There was a time long ago when the object of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference was simple: It was an excuse for salty chums to gather and try to win trophies and drink each other under the table. Today the quest is more complex. The six-race series is now the proving ground on which boats rating between 30 and 39.9 feet try for berths on the U.S. team that will compete in Great Britain's Admiral's Cup series in August. It's also the place where skippers of craft great and small especially love to beat Dennis Conner, the hyperserious super-sailor from San Diego who has won fleet honors in three of the last six SORCs.
At the end of the series last week the men of Louisiana Crude, a rated 32.6-footer out of New Orleans, hadn't won a single race, but in the process of cultivating cirrhosis of the liver they did win the overall fleet title and selection to the Admiral's Cup team—and they beat Conner to boot. But because of serious illnesses in their families, Dick Jennings of Chicago and Tom Dreyfus of New Orleans, co-owners of Louisiana Crude, declined the Admiral's Cup berth and sold their boat, a setback softened for Dreyfus, who reckoned it was better to have crewed on Crude and beaten Conner than never to have sailed at all.
A year ago, when Conner was busy with his near-perfect America's Cup effort and sailed in only one SORC race, he told Dreyfus that Acadia, the Louisiana boat on which Dreyfus then served, wouldn't win. As Dreyfus recalls, "In the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, I bet Conner a hundred dollars that Acadia would win. Just before I almost punched him, he said that I played too much and used having fun as an excuse for losing. He said I was a loser and would always be a loser. Right there at the bar we had to be separated. I was very upset."
Acadia did win the SORC last year, a somewhat hollow victory because Conner was only a part-time participant, but like elephants, Dreyfus and the other fun-loving Cajuns remembered and found this year's results cause for solid celebration. Conner skippered, Williwaw, the seventh boat of that name owned by Seymore Sinett of Perth Amboy, N.J., to third in fleet—behind Louisiana Crude and a new, smaller Acadia.
While it's doubtful that the men of Louisiana Crude did any more carousing than many of their rivals, their reputation for living it up has won their boat several nicknames, notably the Animal House and the Shaved Tiger. For that, Dreyfus was largely, but not wholly, to blame. In the SORC series of '78, 79 and '80, Dreyfus served as able seaman, watch captain and antic pacesetter aboard the first two Acadias owned by his fellow Louisianian, Burt Keenan.
In the 1978 St. Petersburg-Fort Lauderdale race, when Ted Turner at the helm of his ancient ship Tenacious began closing on the first, 51-foot Acadia, Dreyfus shouted, "Do not pass us or we'll shoot." As Turner proceeded onward, Dreyfus fired twice with a .38 revolver, once over the stern of Tenacious, once across her bow.
Two years ago, when the plane taking Dreyfus from New Orleans to Miami was diverted to Orlando to unload a berserk passenger, Acadia had to leave the dock for the starting line of the Ocean Triangle race without him. So as not to miss the race, 10 minutes before the starting gun Dreyfus leapt 40 feet from a helicopter into the water beside Acadia. After winning last year's SORC, the crew of Keenan's second, 42-foot Acadia got into an intersquad tiff with Turner's men that resulted in a big food fight in Big Al's place in Nassau. Dreyfus recalls, "We threw glasses, plates and carafes full of wine. For no good reason. Really foolish. It cost me $300."
Considering past events, the Animal House label hung on Louisiana Crude wasn't truly deserved. The crews of both Crude and Keenan's third Acadia, a 40-footer, were relatively sedate, assaulting their rivals only verbally. Not a plate was thrown in anger. Not a shot was fired in fun. Such was their decorum that midway through the circuit, as the two local boats vied for first place, the New Orleans Times-Picayune headlined one Story, LOUISIANA SAILORS CLEAN UP THEIR ACT FOR THE SORC SERIES.
The Louisianians' antics, albeit refreshing in a staid sport that so often seems to be suffering from the first rigors of death, do not a winner make. In fact, to judge by the records of the past five years, crew behavior, good or bad, has little to do with the outcome of the SORC. The prime requisite for winning, it seems, is a brand-new boat. Ninety boats raced on the circuit this year, and only one of the first 20 in the final point standings was more than a year old. Although Louisiana Crude proved to be in a class by herself, beating second-place Acadia by 37.5 points and Williwaw by 46.0, in rating and configuration she was a boat very much in the middle. Forty-four of her 89 rivals rated higher than she, and 45 were lower. As Jennings points out, "Big boats win races and small boats win races, but medium-sized boats win the series."
Crude is a new boat—yet old. Although she is officially the first boat named Louisiana Crude to take part in the circuit, actually she is the second. In configuration she is identical to the 42-foot Acadia that won the circuit last year. Under the blue paint and lettering on the transom of that Acadia, there is written Louisiana Crude. Dreyfus had planned to race under that name last year in the ninth hull out of the mold in his own boat works, New Orleans Marine, but when Keenan wanted a smaller racer to replace his 51-foot Acadia, Dreyfus sold him the prospective Louisiana Crude. Any sailor with 180,000 loose dollars can obtain a reasonable stock facsimile of Acadia and Crude from Serendipity Yachts, which gets its molded hulls from Dreyfus. For about another $25,000 the buyer can get the special stiffening of carbon fiber layed up in the boat's deck and Kevlar in her hull, as well as modest reshaping of the lines that save about two-tenths of a foot of rating.
Back in the mid-'60s a stock design called the Cal 40 twice won the SORC because it was something of a breakthrough. The most unusual thing about the Acadia and Crude configuration that has now won twice is that it isn't very unusual. It's a production design conceived three years ago by the San Diego architect, Doug Peterson, as a cruising racer, a middle-of-the-roader that is equally good in a range of weather and on all points of sailing. Although he is better known as a Star boat and six-meter champion, Tom Blackaller, the middle-aged laughing boy from California who was principal helmsman on Crude, has had a good deal of ocean-racing experience on world-beaters as well as on sluggards. In explaining the success of Crude, Blackaller says, "When they get their kind of conditions, specialized boats win races, but when they don't, they are apt to lose big. A boat like Crude can win the series without winning a race." Says Dreyfus, "Crude is plain, straight vanilla. A simple boat sailed by simple people."
How did Louisiana Crude get the nickname Shaved Tiger that's now used with affection by the members of the crew? Dreyfus isn't a braggart, but he does exude a lot of optimism—sometimes prematurely. For example, though after two races Williwaw with Conner, the flawless beast, was only 5.5 points behind Crude and selection for the Admiral's Cup team was still a battle among two dozen boats, Dreyfus proclaimed for all to hear, "I'm practicing how to curtsy to the Queen." After a day and night of rough-and-tumble sailing on the long St. Pete-Lauderdale race that counts 2.5 points per place, Dreyfus came on deck feeling particularly exuberant as the boat ripped along under spinnaker. Although he had no idea how Crude was doing compared to her rivals, Dreyfus tapped his reserve of optimism and said to navigator John Rumsey, "My God, isn't this great! Here we have a production boat, Number 18 out of the mold, and we're beating all those $300,000 custom boats."
"This isn't a production boat," Rumsey replied. "It's a shaved tiger."
"What in hell is a shaved tiger?" Dreyfus asked.
"The Mexicans take a tiger," Rumsey said, "and shave it so that it looks like a dog. Then they enter it in a dog show and it eats all the other dogs."
Although luck will always play a part in ocean racing, the technological advances of each passing year make the competition among the best-prepared boats more and more equal. The chance that a gambling skipper will win the SORC by taking a flier is decreasing. The honors usually go to the crew that has the best shaved tiger under its feet.