It was billed as the Championship of Champions, a rather imposing name for a small-boat, around-the-buoys racing series, and the 20 skippers—bundled to their ears in sweaters, wet suits, flotation jackets, bright orange and yellow foul-weather gear—seemed an unlikely bunch for such a grand designation. But these were indeed champions, each the holder of a current world, North American or U.S. title in a major one-design class. They had been invited to the U.S. Naval Academy on chilly Chesapeake Bay to sail a six-race series in identical Chrysler Buccaneers, a two-man, 18-foot centerboard class, for the high purpose of finding a winner among winners, a champion of champions.
The first race last Thursday afternoon began in bright sunshine and brisk, southwest winds. However, by the time the fleet reached the first weather mark of the triangular, Olympic-style course, a line of gray clouds had appeared. As the race continued, the front moved in. On the final downwind leg an enormous wall of purple and black, veined with flashes of lightning, filled the western horizon.
As the racers neared the finish, the wind died, sprang up again, veered to one direction, then wheeled around to another. Derrick Fries, the Force 5 champion, finished first just before the storm struck. Gusts of 50 mph and higher sent boats screaming across the line, their crews struggling for control to avoid high-speed collisions. Within a minute more than half the fleet had capsized. Crews clung to the overturned hulls in the boiling water. Driving rain and high winds reduced visibility and scattered the boats. A second squall hit and, to add to the chaos, night fell. An hour after the race more than half the crews were still unaccounted for.
A woman on Tolly Point, a mile from the course, welcomed six soggy champions to her house, reviving them with sherry. Down the beach another two drank Kool-Aid with an undertaker.
November 28, 1977
Eventually the sailors all turned up, but not all the boats. By race time on Friday three were still floating somewhere in the Bay and five were beached at various points. The boats that had returned had torn sails, dented hulls, missing spinnaker poles, hatch covers and rudder heads. Friday's events were called off.
Saturday dawned on a more hopeful scene. A new mast had arrived from Ohio to replace one that had broken, the last boat was found 12 miles away, sails were sewn, hulls patched, parts replaced. The champions set forth. In moderate air, Tom Linskey, the Coronado 15 skipper from Newport Beach, Calif., led from start to finish in the morning race, then repeated his admirable performance in the afternoon. But on Sunday the weather once more won out The Bay was glassy and the champions were becalmed The regatta was cut short Linskey and his crew, Jeff Lenhart, were awarded the champions' medals. And the weather, of course, got the booby prize.