Like such virile pastimes as barbershop-quartet singing, Japanese sumo wrestling, fatherhood and membership in the New York Stock Exchange, the sport of ocean yacht racing has hitherto frowned on the presence of women. From Allegra Knapp Mertz, one of the great racing sailors of all time, to Susan Sinclair, the current North American champion, women have more than made their mark in smaller-boat competition, but the kind of sailboat racing that demands endless days of clammy discomfort and backbreaking exertion far from the sight of land has provided few berths for the female of the species. This fact makes a thoroughgoing anomaly of one of the most feminine of all females, a slim, 5-foot-11 inch brunette named Sally Ames Langmuir, who owns a sleek, 72-foot yawl named Bolero, and races it across the oceans of the world with the insistent passion of a female Odysseus seeking her home.
Sally has, in fact, already far outdistanced that wandering Ithacan. She has probably traveled more miles under sail than any other woman in modern history, and more than most men as well. Over the last four years her odyssey has taken her from California to Hawaii, to Tahiti and back to California, down through the Panama Canal, up the Caribbean, up the East Coast, across the Atlantic to Sweden by way of Bermuda, around Europe—Germany, Denmark, the Baltic, Majorca, England and the Mediterranean—and on to the African coast. And finally, back again to Beverly Hills via the Canary Islands, Barbados, Tobago, Aruba and Acapulco.
Two months ago Sally and her hefty male crew, headed by Captain Don Matthews, brought Bolero to Florida and campaigned her through the southern racing circuit, taking corrected-time honors on two of the events in that series and leading the fleet to the finish line in all but one (SI Feb. 11). This month they are racing the 807 miles from Miami to Montego Bay, and in June head out for England's Eddystone Light in the Transatlantic Race.
Ashore, Sally is a chic and often flamboyant product of California who wears long, dangling earrings and calls her boat a bateau. At sea, however, she stand's watches as competently as any man, doing her share of the roughest work. All this is more remarkable because of the fact that up to four years ago Sally had never even owned a boat and had never sailed anything much larger than a legless bathtub. Her only ocean voyages had been spent in the deck chairs of a Cunard liner. Even now she is not sure of the sailing vernacular ("Odometer? What's that? I've got a lot to learn about sailing terms"). Her real job, she says, "is keeping the organization going." In port she spends hours totting up Bolero's accounts, while her husband checks the multiplication.
April 1, 1963
Sally's sailing career began with something of a splash. "I just held my nose, jumped in, and bought Constellation" she says, explaining the purchase of her first boat, a 75-foot schooner, in 1959. In taking this plunge, Sally may only have been responding to the seafaring tradition of Boston, the place of her birth, but, if so, the response was at second hand. Far from reaping a fortune from the sea, the proper Bostonian Ames family made its pile running railroads and manufacturing shovels. As a young girl, Sally vacationed at the shore with the Adamses, the Saltonstalls and other Boston First Families in staid, communal privacy. Sally's mother, a concert mezzo from the town of Albert Lea, Minnesota, was never completely in tune with the pizzicato airs of Back Bay, however, so six years after the death of her father Sally, age 8, was packed off to Beverly Hills. "We lived next door to Ingrid Bergman," says Sally, "across the street from Harold Lloyd, and a house over from the Queen of Egypt and her cat."
Beverly Hills has put its mark on Sally Langmuir and the Boston from which she was snatched also remains a part of her, but the sea is her escape from both. "I had the blood of a proper Bostonian, but I just wasn't with it," she said over a beer in Bolero's cabin recently. "People think I'm a rich bitch with a big boat, but the hell with them. I'll justify the length of my nails, and vodka martinis, if I have to. But I don't have to justify Bolero."
On the edge of a screened-in pool in the Fort Lauderdale house she has rented as a base for eastern racing, Sally talked recently of her childhood. It was a warm Florida evening, and her husband fussed with a steak charring on the barbecue. The family cat, Helen of Troy, tussled with a plastic swan floating nearby. The soft sound of crickets came through the screens. What Sally had to say seemed harsh by comparison.
