The ubiquitous nonentity of World War II sails on as the mascot of real-estate magnate Jim Kilroy's latest Kialoa, the high-tech heavyweight of the SORC
February 23, 1981

The quickest way to forget that we are in a recession is to stroll the docks of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. Last year 26 of the 72 boats in the six-race series were new. This year there are 41 new hulls in a fleet of just under 100. Because the cheapest of these beauties costs more than $100,000 and the biggest more than a million, in the world of ocean racing at least, things seem to be looking up. What is most astonishing for anyone with a logical, cash-register mind is that although the annual expenses of the Southern Ocean fleet exceed that of all the teams in the NFL playoffs, not one skipper gets back more than a piece or two of second-rate silverware—and that only after having taken strenuous part in a series in which, because of the many whims of God, the yachtsman often never has a chance.

To predict an overall winner of the Southern Ocean circuit is foolish, if not impossible, but this much can be safely said: this year, as so often before, the honor will probably go to a craft between 36 and 48 feet overall. It might be an old boat with a famous name like Robin, so blessed with age allowance on her handicap rating that, short of swamping, she cannot help but do well. It might be a new hull such as Louisiana Crude. More likely the winner will be a brand-new boat, born just yesterday and already on the brink of obsolescence, but with a familiar name such as Williwaw, Acadia or Aries.

Big boats don't win. In 1971, Running Tide, a 60-foot sloop built somewhat along the deep, narrow lines of an America's Cup contender, did take the overall title in a series marked by heavy seas and windward work that were to her liking. The nine years since have been bad for all the biggies except one: a 79-footer called Kialoa, the third ocean racer so named and owned by John B. (Jim) Kilroy, a California real-estate developer who has always operated slightly in defiance of the pregame odds. From her debut in 1975 until her retirement last year, Kialoa (a Hawaiian word for "long, beautiful canoe") took part in 24 SORC races. Time and again she was first across the line only to have some little 42-foot creep bring the wind from behind and beat her on corrected time. Still, Kialoa won four of her 24 SORC tests on corrected time—a remarkable showing, considering that in the same period only three other biggies out of a total of 19 won so much as one race without benefit of age allowance.

To handicap boats that are far different in size, under the International Offshore Rule just about everything is carefully measured except the diameter of the owner's bankroll, the navigator's IQ and the length of the crew's fingernails. For all the exactitude, though, there are inequities. In the case of Kilroy's third Kialoa, it was her displacement. According to IOR measurement, she was rated at 66,000 pounds, while she truly weighed closer to 89,000. To put it simply, in all her trials and triumphs on seas near and far—in the Sydney-Hobart Race and the Jamaica Race, in the Transatlantic, the Transpac, the Edlu, the Fastnet, the Channel and the St. Pete-Fort Lauderdale—she was lugging more than 11 tons for which she got no credit.

Although far from old in capability or configuration, the third Kialoa is now up for sale at a bargain-basement price of $850,000. For this year's SORC series, Kilroy has a new, bigger, lighter and faster Kialoa. Although it is safe to say the new girl will whomp the rest when it comes to crossing the finish line—she has done so twice already—how she fares on corrected time depends on how the wind blows and the Gulf Stream flows.

Two weeks ago, the current SORC began for the big boats as so often before—only worse. In the course of the first race, a 138-miler from St. Petersburg to Boca Grande and back, which 79 boats started, fine weather deteriorated into a soggy mess of fitful squalls, leaving some craft stalled while others forged ahead. Despite a bad stall, the new Kialoa finished first and took seventh in fleet on corrected time. The 48-foot Williwaw won.

Two days later, a dark, filthy cold front was sweeping across the U.S., so for last week's second, and most important, race of the series, 370 miles from St. Petersburg to Fort Lauderdale, there was promise of stiff conditions—through which big boats could plow while lesser rivals would likely stagger up one side of a deep sea and fall off the other. But the nasty weather front tarried to the north, flooding roads and blowing off roofs, as the SORC fleet headed south to round the Keys under 25 knots of southeast wind. By nightfall the leader, Kialoa, had only two rivals in sight, both well behind.

