Compared to the exquisite criteria used in rating ocean-racing sailboats, the handicapping of thoroughbreds is sheer crudity. In an ordinary horse race, past performances and the experience of the jockeys are taken into account, lead plates are dropped in the saddles, and—clang!—they're off and running. Last week did anyone at Aqueduct measure a buttock height aft or a girth overhang? Certainly not. Did anyone at Santa Anita reckon on the tenderness ratio or movable appendage factor? No one did. The buttock height, girth overhang, tenderness ratio and movable appendage factor are but four of more than 100 mathematical niceties that go into the rating of sailboats of various sizes, shapes and ages.
Today, in the attempt to give everybody a fair shake, just about everything on an ocean racer is weighed and measured except the owner's shrinking bankroll. For all that, God in His infinite whimsy still plays a major part, particularly in the six races of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. On the Southern Circuit, in addition to the ordinary deceits of the weather, there is the Gulf Stream, which wanders across four of the racecourses like a drunken John Barrymore, unpredictable but effective nonetheless.
This year, as if recognizing the efforts men have made to achieve parity, the dear Lord sailed on boats both great and small, on the very newest and the very old. For the second straight year, to encourage older boats, there was no official overall winner but instead a prize for best performance in class for pre-1974 hulls (Division I) and a comparable award for the best new boat (Division II).
After Williwaw, an orthodox two-tonner, beat a dozen rivals last year to win Class B honors in Division II—and the unofficial fleet title—further progress in that hot class seemed unlikely. So this year along came little, livid-green Imp to win the identical prizes, beating in the process Big Schott, a virtual twin of Williwaw, as well as Love Machine, a stretched-out version of last year's winner. Summed up, Imp might be called a revolutionary return to normalcy. She is a trifle smaller than the two-tonners that have customarily dominated Class B. Whereas today's two-tonners are in effect a compromise, designed both for ocean racing and for level-rated competition (events in which there are no time allowances and the emphasis is on windward sailing), Imp's skipper, Dave Allen of Belvedere, Calif., wanted a boat solely for ocean racing. Designer Ron Holland gave him just that, lightening the ends of the hull, yet at the same time increasing its rigidity by means of an aluminum-pipe skeleton that carries the load of the keel, plates and stays. By the time the southern series was half done, Class B rivals were calling Imp "the unbeatable boiler room."
Because the starting times of the six classes in the two divisions of the SORC are spaced 15 minutes apart, with the bigger, faster boats leading off, ofttimes in the first three hours of a race the fleet is strung out more than 15 miles and spread so wide to either side of the rhumb line that to the eye it seems more like a game of hunches than inches. Anyone taken by such a false notion can easily shake it by examining the duel between two Division I boats, Running Tide and Dora IV, in the series just ended. In the first race, a 138-mile round trip from St. Petersburg down the Florida west coast to Boca Grande. Running Tide beat Dora IV out of first place in Class A of their division. In the next race, 397 miles from St. Pete around the Florida Keys and up to Fort Lauderdale, Dora won and Running Tide was second, and for the remaining four races they alternated first and second places. Because the point scoring is weighted according to the distance of the races, Running Tide won class and division honors from Dora by a score of 2,095.0 to 2,094.5. In the six races the two boats traveled more than 1.200 miles. The total corrected-time difference between them after 148 hours of dueling was seven minutes, 42 seconds. In any two-boat scrap, the duelers sometimes make the grand mistake of chasing each other too far afield and handing the victory to a lesser rival. In the Running Tide-Dora encounter quite the opposite happened. The two old boats ended up second and third to Imp in the unofficial overall fleet standings.
For the first five races Imp was upstaged by a little Hawaiian queen called Sweet Okole. Eye-catching is not quite the word for Sweet Okole. Mind-boggling is more like it. Although rated slightly more than an ordinary one-tonner, she weighs, all up, only 7,800 pounds. She is 36 feet long, 12 feet in the beam and only three feet less wide at the transom. Her hull is wood impregnated with epoxy. With an outsize bowsprit tacked on she would look like a futuristic ukulele. In the words of one of her four co-owners, Dr. Bob Peyton, her spinnaker is "about the size of an airmail stamp." Still she is a hellion downwind in all but light air. Had she turned up 15 years ago, she would have been termed a "rule-beater" and subjected to some derision. But the SORC gang is more sophisticated now. When Sweet Okole won five races in a row, there were no non-believers.
Because Imp had one blemish on her record (a second place in the third race). Sweet Okole was leading both Class C and the newer-boat division last Friday as the boats headed into the final race, the Nassau Cup, a 31-miler eastward in the Northeast Providence Channel.
Class A of the division was led by High Roler, a new hull co-owned by her helmsman, Dennis Conner. "I am just a kid trying to do well among the professionals," Conner said. "It's fun to be a drapery maker trying to knock off the sailmakers." As it turned out, the only man with a panting chance to catch him in the last race was the owner of Scaramouche, Chuck Kirsch, who sells Conner fixtures for his drapery business. Kirsch won the final race, but not by a sufficient margin to take the class.
Meanwhile, the odds seemed against Imp winning the Division II title, for the brisk air on the last day was much to the liking of Sweet Okole. But the Hawaiian boat ran into all sorts of trouble. At the start she was blanketed by two rivals and had to tack five times to get clear. There was a cross chop seemingly unsuited to her configuration, so she never moved her best upwind. For the coup de grace, a larger boat in Class B of Division I, with no chance for glory, sat on her air for three-quarters of the broad reach home. Okole took fourth in her class on corrected time—her first time out of the money—and as a consequence lost the division title to Imp, who won the race, by a score of 2,098.0 to 2,097.0.
It is indeed a game of inches.