What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger

Published on April 9th, 2020

While getting older offers the wisdom you wish you had earlier, time does put one’s life in order, as it is not the trophies we cherish but rather the scenery along the way. That is, as long at the scenery doesn’t kill us.

It was during the 1983 SORC when the 80-foot Kialoa IV won Class A, but it was not without incident, as one duel with the 81-foot Condor during the St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale Race provided a death-defying view for Justin Smart.

Phil Ross shared the memory of how Condor was ahead and took Rebecca Shoal wide and safely, whereas Kialoa IV attempted to cut the corner to get back in front. But at about eight to ten knots with full spinnaker, Kialoa IV bounced on the shoal, prompting an immediate call to gybe back out to starboard, and that’s when things really went pear-shaped.

Here’s Justin’s version:


I do remember that particular rounding of Rebecca Shoals; it seemed that on Kialoa we couldn’t ever get round it without some sort of incident. Bloodnut, as we affectionately called him (Phil Ross), got the story mostly correct by my memory. Here’s my version as I recall it, which can still give me nightmares to this day.

Four of us were pulling down the active sheet to clip on the brace after we bumped at Rebecca Shoals to enable us to gybe with the pole into deeper water. We held it as long as we could but could not bring it close enough to snap the brace on. When the real weight came on the sheet after we hit hard a second time and stopped, I was the only one who didn’t let go.

Initially I was plucked off the deck and swung over the lifelines about ten feet off the water. I held on because I thought that I would pendulum back across the foredeck at a low enough level to just drop down on the bow somewhere, which in that instant seemed worth the chance and better than ending up in the tide and swimming for it.

The boat now hard aground, gybed itself, then screwed around beam on to the breezer and in an instant I was high up as the kite rolled around to the new leeward side sending me to heights where letting go was no longer an option as I was now directly over the leeward side of the boat and from my vantage point, not going to clear the leeward rail if I did let go.

I just hung there thinking eventually the boat would bump clear, stand up, and I would ‘float’ down somewhere on or around the boat, but still attached via the sheet in any event.

As the boat lurched about a bit on the bottom, the sheet rode up and down the forestay with the heel of the boat, where at times the Sparcraft clip would crunch up against the foil and be dragged around it back and forth. That scared the crap out of me, knowing the tendency of Sparcraft clips of that era to trip themselves when they come into contact with things like shrouds!

In desperation, I yelled down the obvious to Laurent Esquier, who had the sheet on the drum and in his hand, “Don’t ease the sheet.” Which was not necessary as Laurent, the great sailor that he is, knew exactly what the situation was.

Though from my position on the sheet it was a shorter distance to the foil, it was an uphill climb at this point and I didn’t fancy my chances against the loaded sheet riding up and down the forestay, envisioning the bar tight Kevlar rope peeling my grip off the foil, and scraping me off to let gravity take over.

The other alternative was to go the much longer distance but at a slightly lower angle back to the shrouds. So while I was weighing all this, swinging at arm’s length a frightening distance above the boat, Bruce Kendal yelled up at me from the deck, “Smarto, get your ass down now, get back to the cap shroud.” So I did.

As I recall I grabbed the shrouds somewhere below the second spreader and made my way down to the deck. At about the same time the boat bumped her way into deeper water, we gybed to a safer distance off the shoal, gybed back as Fang had declared, “We’re past the shallow spot now,” and rounded Rebecca Shoal nose to nose with Condor who had stood-on a bit for the deeper water after watching our antics.

I remember thanking Laurent for his cool sheet wrangling when I got down to the deck and Jim Kilroy calling me back to the cockpit to report, “That was the craziest kite flying he had ever seen!” in his good humored manor, then going on to explain to those within earshot, how he had worked to keep things under control at the wheel by making sure the boat stayed in a stable orientation while I was flying about the place aloft.

There were a few other equally harrowing SORC incidents involving maxis and human fenders at leeward mark roundings. As a distant observer to the fender story I cannot tell it here, but Tom Whitmore on Windward Passage can.

Editor’s note: Tom, if you are listening, we are too. Send your story to editor@sailingscuttlebutt.com.

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