A modest proposal tacked to the bulletin board of London's Royal Ocean Racing Club in 1957 set changes in motion that would not only launch the sport of single-handed ocean racing, but revolutionize small boat sailing. Lt. Colonel H.G. "Blondie" Hasler, a decorated WW II Marine, was inviting other intrepid mariners to join him in a race across the Atlantic Ocean. Hasler's proposal, however, had a twist—the race was only for sailors prepared to go alone. Hasler had the notion that a solo race across the pond would not only make for a good sporting event, but also encourage the development of gear and tactics that would ultimately make sailing simpler and safer.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the race, which takes place every four years and is now called the Europe 1 New Man STAR. The event, which has had different sponsors over the years, is still thought of by many as the OSTAR, named after the London Newspaper that sponsored the first raceThe Observer. Hasler was right, the race has been a source of inspiration and invention—literally the test track for gear that we take for granted today. From self-steering vanes, to self-tailing winches, to spinnaker sleeves and weather facsimiles, daring OSTAR competitors have been guinea pigs for the rest of us. The race has also tested the limits of human skill and endurance, and helped launch the careers of some sailing's biggest names, including Chichester, Tabarly, Colas, Francis, Weld, Pajot, Luhrs, and many others. Famous sailors aside, the race has also been something of a Holy Grail for amateurs as well, and often the best stories come from those operating on the thinnest of budgets.
From the perspective of the powerful Class 1, 60-foot sloops that are blasting across the Atlantic as I write, that first race seems distant and rather quaint by comparison. Yet the five men who set sail from Plymouth on a blustery June day 40 years ago were taking risks and prepared to endure hardships today's competitors can't imagine. The first racers had to prepare for the prospect of two months at sea. They were without reliable, long-range communications equipment and needed to severely ration food and water. Navigation was by sextant, and sail handling was heavy, cold work in the days before furling systems.
Francis Chichester was the first to take up Hasler's challenge and the two of them worked together to make the race a reality. Hasler convinced the respected Observer to sponsor the race while Chichester persuaded the Royal Western Yacht Club to handle the organizational duties. The US based Slocum Society, a group that supports single-handed sailors, agreed to help with the promotion and coordinate the finish, which was to take place off the Ambrose lightship outside New York harbor.
It took three years before the first racers assembled in Plymouth and began the frantic final preparations that have preceded every race since. The other participants included David Lewis, a London doctor who had been raised in New Zealand, Valentine Howells, flying the Red Dragon of Wales, and French born sailor Jean Lacombe, a photographer based in New York who had crossed the Atlantic previously in an 18-foot sloop. American Arthur Piver sailed to Plymouth in a 30-foot trimaran of his own design, but arrived too late to compete. The most notable feature about the race, especially by today's standards, is not that all the boats were wooden, but how small they were. Aside from Chichester's 39-foot Gypsy Moth III
, the other four boats were under 26 feet LOA.
Jester, Blondie Hasler's modified folkboat, was the most innovative boat in the field. Hasler's objective was to create a boat that could, "cope with strong winds, rough seas, and cold weather without calling on the crew's last reserves of endurance." He started by eliminating the cockpit. Instead, he handled everything from a circular hatch at the forward end of the coach roof. Jester was fitted with an unstayed hollow spruce spar and converted to Chinese lug rig for the race. The sail had a yard at the head and light boom at the foot, and five full-length battens. Reefing was like lowering a venetian blind, and more than once Hasler had all five reefs set.
Howells was also sailing a folkboat, Eira, a fine example of the graceful, diminutive design from Scandinavia. Despite weighing less than 5,000 pounds, folkboats were considered capable bluewater boats. Lewis was sailing Cardinal Vertue, a stout 25-foot Vertue-class sloop designed by Laurent Giles. The Vertue class has a proud legacy. Lewis, whose later exploits included a circumnavigation of Antarctica, sold his boat to Australian Bill Nance after the race and the quiet Aussie then promptly sailed it around Cape Horn. It was also a fiberglass version of a Vertue sloop that David and Daniel Hays sailed around the Horn and described in their bestseller, My Old Man and the Sea. Lacomb, who arrived in Plymouth five days after the race started, was sailing a relatively light 21-foot sloop that he considered to be "quite comfortable."
Ironically, Chichester thought he was at a disadvantage because his boat was so much larger than the others and was designed to be handled by a crew of six. He was sure that any boat-speed edge Gypsy Moth III
might enjoy would be outweighed by the sheer physical effort required to sail the boat alone. He often complained in his log about having to change heavy sails and running gear, all the while envying his competitors and their lighter loads.
The most pressing technical concern for all the racers was self-steering, or actually the lack there of. Hasler, who is credited with being one of the inventors of the modern steering vane, used a trim tab on the outboard rudder of Jester. The tab was driven by a wind vane that Halser could adjust from his midship hatch. Howells and Lewis used similar devices. All worked on the principle that as the boat strays off course the wind vane shifts, moving the trim tab in the process. Water pressure against the trim tab forces the rudder to correct the heading at which point the pressure is relieved. This design was later modified for use with a servo-pendulum, which develops more power, and is basis of most of today's vanes.
