On Lake Ontario, where sailors from 40 countries competed in six classes, the good Lord occasionally let the devil take charge. In several races a shifty wind, often backing when it should have been heading, put many of the world's best sailors in the ruck. On the course used by Tempests, Solings and Flying Dutchmen on the most whimsical day, the wind wandered listlessly around the compass and for a half hour came from two directions at once, mixing stragglers and front-runners so thoroughly that despite a 20-minute spread in starting times, six boats of the three classes crossed the finish line within one minute.
Inasmuch as sailors can throw out the worst of their seven races, much of the damage on freakish days did not count. The honors in the end went to men with solid reputations. As if to prove that sailors thrive on misery, British and Baltic skippers, who live where summer is short and seldom balmy, took all the gold and five of the other 12 medals. The most convincing winner was Reg White, an English shipwright, who despite losing his crew off the trapeze in the fifth round, so outsailed his Tornado class rivals that he did not need to start the last race.
Because each nation is allowed only one competitor, an Olympic first is a lesser honor than a world title in any of the hot racing classes, where the competition is heavy both in quality and quantity. Thus the most distinguished performer in the 1976 Games without question was John Albrechtson, a Swedish sailmaker in his third Olympic quest. To win the Tempest class on Lake Ontario, Albrechtson had to beat the very best: Valentin Mankin of the U.S.S.R., defending Olympic champion, Uwe Mares of West Germany and Giuseppe Milone of Italy, world champions respectively in 1974 and '75—and also Dennis Conner of the U.S., who although a rookie in the class has worn a variety of sailor hats with remarkable success. Such was the intensity in the six races least afflicted by the devil that Albrechtson and his four pursuers let the rest of the field get into the top five places only four times and they earned the nickname "Rat Pack" for the way they stayed together out front.
Midway it looked as if the U.S. might make its worst showing since 1936, when it scored zip. Only Conner and David McFaull, a Hawaiian so loose it was sometimes hard to get him to stop talking, seemed to have a chance for medals. With one race to go, McFaull had worked up to second in the Tornado class—he held on to the silver by a fingernail—while Conner lost a squeaker and had to settle for bronze. With one race left, John Kolius, an easygoing Texan temporarily up tight, stood sixth in the Soling class and needed a first to have even a ghost of a chance. He got the first (his only one of the series), and on the strength of it took the silver medal behind Poul Jensen of Denmark.
The tension of Olympic sailing got to everyone, including gold medalist Albrechtson. Halfway through his races he remarked, "I think I will come back to my fourth Olympics as a free-pistol competitor. At Munich our pistol man, Ragnar Skanaker, won on the first day. He had his gold medal and free whiskey and was being driven around in a car with chauffeur before we sailors had our opening ceremony. For sailors the Olympics are seven long days in doubt."
Winner Albrechtson is now aiming for the pistol.
Albrechtson's acrobatic crew hikes way out on the trapeze to keep the Tempest on its feet.