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Original Issue

Diva really hit the high seas

A German donna was prima in the SORC, the No. 1 regatta in the U.S.

For almost half a century the Southern Ocean Racing Conference has been the contribution of Florida and Nassau to the midwinter mental health of well-heeled yachtsmen. Its six warm-water races vary in distance from 25 to 365 miles, and offer high-quality competition to all comers. This year the comers included an unusually large contingent of West German boats, and one of them, Diva, won the trophy for best-in-fleet. She is a 39-footer owned by Berend Beilken, a renowned yachtsman who was the trainer for the West German team that won the 1983 Admiral's Cup, which is sailed off England. The individual winner there, however, was Diva, French-built and then French-owned, and Beilken bought her last September. This September he plans to sail her in the Sardinia Cup, an international team regatta that was inaugurated in 1978, and as part of the three-boat West German team in the next Admiral's Cup, in 1985.

In the SORC there was but one American aboard Diva. The rest of the crew were Germans, many of them Olympic-class sailors in Flying Dutchmen and 470s. Beilken's co-helmsman was a German law student with a decidedly un-Germanic name, Tom Ross, who was also on the '83 German Admiral's Cup team, sailing aboard Outsider. It was Ross who advised Beilken to have a close look at Diva. "Diva is very fast," says Ross. "And very good on downwind courses and light-wind tacking courses. It is an all-around boat."

Diva and the other fast boats in Class E—Outsider, now owned by Albert Hildebrand of Oyster Bay, N.Y.; William Ostermiller's Allegiance, a new boat aimed for this year's One-Ton world's, which will be contested off France; and Dazzler, a J/41 chartered by Perry Harris and Bill Shore—found the SORC conditions to their liking and provided the closest competition of the series. "Not many tacks, a lot of reaching—that was why we were so fast," says Ross. "The St. Pete-Lauderdale race was only reaches, and the small boats did well."

"Every class here has good sailors," said Rod Johnstone, Dazzler's designer. "But in our class the boats were so even we were really pushing each other a lot more. It's like one-design racing." By the last race, Dazzler had faded to third and Diva and Allegiance finished one-two in fleet and two-one in class.

When the boats are evenly matched, it's crew work that makes the difference, and the German crews were the talk of the docks. Their successes weren't limited to Diva. Motivation and Container, both German-built boats with German crews, were first in Class F and second in Class D, respectively.

Karl von Wendt, the helmsman of Motivation, is an honest-to-God German baron, the kind with his own castle near Dortmund, his own ski resort in the Laurentians in Canada and half of Dehler, one of the largest boat-building works in Europe. Von Wendt thinks the resurgence of German yachting is attributable to the harsh conditions at home. "The one factor that is different is weather," he says. "We are used to cold temperatures. In the peak of our summer season on the North Sea our weather is half as warm as St. Pete was when we started the SORC. We are used to everything being wet and ugly. We have to deal with that all year round, whereas over here, if the weather is not fine, nobody really wants to go. And that, I believe, helps make us tougher competitors."

Von Wendt's crew makes believers out of skeptics at first sight. All six of the crew members have been together for four years, sailing 50 regattas a year, and they are tough. When owner Ralf Bahrmann tried to put some beer aboard Motivation for the 172-mile race from Miami to Nassau, the crew said no. Instead they fortified themselves with two soft drinks apiece and a few candy bars, saying to Bahrmann, "We come to sail, not to eat." The co-helmsman, Niels Springer, is the world mini-ton champion, but he looks a little like a Bowery panhandler. He's tall and very thin, his skin is leathery and his brown hair hangs to his shoulders in a vast, matted clump. He added a blazer to his blue jeans-and-clogs ensemble for the prize-giving ceremony at Government House in Nassau, but his amazing hair remained untouched.

While the Germans were excelling in the D, E and F classes, in the A's an upstart 55-footer with a huge handicap was giving the maxis fits. The Shadow, a California boat named for the pulp magazine hero and 1930s and '40s radio detective ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows. Heh, heh, heh"), has a small tender named Margot Lane, for The Shadow's girl friend, and the boat's crew plays tapes of The Shadow's eerie laughter when they're coming in to dock. The Shadow was launched last September, just two weeks before the St. Francis Yacht Club's Big Boat Series on San Francisco Bay, and she finished second overall. Her owner, Richard Rogers, who is new to ocean racing, hoped she would compete in Class B in the SORC, but then Running Tide, a 12-year-old 60-footer with an age allowance that makes her rating slightly lower than Shadow's, also arrived. Running Tide's owner, Al Van Metre, asked to compete, as he had before, in Class A with the 70- and 80-footers. Race officials deferred to his wishes and moved The Shadow up, too.

Class A was made up of six maxis, four boats in the 60-foot range (including Running Tide), and Shadow, which has been called a "pocket maxi." With her favorable time allowances and weather conditions that benefited smaller boats, The Shadow cleaned up. She finished first on corrected time in five of the six races and took class honors.

"The maxis were intensely disappointed that we were in A," said Rogers, "and I agree with them. I think they should have their own class. I think it would've been more fair and more fun. It's hard to race a business against a boat like Shadow."

"The business" Rogers referred to is that of maxi management. Running an 80-foot yacht, a crew of more than 22, an elaborate shore support system, a tender, a sail program, and much much more, and moving them from regatta to regatta around the world—because that's where the maxis race, everywhere—is a demanding business. The most visible of the maxi owners is Jim Kilroy, 61, of Los Angeles, the owner and campaigner of not one but two dominating maxi yachts—Kialoa, which finished second to The Shadow in Class A, and Kialoa III soon to be competing at Antigua Race Week.

Kilroy, too, didn't think The Shadow should be in his class, but his complaint, like Rogers', was with the race officials. "A 23-foot racing spread is a lot for one class," was all he would say publicly, but as spokesman for the maxi owners, the men who spend the most on the sport, he had much to say behind closed doors to the SORC officials. Not unreasonably, the maxi owners feel that if they go to the trouble of showing up for an event, lending it glamour, prestige and publicity it wouldn't otherwise have, they should be treated with consideration.

Chances are that The Shadow, a Mark Soverel design, would have done pretty well in Class B. Her wide stern sections, which Rogers calls "Soverel training wheels" because they prevent the boat from heeling excessively, run counter to the current thinking in new boats, most of which have moderately tapered sterns. "I wouldn't call Soverel a radical departure, but he's certainly different," says Rogers. Because she resists heeling, The Shadow was never reefed in the whole SORC. Her greatest sail reduction was during the big winds of the St. Petersburg-Fort Lauderdale race, and that was merely to a full main and a No. 3 jib.

In spite of his impressive debut in ocean racing, Rogers is a small-boat sailor at heart, and he may not campaign The Shadow for long. "I can't complain about the results," he said, "but I'm a round-the-buoys man."

If Rogers does move on to other boats, what happens to a slightly used pocket maxi? Undoubtedly she'll pass into the hands of another sportsman with a fat wallet. Maybe her name will be changed, but when next she competes at the SORC, everyone on the docks will say, "That was The Shadow. She beat the maxis in 1984." Heh, heh, heh.


Diva finished second in the Miami-Nassau race, and in her class, but still won overall.


A Shadow of a maxi won Class A. Heh, heh, heh.


Kialoa meant business in Class A, but couldn't change the rating system.