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Wonderful memories, back in the day

Published on January 31st, 2022

Back in the day, maxi boats were 70 footers and they were the titans of the sport. So large and loaded, they turned heads while competing at the Big Boat Series in San Francisco, CA.

This was well before deep keels with bulbs, so these maxis could come right along the shoreline, short tacking the rocks to avoid the flood tide. It was quite a sight for spectators, and epitomized an event founded in 1964 to showcase big boat talent from points around the compass.

Alan Blunt, one of the notable skippers of that era, shares a story from back in the day:

In 1970 I was the skipper on Ken DeMeuse’s maxi Blackfin. We were looking forward to a great Big Boat Series, racing against a very competitive fleet of maxis including Kialoa and Windward Passage, and all the challenges of San Francisco Bay.

At the time Ken was part owner of the Oakland Raiders, and to give us some extra beef on the grinders, he had conscripted four of their linebackers. Two days before the first race, we were out practicing in 25+ knots of breeze. We were about a half mile outside the Golden Gate Bridge and attempted a gybe off the southern shore near Seacliff. It did not go well.

We ended up uncomfortably close to a lee shore with the wind forward of the beam. There was no time to set the reaching strut with the pole laying heavily against the headstay. Our powerful grinding team tried to crank the pole back, but they instead cranked it into the mast which inverted and then failed. The wire guy sliced across the deck.

No one was hurt, but one crew had to jump overboard. He was rescued by a Good Samaritan on a nearby cruiser.

All the junk in the water immediately fouled the prop, but the Coast Guard got a line to us before we washed ashore and towed us to Crissy Field, which neighbors St Francis Yacht Club, where we dropped the whole mess in shallow water.

Ken came back the following day with a floating crane and divers to retrieve all the bits, and after surveying the wreckage he saw an opportunity. He had a crew of about 25 experienced sailors, which included a handful of industry pros and the Minnie brothers, Ernie and Owen, with now nothing to do for the next week.

That night at the St Francis Yacht Club bar, with Ken plying the crew with free beers, a plan was hatched. We would rebuild the mast ourselves, and have Blackfin racing again in the final race of the series.

The mast, which was broken in two places, and all the rigging was barged to a ramshackle wooden pier across the bay in Sausalito. The crew, wives, girlfriends, friends, and hangers on were allocated various jobs, and over the next four long days and nights the mast was rebuilt and repainted. Rigging was replaced, stanchions and deck hardware repaired. Late Friday night a floating crane was brought in and the mast re-stepped.

Early Saturday morning, on the final day of racing, Blackfin powered across the Bay, arriving at St. Francis Yacht Club to horns and cheers from the fleet and large crowd on the docks. But in a cruel twist, that was one of the rare days that the wind didn’t blow on the Bay and the racing was canceled.

It was not the ending we had worked for, but nothing could overshadow what can been accomplished by a great group of diverse people when they want to. Now days when I go to the club, and see the magnificent model of Blackfin in the main lobby, it brings back many wonderful memories.

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