If the front had come through in normal fashion, with only modest slackening as the wind clocked around to the north quadrant, Kialoa and the other biggies would have had it all their way, but, alas, it was not to be. The dying southerly left a big windless hole between itself and the approaching front. Early on the second afternoon, as Kialoa ghosted along, struggling to keep under way, her crew could see the dark cloud line of the belated weather front climbing in the north sky, and under it the bright spinnakers of smaller boats that had no business being in sight. "It was like suddenly seeing a cavalry troop charging over the horizon," an on-board photographer, Dick Enerson, said. "They were headed for our water hole, and there was no way of stopping them."

The big wind that the little boats brought with them—steady over 30 knots and gusting to 50—not only dashed the chances of the big boats, but was also sufficient to do in 14 craft. Two boats went aground southwest of Key West; five abandoned the race with minor failures; seven were dismasted, among them the new 45-foot Scaramouche, which had had as good a chance as any of winning the whole series.

By the time everyone had limped into Fort Lauderdale and the computers had finished their work, Kialoa was 50th in fleet, well behind the race winner, the 36-foot Robin. But once again Kialoa was first across the line.

The old Kialoa—now designated Kialoa III—was aluminum. The new hull, launched in December, is made of space-age stuff: a balsa core sheathed in Kevlar fiber, carbon fiber and S-glass. She weighs only 77,000 pounds but, unlike her predecessor, gets a decent credit rating for it. The new Kialoa is about two feet longer overall and on the waterline than her older sister. She is lighter in the ends. Her flat, fair body is about six inches deeper in draft, her keel span two feet greater. She has only 3% more wetted surface but nearly 9% greater sail area. As a consequence of these sneaky architectural advances, she should prove devastating on all points of sailing in big winds and seas, and a hellion running and reaching in all conditions. Regrettably, as the Lauderdale race amply proved, despite the talent of all her deck animals, in a dead calm Kialoa does no better than Noah's ark.

Kilroy and the experts supporting his effort were fearful that the new Kialoa, because of her lighter displacement and broader beam, might be slower upwind in light air than Kialoa III, but in pacing trials against the older boat she has proved a few 10ths of a knot faster and more weatherly. Because the bow is not sharply veed and she has no skeg at all, the new boat is harder to keep in the groove, but in time that should prove to be no problem because on the wheel will be what mariners used to call "hard old hands with a soft touch." At the helm most of the time will be either Kilroy or his project manager, Bruce Kendell. Between them they steered Kialoa III for almost all of her 130,000 miles of ocean racing.

Although in his crazy-quilted early life Kilroy wandered occasionally up unprofitable ratholes, and although at age 58 he is still somewhat a jock at heart, limber of mind and limb, he rarely goes into anything half-cocked. Quality attracts quality, and for love or money, the new Kialoa has drawn a lot. She was designed by Ron Holland, the New Zealander whose light-ended little 40-footer, Imp, won the 1977 SORC. The keel configuration was projected from NASA specs by Holland with the aid of Dr. James Burke, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory aerodynamic astrophysicist who is perhaps best known to the lay public as a collaborator on the first successful man-powered flying machine, the Gossamer Condor. David Pedrick, the naval architect responsible for Kialoa III, is in charge of the performance instrumentation of the new boat. Dr. Allen Puckett, chairman of the board of Hughes Aircraft, has contributed to the development of the new Kialoa, and so have Arvel Gentry, a senior aerodynamicist for Boeing, and Dr. George Mueller, a senior vice-president of Burroughs Corporation. When the whole fancy electronic conglom of instant readouts and analytic computers are finally pouring out data to help Kialoa make her way over the briny, there will even be a "bogey meter" that will scold the helmsman if he fails to make the boat perform as well as the computer knows she can. Kilroy readily admits that the art of sailing has moved along since the days of Melville and Conrad. "Show me a man who says he still sails by the seat of his pants," he says, "and we'll knock his block off."

