Unforgettable moments in sailing

Published on July 31st, 2022

It was in the 1980s when the International 50-Foot Class saw some of the most competitive racing ever in the IOR era. Prompted by owners who wanted to race their yachts on a near level-rating basis, a narrow rating band attracted boats known as 50-footers for their approximate overall length.

But close racing can get too close, and for 50-footers, messiness can follow. Prompted by an image by Onne van Der Wal in Scuttlebutt 6113, Moose McClintock shares how a weather mark approach became nightmare that still haunts him:

The John Thomson led Infinity team chartered the Farr 50 Windquest from the DeVos family for $1 for a year. The current Infinity was a masthead and the 50 foot fleet was becoming all fractional. Although Infinity still performed well, John recognized the shift and wanted to try the fractional version before committing to it.

It was the 1990 Key West Race Week when I was filling in for Ken Read who was putting together a J/39 project for the week (the 50s sailed from Saturday through Wednesday of KWRW on a slightly different schedule). We weren’t having a particularly good regatta, and on the second to last day, we started with a deep finish. At this point, John turned to me and said, “I can’t drive this thing, you should drive.”

John was one of the most fantastic people I’d ever sailed with; I respected his ability and knew he was better than he had been performing. I had no desire to drive the boat and persuaded him to drive the next race, and offered to take the helm if we stumbled again.

With that, we ended the last two races with a 2-3 and spirits on the boat rose exponentially with each race. We hit the dock in a great mood, and \John immediately led the team up to the Tiki Bar at the Galleon Resort and everyone proceeded to down every manner of alcohol. Fortunately for me, my wife was there sailing on the J/39 and took me home in fairly short order so I escaped the rum squall.

The next morning, I was the first to the boat and watched as the teams for all the other 50s showed up and left for the course. I rigged the boat by myself and waited for our crew to straggle down as the last of the fleet departed. John was last down and definitely feeling the effects of the previous evening.

The breeze was around the break-even point between the heavy #1 and the 2, we went upwind with the #1, thought it was too much so went back downwind and changed to the #2. The #2 was not enough but we were short on time and willing bodies to change out so we started a little underpowered.

John was doing a good job under the circumstances as we started to weather of everyone and pinned the fleet. Over time, the fleet began to tack and duck us, we had an opportunity to lead back but boat handling was an issue and we ended up following the fleet into the starboard layline from the port quarter.

We were still around fourth coming into a connected line of starboard tackers, looking for a hole. A very small spot opened up and I said “tacking” and John started to turn the boat. The crew immediately yelled in unison “No” and John stopped the turn and bore off into the charging herd. He turned to me and said, “I can’t do this, you drive” and sat down; he was pretty beat up from the week and the previous night had really taken it out of him.

I grabbed the wheel and looked immediately to see if there was a hole to tack into. Meanwhile, Carat, who was paralleling us about three lengths to leeward, had seen us start to turn into the tack and saw an opportunity to tack under the oncoming group, led by Capricorno.

As I bore off toward them, looking for a hole, the only person on Carat’s rail was the bow man, who was staring at me with huge eyes as we reached full bore at him, the rest of their team was in the boat tacking. From there, everything went downhill.

I saw a spot to tack but it was marginal, we were going to have to tack through about 135 degrees and I had to turn slowly as the bow was following the stern of a starboard boat as we turned. Meanwhile, Carat spun quickly, their driver having no idea we were there, and almost cleared our transom, but they caught us about one foot from the stern and lodged into the side of us.

I wasn’t looking at them, concentrating instead on the stern of the boat we were tacking behind and was a bit off balance as I turned the wheel. When Carat hit us, I was thrown up and over the top of the wheel to the starboard side, holding onto the wheel spun us back onto port and reaching into the starboard tackers again.

With Carat impaled on our quarter, we formed a V, with Capricorno aimed right into the apex of the inverted letter. While I was laying stunned on the deck (I did a face plant into the stanchion and onto the deck), I dazedly looked up to see Capricorno aiming right at my head. In a truly lifesaving split second decision, Chris Cantrick grabbed my feet and pulled me backwards into the cockpit.

Capricorno hit us full speed right where my head had been a second before. With max runner on in the breeze, and the collision point being just above their knuckle, the bow exploded and ripped backward off the hull, landing upside down on the foredeck. In my dazed state, I looked up and made eye contact with Gary Weisman, looking through the interior of the boat.

The three boats did a little dance as we disengaged, we all got back to shore in one piece, and no one was hurt besides me (mild concussion and facial abrasions, with incredibly bruised ego). We dropped out, and John took care of things with Capricorno and Carat.

Afterward, he pulled me aside to tell me it wasn’t my fault (he actually had me drive the boat in Japan later that year when he suffered a heart attack and couldn’t fly) but I know it was; there was nothing the crew could do when I made a series of bad decisions. If nothing else, it reiterated what a great guy John was, and the team was, and everyone still gets a chuckle when they see this shot.

For more about the 50-foot class:

Thanks also to Guy Gurney who shared his image from the incident.

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