Last weekend they held the 35th Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race. Thirty five years ago I was part of the crew on Rainbow, a 65-foot long Cheoy Lee ketch, taking part in the Inaugural race.
Rainbow is the biggest boat in the picture.
To this day it is still one of the most exciting things I ever did.
Rainbow was, I believe, the last all-custom built boat Choey Lee made. It had a steel hull, aluminum deck house and two beautifully varnished wood masts. It was definitely not a racing boat, but the owner, Charles Scripps of the Scripps publishing family wanted to do the race for the fun of doing it and for the party in Key West afterwards. I was invited along as crew because the mate on the boat was the first captain I had ever worked for a couple of years earlier. The fact was that the entire crew, with the exception of Mr. Scripps and his son Charlie, were professional sailors.
We started off well on a sunny Friday morning, but since it was a cruising boat and not a racer we weren’t fairing well. It was a laborious beat every few minutes between the north-flowing Gulf Stream and the shore. By the time we reached Fowey Rock in Miami all of the other boats in our class were over the horizon and most of the smaller boats in the fleet were ahead of us as well.
In the middle of the afternoon the predicted cold front reached us and the wind shifted from south easterlies into the west and clocking into the northwest. We were now on a beam reach and we started to truck. We began to pass the smaller boats ahead of us with the lee rail awash. As it began to grow dark we tucked the first reef into the main sail but left the huge genny flying and hurtling us through the water like a locomotive.
After a terrific hot meal cooked on a gimbaled stove and served on a gimbaled table the four-hour watches were set and the off watch retired below to catch a few winks. I was assigned to the boss’s watch. About five years earlier I’d turned down a job opportunity with his now-defunct Hollywood Sun-Tattler newspaper. As I stood in the cockpit with the wheel vibrating like a living thing beneath my hands I told the gentleman who could have won, hands down, any Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, that I’d turned down the job and thought it was the best decision I’d ever made.
“What do you mean by that?” he said looking at me over the top of his wire-rimmed half moon glasses.
“Well, just think of the thousands of people who work for you on your newspapers, radio and television stations and United Press International. Every one of them would crawl through broken glass just to have the chance to sit on this boat tied up at the dock. I turned the job down and here I am driving the thing.”
Sometime shortly after midnight a cannon shot roused those of us below out of our sleep. It was a quick scramble into our foul weather gear and within minutes we were on deck where we saw the huge genoa torn to shreds and snapping like pistol shots in the winds that were gusting up to 35 knots and more. In the couple of minutes it took to comprehend the situation the #2 genny was already being hauled out and we jumped into the foredeck to remove the destroyed sail.
The temperature and dropped by more than 4o degrees since the start of the race and with the wind chill it felt like it was in the 20s. The bow would drop into a wave and the warm water would flood the fore deck up to our necks, those of us on our knees clutching at the flailing pieces of sail and working hard to open the hanks to remove it from the fore stay. And as we struggled furiously the bow would rear high into the air and the cold, arctic wind would hit us and we couldn’t wait until we descended into the warmth of the water once more. In no time the sail was down and the new one was hanked on and other crew members were churning away at the halyard winch to raise the replacement.
In all, the old sail was down and the new one flying in less than five minutes.
Back in the cockpit the on-watch crew said that they had passed five boats in the previous three hours, and the number grew as the night wore on.
In the morning as we turned into the ship channel at Key West we blew out the #2 genoa as well and in short order the working jib was raised in its place.
When we were tied up at the dock we found out we were the fifth boat over the line at the end and we had passed up 15 boats altogether. Ted Turner, yes THAT Ted Turner, who had recently successfully defended the America’s Cup, came over and shook all of our hands. He said he was glad the race wasn’t another hundred miles longer because, “Nobody would have seen you guys.”
It was something I’ll never forget…the race or the party that followed. Sunday morning I woke up on a pile of sail bags on a boat I’d never been on before and didn’t recognize a soul aboard who were in about the same condition as I was.
Fourteen years later I sat at a table on a beautiful 96 foot Bruce Roberts ketch having lunch with Mr. Scripps once again after not having seen him in the previous 13 years. He asked if I’d like to “go live in France for six months or so.” He had an 85 foot sailboat over on the French Riviera in Antibes, between Cannes and Nice, that needed a captain. I believe you can find that story in earlier posts on this blog. Those “six months or so” ended up being nearly three years in France and getting to sail the boat across the Atlantic and the job ended up with a tenure of three and a half years.
Thirty five years since that first Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race. Where did all those years go?
Trivia question: Who on the stage is a Rhodes Scholar?