Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Racer's Legacy

A side benefit of Jack Sutphen's book-signing party—Messing About in Boats for 80 Years—was the inspiration to visit Myron Spaulding's boat yard for the first time since it became the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center.

"Myron" was a one-name institution around San Francisco Bay, and he was sailing master of the Dorade (yes, that Dorade) when it won the 1936 Transpac and became the first boat ever to sweep first-to-finish and handicap honors in that race. Thus continued the hit parade that began with winning the Trans-Atlantic and then the Fastnet before Dorade came west.

Most of Myron's 95-year life and influence came after that Transpac, and in the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center, on the lively waterfront of Sausalito, lies an opportunity to preserve a time capsule that could never be recreated and, for many people, could not even be imagined without seeing to believe. This was, in its heyday, an epicenter of sailboat racing on the West Coast.

As sailor, designer, builder, fixer-upper and measurer, Myron cast a long shadow. I figure that Warwick "Commodore" Tompkins—now in New Zealand with his very racy cruiser, Flashgirl, was a prototypal professional sailor. Commodore calls Myron, "a second father," which is pretty much the tone of things with the raceboat designers and boatyard owners you find today on the shores of San Francisco Bay. One after another, Myron shaped'em up and sent'em out, not always with single-note emotions. Quoting Commodore again, Myron was, "a complicated man; a seat-of-the-pants scientist; a synthesizer of ideas, possessed of an exhaustive memory and a remarkable charm, which he chose to use occasionally."

Myron designed the 20-foot Clipper class (72 boats built) and the Spaulding 33 (10 built) and ocean racers including his 1949 masterpiece, Buoyant Girl, which won the Pacific Coast Championship with Myron on the helm. How it is that I tried repeatedly to interview Myron but never succeeded is a story that tells OK, but I don't think I could ever write it.

So there we were, and it was Jack Sutphen's day . . .

Jack told a number of the stories from the book, published through the Classic Yacht Foundation, including this one that explains why, in matters of the America's Cup, I never believe anything I see until race day. We enter the story as Jack recalls the time when Dennis Conner was cranking up the campaign that would lead to his walkover comeback win in Australia. First there was this exhibition race:

"The campaign started in San Diego with the delivery of Stars & Stripes 85 . . . The race was to be in the harbor off the Star of India and the Berkeley, San Diego Maritime Museum boats, and a big crowd. In five to six knots of breeze it quickly became apparent that Liberty was faster than the new boat. Malin [Burnham] and I were on Liberty and Malin at the helm cranked in some extra turns on the trim tab and we slowed Liberty down so Dennis could just nose us out to win the race. The good news was, as soon as we got to Hawaii with Stars & Stripes 85 and Liberty, in anything over ten knots, 85 was faster."

And, there was time to poke around the yard. The project of the moment is to restore little Freda, built in 1885 and the oldest surviving yacht on San Francisco Bay. I've known the Freda though successive restorations, but this was a shock, to see an all-new bottom in the works . . .

As explained: When a boat was built more than a hundred years ago with square, iron nails, you have to figure such a time will come . . .

So let's just nose around . . .

And that is my report of what's being done in this little corner of the world to preserve our wedge of sailing history. We are lucky to be starting with a site that is, itself, a living museum piece.

To copy a bit of the official language: The Center was built on the Sausalito waterfront in 1951 by Myron Spaulding, concert violinist, legendary sailor, and yacht designer and builder. In 2002, the Spauldings' generous gift turned this functional and historic boat yard into a non-profit charitable organization and living museum. SWBC plans to offer a range of public programs that allow public access to the historic boatyard and the waterfront, including classes, workshops, events and forums on subjects ranging from traditional boatbuilding skills to the preservation of the historic Sausalito waterfront.

Every vital sailing center has something of the sort going on, and I have an impulse to name a few, but then I'm slighting others, so zip my lips. My plan this week is to flip coasts, bundle up, and visit the Herreshoff Museum in Bistol, Rhode Island (closed for the winter, but there's a back door)and I'll name that one here because the Herreshoff Museum is truly iconic and also anchored in a name. When the name comes natural-like, that's a good thing.

Herreshoff is a much bigger name than Spaulding, to be sure. But I'm going to quote myself on the subject, because this I believe:

Myron? Well, he was Myron. Frisco Bay to the core. Aced the woodshop class at Polytechnic High ("By the time I had finished my bookends, that guy had built a boat." Prescott Sullivan). Damn fine first-fiddle with the symphony until he quit that for a 95-year-lucid life of designing, building, measuring, fixing, and sailing sailing sailing boats. Did he own one pair of wrinkled khakis or twenty pair identical? Kind of like a character in Faulkner: so individual that he carried all of the life of the galaxy inside him—Kimball