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Original Issue


Innovator Lowell North has a new boat for the SORC races, which means sailors beware

It is hard to believe that the costly game of sailing in the Southern Ocean Racing Conference could have begun when it did or could have lasted as it has. The idea of the SORC was conceived in a Havana bar in 1930, on the leading edge of the Great Depression. The competition was organized as a series of races a decade later while the whole country was mustering up for the worst of all wars. And though it prospers for much the same reason that saw it through its doubtful early years—the sailor's yen to beat the best—it is certainly not now what it once was.

In its beginnings the SORC brought together an odd lot of yachts, some seaworthy and some seaworn. In the first formal championship, in 1941, Stormy Weather, a yawl designed to make the most of the handicapping rules, tied for the overall title. Seven years later Stormy, the rule beater, won it outright at the age of 14. Today a 14-year-old hull has as much chance in the SORC as the three lateen-rigged Columbian caravels that Queen Isabella backed in 1492. Six of the last eight winners have been one-year-olds off a fresh set of line plans.

But the more things change.... Today on the southern circuit there is lament about the early obsolescence of expensive boats, about professionalism and about the inequities of the rules. In some form the same protests have been flying for 20 years. In the mid-'50s the SORC was dominated by two little yawls: a centerboarder named Finisterre and an oddball called Hoot Mon. The harshest critics could not decide whether Hoot Mon was more unsightly than unseaworthy. Although Finisterre, comparatively, reeked of orthodoxy, because of certain features she, too, was termed a rule beater and was further damned in excess of the facts for having "the best amateur crew that money can buy." In the early '60s Paper Tiger, a rule-beater hull with a steel-pipe skeleton, took two SORC titles, and 10 years later along came Cascade, a cat-rigged schoonerlike ketch summarily described in the press as "the ugliest ocean racer in sailing memory." Kooky Cascade failed to win the 1973 SORC only because she short-cut a buoy in one race.

Many of the best performers in the early SORC were designed for cruising as well as racing. By contrast, today's pacesetters are hulls of stark purpose, about as homey and comfy below as an unrenovated Quonset hut. Because she was a bit beamy, in her heyday old Finisterre—a comfortable cruising racer—was described as a "chunky bulldog." Compared to the beamy boats that are now stealing an extra sliver of a knot out of every condition, Finisterre was as swanlike as an early Herreshoff. Viewed along their major axis, the smaller of the new hulls resemble fat corn-fed mallards sitting on the water. Their bilges are as bulgy as the bear that ate Algy, and their maximum beams are so far aft that from aloft they look like bulbous teardrops. Swanlike they definitely are not, but they go like the dickens, and they cost more than most men could sell their souls for.

In this age of synthetics and super alloys and instant navigation, the most constant plaint on the southern circuit is the cost. A competitive custom boat that 10 years ago went for $60,000 now brings almost twice that. The doomsayers point out that the expense has already driven some sailors from the game and will force out more, and there was some cause for concern because of the marked drop in the size of the fleets in the past two years. But now the decrease seems to have been more a result of the general recession than specific cost, for entries for the 1976 SORC starting next week are being made at about the same rate as last year—and 22 of the first 27 applications filed were for new hulls.

When there is so much good trophy-ware to be won in more casual competitions at a tenth the cost, why do sailors, even in the best of times, devote themselves to the expensive SORC? The most likely answer lies in an old truth: in many sailors there is an atavistic itch to beat the very best of boats in a boat that is better yet.

Anyone doubting this old truth can easily become a believer by observing a San Diego skipper named Lowell North, who has had the itch for most of his 46 years. Today Lowell North is best known around the world as a skilled sailmaker, but describing him only as that is no more accurate than calling Thomas Alva Edison a successful phonograph manufacturer. North is in essence a noodler and a fiddler, taken by the notion that any fast boat can be made faster still. He is forever coming up with ideas as fresh as tomorrow, and many of them work.

Tom Blackaller, once a world Star boat champion, earns his living now as a working shareholder in North's sail making empire. To explain the success of North, his boss-partner, Blackaller said recently, "If a boat is slow, if a sail is slow, if a crew is bad, Lowell will be the first to realize it, and he will know why. Lowell is a genius inventor. Every minute he's into things like turbulence and moment and stress. I can stand about one day around him, and then I have to go off and breathe some simple air."

To judge by the abuse Blackaller and other admirers love to heap on him, the way to find Lowell North among the 700 or more sailors competing in this year's SORC is to search the docks for the boat that an hour before each race looks least likely to be ready by the five-minute gun. On that boat you will find a man who is still trying to jigger something around on the deck with a drill or God-knows-what tool in his hand. That man is Lowell North. Among his rivals in small-boat classes, North enjoys a comparable reputation. According to them, in the process of getting everything just where it should be on a new hull, North drills so many holes that the deck of his handsome craft ends up looking like a platform-tennis paddle.

