The Southern Yacht Club on Lake Pontchartrain has been famous since 1849 for its hospitality and interest in yacht racing. Last week the club had the atmosphere of Mardi Gras, with a banquet, cocktail party, dance or crab broil going on every night. For 24 sailors, 8 skippers and their 16 crew members, however, it was also a deadly serious time. They were there to sail in the North American Yacht Racing Union's third annual North American Sailing Championship for the Clifford D. Mallory Trophy. The winner is recognized as the top sailor of the United States and Canada.
FEW WERE CHOSEN
The eight skippers were the survivors of countless elimination races throughout the nation. Thousands of sailors, many of them with national reputations and including Cornelius ("Corny") Shields, 1952 North American Sailing Champion, had been defeated along the way.
Of the eight skippers who sailed in the 1953 finals only one had been able to survive the eliminations this year. He was Eugene Walet III, the pride of New Orleans, who had startled the yachting world last year by winning the Mallory Trophy at the age of 18. He had done it the hard way, too, in the foreign waters of Long Island Sound and in keel boats, with which he was unfamiliar. Racing now on his own Lake Pontchartrain and in the Lightning Class boats which he has sailed for years, Gene Walet obviously was the man—or boy—to beat.
September 19, 1954
A good look at the talent arrayed against him might well have discouraged even a veteran champion. Best known of the contenders were Karl Smither of Buffalo and Henry (Hank) J. Cawthra of Detroit, both of whom have Lightning Class International Championships to their credit. Another big threat was William S. Cox of Darien, Conn., 1930 National Junior Sailing Champion and four-time winner of the International One Design Class Championship on Long Island Sound. None of the other four was more of a dark horse than Walet had been the previous year.
When the series started on September 8 Bill Cox, with whom I had the pleasure of crewing along with Walter Crump Jr., got off to a flying start by taking the first race, passing Walet in the last hundred yards. By the halfway mark of the eight races, however, it was evident that young Gene was in a fair way to run away with the series. In light and variable conditions he showed shrewd judgment and amazing consistency by adding two firsts and a second to his opening second spot. This gave him a lead over Cox of 8¼ points and over Cawthra of 11.
Then Cawthra tightened matters. He won the next two races to come within 7 points of the leader and move 3¼ ahead of Cox. With only two races to go, however, Gene Walet would have had to blow sky high to have lost. And that's something he hasn't been known to do. Sailing conservatively, staying out of trouble and keeping a weather eye on his two chief rivals, he placed fifth and sixth—good enough to hold a 5-point lead at the end over Cox who took a first and a fifth to nose out Cawthra by one point for the runner-up position.
In accepting the handsome Mallory Trophy, Gene paid tribute to his crew, Gilbert (Gibby) Friedrichs Jr. and Allen (Pudgy) McClure Jr. The three of them have sailed together for years, and a smoother working team has seldom been seen.
"As all sailors know," Gene said, "I couldn't have made it without a top crew and Gibby and Pudgy are the best there are."
THE BEST MAN
A bit of the credit also belongs to Gene's father, Eugene H. Walet Jr., who used to crew for his son and who advised him on strategy in the last two races. After Gene's victory the elder Walet remarked: "It took a lot of will power. Gene didn't sail his usual race. He took no chances of blowing it. And he won."
There's such a thing, though, as spreading the credit too thin. The other contestants agreed after the race that they had lost to the best skipper they ever had matched wits and tiller hands against. The Mallory Trophy, once the property of Admiral Lord Nelson, bears the Nelson motto which, freely translated from the Latin, reads: "Let the best man win." For two years running he has done just that.
THE CHEERFUL LOSER
A gallant challenger, Sir Thomas Lip-ton (left) saw his last hope to win the America's Cup, symbolic of the world's yachting supremacy, lost at sea 24 years ago this week. In four straight heats, raced off Newport, R.I., Sir Thomas' entry, Shamrock V, lost to the Enterprise, whose skipper was Harold S. Vanderbilt. Thus ended the doughty Britisher's fifth challenge for the coveted trophy, held by the U.S. for 79 years. His efforts to capture the prize had begun in 1899. After his yacht had finished a mile behind the Enterprise in his last race, the 80-year-old sportsman acknowledged: "I cannot win. I cannot win." Will Rogers called Lipton "possibly the world's worst yacht builder but absolutely the world's most cheerful loser."