Historic Sailing Moments in the Vault

Published on March 12th, 2018

Sports Illustrated magazine has been serving sporting enthusiasts since 1954, and had this gem in its vault from their magazine issue dated August 30, 1976:

One thing on the minds of most of the 37 skippers from 16 countries getting ready for this month’s Fireball World Championship was how the reigning champion would do this time around.

Joan Ellis of Westport, CT. had astonished – and chagrined – her male rivals at La Rochelle, France last year by becoming not only the first American ever to win the Fireball title but also the only woman ever to win a world championship in a one design class.

As things worked out at St. Margaret’s Bay in Nova Scotia, Ellis did not repeat, finishing fourth, but the U.S. did produce another surprise winner, a 20-year-old Yale junior named Steve Benjamin from Oyster Bay, NY.

Having failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 470 class, Benjamin resolved to go after the Fireball title in earnest. Starting in June, he and his crew, 18-year-old Tucker Edmundson of Darien, CT. spent all day every day on the water.

Benjamin applied fine tuning techniques he had learned in the 470s and when they had their practice boat as taut as they wanted, they bought a new, stripped-down boat for the championship and tuned that one as tight as a banjo, too.

Benjamin quickly made his presence in Nova Scotia felt by winning the first race, but was disqualified in the second for starting early and thereafter had to sail gingerly, shunning scrambles and crossing the line as much as 10 seconds late “just to be sure.”

It made no difference. He cinched matters by finishing first in four of the final five races.

Comment: When I’m asked how the U.S. can improve its competitiveness at the Olympic Games, I hesitate to reflect on how things used to be, but in this instance, it is the road forward. Benj was competing collegiately, but also went toe to toe in a technical boat against an open field, and later won the silver medal at the Los Angeles 1984 Games. When the U.S. dominated in the Olympics, this was the template and can be again today. – Craig Leweck, Scuttlebutt

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