The Irish have a way of making their names unforgettable while they themselves remain anonymous. Potatoes are called murphies and there is a Murphy bed and a Murphy's Law, but almost nobody knows which Murphy was responsible for any of them. "It's the real McCoy" is a familiar phrase, but not even scholars agree as to whether the first real one was a boxer or a bootlegger—if either. In all the theaters of World War II the notice KILROY WAS HERE was scrawled everywhere, on walls and windows, inside teapots and on the bottom of beer mugs. So common was the Kilroy phrase that the Nazis used it as an ambush ruse, posting it in villages to delude advancing Yanks into thinking other GIs already had the area in control.

The omnipresent, fictitious Kilroy was a fraud. There have never been many Kilroys here, there or anywhere. For example, in the phone directories for the five boroughs of New York City, which has been melting Irish immigrants in its various pots for more than 150 years, there are 2,617 Murphys listed but only 23 Kilroys. Back in the old country, in the Dublin directory, there are 1,781 Murphys and only 30 Kilroys. There was so much blarney associated with the name Kilroy that lexicographers today are at odds about it. The Dictionary of American Slang defines a Kilroy as a "nonentity." The ponderous Webster's Unabridged maintains that a Kilroy is an "inveterate traveler." Sufficient for this discourse, Kialoa's Jim Kilroy started out life in compliance with the first definition and today certainly lives up to the second.

On the sloping transom of his new Kialoa there is a global portrait centered on the Western Hemisphere. Hanging over the northwest edge of the globe is the familiar cartoon image associated with the legendary Kilroy of World War II—two little hands and a bald head with a long nose. The artist who painted the globe on Kialoa's transom deliberately placed the cartoon character's nose over Alaska, for that is where Kilroy was born, in Ruby, a tiny village on the Yukon that has been long famous for its sled dogs.

Kilroy's father, George, had migrated from Ireland to South Africa, and from there to Alaska, where he was a competent editor, ghostwriter and gold miner and an unlucky gambler. After Mr. Kilroy had lost one too many placer stakes at the poker tables, Mrs. Kilroy took her family to the lower Forty-Eight, ending up in Southern California when her younger son, Jim, was four.

In the depressed '30s, when the hapless, homeless and jobless of the U.S. headed for Southern California, the area turned out not to be the Promised Land. The unemployment lines were long, in part because of one factor not heretofore recorded. There were few jobs available, because by the time the Okies and the other luckless started pouring into Southern California, young Jim Kilroy was well on his way to becoming a one-man labor force.

At age 10 he was copartner of a bicycle repair shop. Through the Depression he earned his dimes and dollars in a wide variety of ways. He sold magazine subscriptions, he mowed lawns, he hauled trash, he sold scrap paper. He made up newspapers, and sold them and delivered them, doing his crowded city routes on a skate-wheeled scooter and serving residential areas on his bicycle. He was a lifeguard, a grocery-store checker, an inventory stocker, a haberdashery clerk. He was a sometime butcher and worked with a baker but never was a candlestick maker. In the faint dawn before school, he swamped out a buttermilk plant. In his single college year at Santa Barbara State, one job given him was grading comprehensive exams in advanced courses he had never had. "Beats the hell out of me how I got the job," he now says. "They gave it to me, so I did it." Reflecting on it all, Kilroy adds, "What a beautiful thing it was to grow up scrounging. It gave me a lot of smarts, although I don't exactly know how it helped. I still know how to swamp out a buttermilk vat, a stinking job, but I don't know anything about making buttermilk."