In yacht club bars, after important matters like the outcome of the Super Bowl have been laid aside, occasionally a minor question arises: Who is the world's best skipper? Is it Paul Elvstrom, the moody Dane from Hellerup, or Lowell North, the San Diego noodler? On the strength of his versatility alone, Elvstrom deserves the nod. But in a single class, no one has a record quite like North's. Although he has won other honors, like the One Ton world championship last year, for more than a quarter century the Star boat was his specialty—and the Stars are a classy class. Star championships are a big deal, but because of fleet and district eliminations the finals are not cluttered with mediocre local yokels. The roster of Star world winners includes sailors like Gerry Driscoll, Bill Ficker, Elvstrom and Dennis Conner, better known for what they have done in other hulls at other times.

In 1945, at the age of 15, North won his first Gold Star—as the world title in the class is known—as crewman for a 17-year-old San Diego rival, Malin Burnham. It was the only time two such sprouts ever won such a hot competition. In the 1949 world meet, while still a teenager and skippering a famous Star boat, No. 2920—a "design beater" he built for himself—North crossed the finish line first in four races and second in the other. No Star sailor of any age had ever whomped the world's best so soundly but, alas, because his boom ticked a rival's forestay before the start of one race, he dropped to fifth overall.

There are those who claim that North's super Star, 2920, was such a breakthrough that he could have won with a grass-smoking chimpanzee for crew. This hyperbole suggests that North is so supreme a boatbuilder, sail cutter and tuner that he needs only average competence in a race. Weighed against this flattery is the fact that in the 1964 Olympics he won a bronze medal sailing a Dragon, a class in which he rarely competed, and he had made that Olympic team by skunking the best U.S. Dragoneers in a borrowed hull he had never sailed. Be all that as it may, in his last 18 years of Star boating North has won one Olympic gold medal and four firsts, five seconds and two thirds in world championships, a record that will not be easily matched in any hot class.

The itch in North is atavistic for sure. His parents came from southwest Missouri, an area not noted for large bodies of water. His father, Willard North, suspects that latent sea fever began to surface early in Lowell, for his toddling son's first word was not the usual "Mama" but "bope" (for boat). The elder North says his son would have been brilliant in school except that his mind often wandered from the prescribed texts, even before the sea became a distraction. Because his father was a geophysicist, Lowell spent his early boyhood in various California oil towns and in Los Angeles.

He first went sailing at about 11 years, after his father acquired a weekend place in Newport Beach, Calif. Even then in Newport Beach it was considered a hanging offense not to be a sailor. North bolted a keel on a hard-chined dink, stuck a mast through a thwart, bent on a triangle cut from a bed sheet and joined the boaty set. When Willard North's work took him to San Diego in 1944 he bought his son a Star boat to ease the pain of leaving beautiful, yachty Newport Beach. Although by his junior year of high school North had crewed successfully in a world meet, he was as well known in San Diego as a bench warmer on the Point Loma High basketball team. To carry the irony further, the hot basketballer for whom he subbed was Don Larsen, best remembered now for his World Series perfect game.

Since 1966, when a band of one-design rebels led by Ted Turner won the SORC in a stock hull, it has been commonly accepted that the best ocean racing talent comes out of small boats. It is no longer sufficient for a middle-aged skipper to race with a crew made up of his old college roomie and convivial chums from the cruising and casual racing circuits. Today in the cockpits as well as on the foredecks of offshore winners there are young men who are pros, if not in fact at least in the dedication they carry over from competition in small boats.

On these counts—and presuming that God in His infinite whimsy does not favor some other kind of hull too often in the six-race series—the boat most likely to win best of class most often in the upcoming SORC is a two-ton newcomer called Williwaw. She is owned by a former north Jersey Star-boater, Seymore Sinett, and will be skippered by Lowell North, whose small-boat credentials are so convincing they are almost encumbering. Of further significance, Williwaw was conceived by 30-year-old Douglas Peterson, a onetime small-boater and offshore deck ape who for this brief, shining moment at least is the world's most successful designer. Peterson started as a boy in Sabot dinks and in Starlets, a mini-Star class unique to San Diego.

Peterson had only two years of pre-engineering at Pasadena City College, but in his off-hours, while working as a designer's draftsman, he read The Theory of Wing Sections and Fluid Dynamic Drag and other dry requisites of the profession.

Because no one would buy his first design, he built her for himself. She was called Ganbare, and with North aboard she took second in the 1973 One Ton world championship in Sardinia, losing first place only because she short-cut a buoy in one race. Other Peterson hulls with North and sailors of comparable worth at the helm won the last two One Ton titles and the SORC. If Williwaw under North does poorly this year, Peterson will have laid his first egg—and such can happen. To paraphrase an old truism, a few good summers do not an Olin Stephens make.

