Journalist-experts are not born. Hugh Whall, our sailing writer-expert, got that way by sailing, starting on his own at 9 in a dinghy on the Zwartkops River in his native South Africa. In later years he sailed for others, on some of the fastest boats and with the best skippers in the business. Such background makes for unmistakable authenticity in our sailing coverage. "Writing about skippers is one thing," Whall says, "but to find out what a skipper is really like, don't depend on gossip—sail with him yourself." So what happened this week was logical.
Stories had begun to circulate in the sailing world about Ondine, the biggest, fastest, meanest ketch of them all. She is an ocean racer whose genoa fills the sky, a man-killer whose crew reportedly ends each race victorious, close to mutiny—but just too tired to try it. Her Owner-Skipper Huey Long, it was said, is a relentless driver of men, a perfectionist who regards the crew as fuel to make the boat go. Naturally, Hugh signed on.
He tells our first story of Ondine this week on page 84—by way of prelude to helping sail her out of Australia the day after Christmas on the Sydney-to-Hobart ocean race, a particularly demanding test of boats and men.
Not just any writer could have landed the job. Getting ready for Ondine involved years of what might be called Ocean Prep. Whall has sailed for such luminaries as Bill Luders, Ted Hood, Charlie Morgan and Cornelius Bruynzeel aboard such storied boats as Storm, various Robins, Maredea and Stormvogel.
Long before Ondine, people had grumbled about Storm. Luders was antisocial, they said, a skipper who won races and then sent someone else to pick up his prizes. All he really cared about were her sails and her bottom. "Actually," says Hugh, "Luders was a self-effacing master, who simply made more noise with his boats than with his mouth. What counted was that we won and the girls all liked us."
And aboard the 60-foot yawl Maredea, Skipper Morgan, who had been described as short-fused, stayed calm when the main boom broke in a black squall during the 1965 Miami-Nassau race. There was no stamping and breast-beating as docksiders had predicted. "Instead," says Hugh, "he ate a meal of conch sautéed in onion juice and drank two martinis, just like anyone else."
Of such experiences are inside stories made. Skipper Hood had nerves of rubber, Whall discovered. Racing from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he got off to a late start, ran the race like a cruise around Florida's toe—and still won the division.
Then Whall sailed with Stormvogel to Bermuda—finishing first in that race—and found that her skipper, Bruynzeel, had the manner of a commander of an 18th century man-of-war. He frequently closeted himself in his cabin and was a sharp-tongued boss on deck. This year Stormvogel was beaten by Ondine, and that did it. Whall had a new mission.
"You're going to sail with Huey?" one of Whall's shipmates asked incredulously. "Here, I'll give you the name of my psychiatrist."
In a few weeks Whall will be racing off toward Hobart under the legendary Huey Long, the whip-cracker. Are the stories true? Whall will see. "She's the finest boat of her kind afloat," Whall says. "What more could an expatriate from the Zwartkops River ask?"