Typically, Chichester took a unique approach. His device, which he named Miranda, had no underwater parts. It was a small canvas sail/vane, set on a pole with steering lines to the tiller. The sail/vane needed to be quite large to generate enough steering pressure in light air, and was reefable for heavy going. The vane worked adequately, but Chichester was disappointed that it wouldn't steer the boat effectively on a close reach, which he had hoped would be its most efficient point of sail. Like all early self-steering vanes it was only marginally effective off the wind. Fortunately, (or unfortunately) most of the race was upwind and all the boats, including Lacomb's beamy little sloop, were well balanced and steered themselves for long stretches. The competitors in the first OSTAR would be amazed at the power and efficiency of today's autopilots. I think the development of the autopilot has had more effect on the race than any other piece of technology, including GPS and sail-control systems.
June 11, departure day, dawned gray and foreboding with a stiff, Force 7 southwest wind. Jester was the first boat across the line followed by Eira and Cardinal Vertue. Gypsy Moth III was the last across, but soon began overtaking the smaller boats. Each competitor had a different strategy for the crossing. Chichester had methodically broken down the pilot chart and calculated how long it would take to cross each five-degree square based on the average wind conditions along the great circle route. Of course he later cursed the pilot charts for being wildly inaccurate. Lewis also followed a similar course along the 3,000-mile great circle route, reasoning that the shortest route is usually the fastest. Hasler was convinced that the northern route was the way to go, arguing that favorable east winds would make up for extra distance sailed. Howells and Lacomb followed what was then called the low-powered-steamer route, dipping south to around 36 degrees. This heading promised warmer weather, but also the likelihood of calms and headwinds.
The first calamity struck Cardinal Vertue, just three-and-one-half hours into the race. "At 1:30 p.m. without warning, my mast snapped cleanly 12 feet above the deck," David Lewis wrote in his book, The Boat Would Not Sail Due West. Once the shock passed, Lewis calmly set a jury rig on the stump of mast and was headed back toward Plymouth within an hour. With the pluck reserved for the British, he was back in the race two days later with a new mast and undiminished optimism.
|"All of the competitors had bouts of seasickness and depression. They also had their share of rough weather. Hasler encountered 'a boring' gale that lasted four days."|
All of the competitors had bouts of seasickness and depression. They also had their share of rough weather. Hasler encountered "a boring" gale that lasted four days. Chichester recorded hurricane force winds on one occasion and was continually disappointed by the lack of consistent wind patterns. Howells literally was sailing in the dark because he had to toss his ship's battery overboard early in the race as it was ruined by leaks. Later Eira
was knocked down and he put into Bermuda for repairs.
Lewis on Cardinal Vertue was plagued by the same inconsistent winds that slowed Gypy Moth. Jean Lacomb and his gallant sloop Cap Horn weathered a severe gale lying to a sea anchor. Lacomb was later taken in tow by the US Coast Guard for a short time because of the threat of a hurricane.
Finally, 40 days outbound from Plymouth, Chichester spied Ambrose Lightship. Chichester had no idea that he had won the race when he doused his genoa for the last time. Hasler was next to finish, a full eight days later. Lewis came in third, and his 56-day total included the delay caused by dismasting. Howells finally reached New York in 63 days, and Lacomb and Cap Horn staggered in 69 days after leaving Plymouth. These times seem incredibly slow by today's standards, yet sailors on both sides of the Atlantic were impressed with Chichester's "speedy" crossing. Gypsy Moth, averaged 76.5 miles a day, or just over three knots made good, while Lacomb's daily average along his course line was 2.5 knots.
The five sailors were considered heroes, and all wrote books about the race. Chichester and Lewis went on to make other record-breaking voyages, while Hasler continued to develop gear to make sailing easier. Lacomb and Howells eventually dropped from the public eye, until Howells was invited to serve as the official starter for the race this year, but their feats are part of sailing's lore.
The first OSTAR captured the fancy of sailors and nonsailors alike. It was a revelation to many that small boats, sailed by one person, could safely cross oceans. Four years later the next OSTAR was won by Eric Tabarly, who became a national hero in France. By 1968 the race had 35 entries. This year's race will undoubtedly produce memorable moments, but nothing can quite compare to those five daring men who sailed from Plymouth 40 years ago.
Know Your Players
| Skipper || Boat ||Specifications |
|Sir Francis Chichester || |
Gypsy Moth III
Designed by Robert Clark, built 1959
|39'7" LOA |
10' 2" beam
24,000 lbs. displacement
9,500 lbs. ballast
760 sq. ft. sail area
|H.G. "Blondie" Hasler || |
|25'9" LOA |
5,000 lbs. displacement
2,200 lbs. iron ballast
240 sq. ft. sail area
|Valentine Howells || |
|25' LOA |
4,800 lbs. displacement
2,000 lbs. ballast
250 sq. ft. sail area
|Dr. David Lewis || |
Vertue Class, designed by Laurent Giles, built 1948
|25'3" LOA |
9,300 lbs. displacement
4,000 lbs. ballast
320 sq. ft. sail area
|Jean Lacombe || |
Plywood centerboard sloop designed by JJ Herbulot
|21'3" LOA |
19' 7" LWL
2' draft (board up)
3,000 lbs. displacement loaded
234 sq. ft. sail area