North first tried ocean racing in the late '50s and found it not much. "My first race," he recalls, "was around San Clemente Island. By the middle of the night we had gone nowhere in six hours of no wind, and I thought anybody who likes this is off his rocker. About a year later I had forgotten what it was like, and tried again, and it was fun."

When he did go into offshore racing more seriously, he took with him the same extravagant zest for innovation that sometimes confounded his small-boat rivals, as well as rules committees. On North's first long ocean race, 1,430 miles from San Diego to Acapulco aboard a cutter called Orient, Tom Blackaller was on the same watch. As Blackaller remembers, "When we were off watch, Lowell didn't want to sleep. He had to be sure the sails were trimmed right. After eight days he was so dingly he was holding his eyelids open. We came off the starting line of that race with a spinnaker up, alongside the scratch boat, Escapade. Lowell goes below and comes back up with a little bag and goes forward. Pretty soon, chut-chut-chut, off the weather shrouds is flying a Lightning spinnaker. Lowell has it sheeted off the after guy, tacked to the main shrouds and clewed somewhere. I asked him if it was legal, and he said, I think it is.' We were flying a second spinnaker. It was as illegal as hell, and the other crews were yelling at us across the water, 'Hey, you can't do that.' "

Later in the same race, Blackaller recalls, they lay one night in lumpy seas in air so light the spinnaker was sagging and the boom was bouncing around. "We were making about one knot," Blackaller says, "and Lowell announces, 'Now we're going to try something.' Lowell comes back from below with a long piece of shock cord, and he resheets the mainsail with that, if you can believe it. So we sit there with the boom going back and forth, bo-wongo, bo-wongo, bo-wongo, pumping air. The owner of the boat almost had a coronary, and after about four bo-wongo bo-wongos, the other watch is topside saying, 'What is going on up here?' We asked the doctor on board to give Lowell a pill. I remember that distinctly because we had a long talk about how to get the pill down him. We beat the scratch boat across the finish line, but by then Lowell's Lightning spinnaker was in its bag below, and he was under sedation. I think he's learned to pace himself since then."

After graduating from the University of California in 1951, North worked in predesign and stress analysis for Ryan Aircraft and a company called Narmco. The job had no lasting flavor for him, and in 1958, inopportunely when his wife Kay was expecting a child, he quit. Armed with an elastic idea for improving the mains of Star boats, he began making sails. Although the Star rules committee soon decreed that his innovation was a no-no, he was on his way. While winning his third world Star title in Rio de Janeiro in 1960, he told the press, "A sail loft should never be big business, and I don't want it big." His gross that year was $122,000. Today North Sails, Inc. is the world's largest producer of competition sails, and with a gross around $7 million last year it is nip and tuck with its constant rival, Hood Sailmakers, Inc., for the overall world title. Of the 13 North lofts in the U.S. and abroad, the biggest today is in Stratford, Conn., on Long Island Sound, in the heart of Hood country.

In 1974 Intrepid, the old wooden 12-meter that had twice defended the America's Cup, used North sails in her attempt to win the honor again. In the preliminary races sailed in fair and fluky conditions, Intrepid beat the new aluminum hull Courageous eight out of 12 times. Among the changes Courageous made after the preliminaries was a switch to North sails. So the finals became virtually a duel of North vs. North, with Courageous winning five out of nine for the right to defend. When sailmaker Ted Hood served as skipper of Courageous against the Australian challenger Southern Cross, logically enough he used Hood sails. But he retained in his inventory some of the North fabrics, notably a three-quarter-ounce triradial spinnaker. Although spinnaker reaching was reputedly the forte of the Australian challenger, Courageous usually bested the Aussie on reaching legs, often with the North triradial. In this not altogether Corinthian age of yacht racing, when a rival sailmaker flies your spinnaker in a highly publicized affair like the America's Cup, well, sir, you have arrived.

To get an extra fraction of speed out of Williwaw in the upcoming SORC, Skipper North is stepping a mast one inch less in both fore-and-aft and athwartships diameters than is customary for such a hull. To stiffen the slender mast North has plastered it top to bottom with a thin veneer of costly carbon fiber. Commenting on this brave attempt, Blackaller observes with his customary candor, "It's typically Lowell, trying to get away with murder as usual. Using that mast is like running an Indy car on straight nitromethane. On a bad day it may go on him right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, and he'll end up on a beach somewhere."

North is an intent man who laughs easily. When his colleague bad-mouths him to his face, he roars. As Blackaller says, possibly North has learned to pace himself, but there is no evidence that he has put the lesson to use. Resting on the accomplishments of yesterday simply is not his bag. Lowell North is still a man with an itch.



Sailing Williwaw in a San Diego tuneup race for the SORC, North leads a spinnaker leg.



From a test rig atop North's San Diego sail loft, a chute and jib belly to a gentle breeze.