of the week a few members of the B group had been promoted to A, and two or three of the latter group had been demoted to B. There had been no serious damage to any of the boats, though Soling No. 13 seemed to be a bit accident prone. She had gone up on the rocks in a practice run on the first day, scraped her keel, lost her masthead fly, fouled the same mast in the rigging of another boat and suffered a 10-inch tear in her mainsail at the clew. Owen Torrey spent an afternoon with needle and thread, rocking in the Soling, like an old lady darning a sock.

The lectures, both practical and erudite, ranged from How to Prepare for a Major Regatta to Scientific Research in Sailing. Torrey, who had given up an established practice in maritime law to make sails, discussed ways and means of testing the porosity of the spinnaker. To illustrate, he drew a series of complicated diagrams on the blackboard, until it was filled with a maze of cross-sections, arrows and triangles.

"There's another way," drawled the practical Ulmer, twinkling. "Clamp the spinnaker over your nose and mouth. If you survive, it's porous."

Questions came fast from the student sailors. How do you slow down, other than by shifting your weight aft? How do you stop? How can you tell where the maximum current is? How can you shake weed off your keel? (Answer to the last: if you don't have a weed pole, head right up into the wind until you come to a stop and start drifting backwards. The weed will fall off.)

Owen Torrey had a few thoughts on weed. "When heeling," he said, "you can see the keel. If you don't have weed, you know you're doing something wrong." "What is the single most important aspect of racing?" one sailor asked. "Your mental attitude," said Steve Colgate quickly. "You have to want to win. The race isn't over until you cross the finish line. Even if you're 10 boats behind, keep in mind that God is going to strike down some of those boats ahead of you." "Knowing the rules," said Ulmer. "You not only get a tactical advantage but a psychological one as well. I remember a race when someone on a port tack yelled 'Larboard!' [the old-fashioned word for port] at a starboard tack boat—and the fellow came about."

"I would suggest," said Steve Colgate, as the meeting broke up, "that Group B, particularly, read the section in the racing manual headed Common Mistakes We've Observed."

Colgate is not sure he will offer a basic sailing course next year, though he enjoyed his hackers—particularly the one who wrote, after his session in the Bahamas was over, "Thank you for letting us play Russian roulette with your beautiful Solings."