She began with her days at Westlake School for Girls, a fashionable Los Angeles academy, and talked of horseback riding at Riviera Stables, where she won prizes. She was an able figure skater until a joint disease that prevented the cartilage from hardening forced her to drop both sports. "I had a cast from hip to ankle," she went on. "I went up to 160 pounds and had to keep getting excuses from gym. 'They'll kick you out,' Mummy told me. 'They'll think you've got housemaid's knee.' I used to be terrified to enter a room full of people; I'd stand outside a room, say, 'one, two, three,' hold my breath and then walk in. 'Pretend you're an actor in a play,' Mummy would tell me. 'Pretend you're on a stage.' " She talked of the family decision to send her East, to fashionable Brearley School in New York, where, says Sally, "They took one look at me, and moaned, 'What are we going to do?' I couldn't even get over the hurdles in the phys ed test."
But Sally and the Manhattan private school somehow managed to get along, and at 17 she walked up Brearley's commencement aisle on legs once again strong and healthy, then trotted off to Canada's McGill University, determined to become a doctor. Four years later, after acceptance at medical school, she switched directions. "There's nothing worse than a hen medic who doesn't really know if she wants to be one," she says now. So she quit.
From then on, Sally seldom stopped running. She bolted to Norway, and broke into an eight-month run through Italy, Spain, Switzerland ("God! Zermatt at Easter!") and Germany. She came home for Christmas, stopped long enough to catch her breath and raced off again, to Heidelberg, to Venice, to Istanbul—the last because the name of an island intrigued her. "Prinkipo," she said. She said it again, laughing at its sound: "Like twinky footsteps."
"For years," Sally said, "I'd been getting this stuff: 'You don't have a job; you sit around letting your nails grow, letting your fingernail polish dry; you're rich; you don't have to work.' So I went out and got a job."
"I worked hard," she said. "For two years. Assistant publicity manager for the Boston Opera Association and the North Shore Music Theatre. A six-sometimes seven-day week. Hours and hours. And I worked cheap. And the same people called me up and said, 'You're working? How awful! Why aren't you off climbing a Swiss Alp or something?' "
Sally put down her fork. "Have you gathered from all this that I was searching for something I couldn't find?" she asked. "Well, it's true."
Some time after her 29th birthday, Sally was suddenly shocked into the realization of the passage of time by the unexpected gift of a friendship ring from a schoolgirl friend she hadn't seen in years. "I looked at that ring," she says, "and I suddenly thought, 'For 29 years I've been trying to do what other people wanted me to, and I'm getting old and I haven't done a blasted thing I wanted to do myself.' For once, I decided, I'd do something for me. So I went out to buy a boat."
Sally found her boat—and her dream—in the form of the schooner Constellation. "It was horrible," she said. "I was so in love with that boat I couldn't stand it." Two months later Constellation, with Sally in the cockpit, went charging past Diamond Head at the end of the 2,230-mile Transpacific Race. "So as long as we're in Hawaii," she said, "let's go to Tahiti." Sally Ames was on her way.
Her wanderings since then have led her to the South Seas, where she found the seawise, barrel-chested TV character of a seaman, Don Matthews, who, along with a loyal company of able crewmen and shrewd skippers, has been guiding Sally's boats to victory ever since. Her wanderings have led her back to Beverly Hills where she found and married a man who says of sailboats, "Ugh! cold, wet, dreary things," but who is content nonetheless to wait fondly ashore till his wife has had her fill of them. But mostly her wanderings have led her to something like home.
"Coming back from Tahiti one time," says Sally, "there was a sunset and I was steering. There was blood all over the sky and everyone on the boat had to come up and look. And they couldn't say a word. Just stand and look. I guess it sounds corny, but at that moment I was never happier."