Kilroy's early hardscrabble life allowed him no time for sports, but he found the time nonetheless. At South Gate High, on the southern edge of burgeoning Los Angeles, he played a year of football and four of basketball. In the spring he sprinted, long-jumped and hurdled. Before he graduated, he had run the 120-yard high hurdles in 15.1, back in a day when few hurdlers had bettered 14-flat. Kilroy tried to imitate the movie action he saw of Olympic Champion Forrest Towns, throwing both arms forward to get more drive with the lead leg. "When I tried it," he recalls, "I came down over the hurdle so fast I broke my nose on my knee."

Because of his hurdling potential he could have had a free ride at USC, but instead chose Santa Barbara State to get away from home. In his freshman year he corrected exam papers, worked in a restaurant, played basketball and continued to pursue track. The first time Kilroy was asked to try the high jump in competition, he used the classic, leg-tucked Western roll and put so much misdirected vim into his initial attempt at the starting height of 5'6" that he not only cleared the bar, but also sailed out the far side of the pit. He got his hurdle time down to 14.6—which didn't matter much by the middle of 1940, because the dark clouds of World War II were busting open, relieving the employment drought in California. Kilroy went to work as a tool-bin clerk at Douglas Aircraft, ending up as an assistant chief inspector before leaving as a member of the Army Air Corps. He came out of the war with $156 and a conviction that after having had a long education in what it was like to be poor, he should start learning how not to be. He made enough money as a real-estate broker to convince bankers to lend him a lot more to realize his dream of industrial parks.

His subsequent prosperity allowed him the luxury of his four Kialoas and also involved him in all sorts of activities—civic, athletic, educational and political. Of all his affiliations, the most unusual one is the Lucky 13 Club, an informal association of Kilroy cronies, which he co-founded as a schoolboy.

As a boy, while he was doing tedious work that didn't require much brains, Kilroy would run words and numbers through his mind, mulling over their origins and interrelation. "I have been interested in the number 13 since grammar school," he says. "People talk about Friday the 13th and not walking under ladders, so I made a point of walking under ladders on Friday the 13th. I love 13. I like the sound of 'one' and 'three.' I don't like the sound of 'two' or 'seven' or 'eight.' 'One-two' doesn't sound like much. It's a down sound. 'One-three' has a lift to it." Insofar as his coaches allowed, he always wore the number 13.

He didn't take up sailing seriously until the early '50s, when his business was doing well. His first overnighter was a 46-foot Island Clipper, Serena, with sail number 13. At about the time he bought Serena, in an idle moment, mulling over numbers as he had done as a boy, he realized that the combination of digits in his home address and home phone and office address and phone and regional-office address and phone, by pure chance, added up to 13. He has been thirteening it ever since. His first Kialoa's sail number was 265, his second 742—both digit combinations that total 13. For his third Kialoa he requested and got 13751, because it starts with a 13 and ends with a digit combination totaling 13. His present Kialoa has sail number 13131, which gives him two 13s backward or forward.

Does this sort of mystical numerology help? Of course it does. In this day, when even creepy little 40-footers have loran, satellite signals and computers, it's only the magic numbers that keep bringing Kilroy—and Kialoa—into port first.

PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDT PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTAt the start of the St. Pete-Fort Lauderdale race, Kialoa takes her customary position up in front. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTA fortune in blocks, winches and other nautical hardware surrounds the 105-foot mast. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTA hydraulic console adjusts the tension on the outhaul, the backstay and boom vang of Kialoa. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTThis up-to-the-minute navigational device is only part of an impressive bank of electronic gadgets. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTA pair of deck apes manhandle one of the boat's big coffee-grinders during a shakedown cruise. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTSkipper Kilroy sails here, there and everywhere. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTDesigner Holland, whose Imp won the SORC in 1977, hopes for another champion with Kialoa. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTOn Kialoa's christening day, Kilroy was a knight to remember. PHOTOERIC SCHWEIKARDTWith that other Kilroy peering from the transom, Kialoa heads upwind.