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Big Boat Glory Days

Who says you can't relive your glory days? A trip up the coast to St. Francis YC's Rolex Big Boat Series brings the memories flooding back.

November 30, 2016
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rolex big boat series

2016 ROLEX BIG BOAT SERIES

J/105s roll down San Francisco Bay at the Rolex Big Boat Series, which remains the West Coast’s marquee event by preserving traditions over 50 years. Rolex/Daniel Forster

I first met Mitch Booth, of Australia, when I was racing Tornadoes and he was winning Tornado Olympic medals. He’s also pretty good behind a drum kit, which I learned late one night at the 1991 Tornado Worlds. Anyway, we are about the same age, which now finds us nearly four decades removed from our teen years.

Recently, Mitch and I were talking about what kept us connected to the sport. We agreed it wasn’t our successes (I’ve had some, he’s had more) but rather those early years of freedom to completely screw around and discover sailing for ourselves. We had absolutely unstructured adventures, dangerous at times, all of which would likely freak out most modern-day helicopter parents.

For a teenage sailor in the 1970s and 1980s, this meant getting on all types of boats, sailing with and against influential adults, and without realizing it, both forging a deeper connection with the sport and accruing the knowledge and confidence to tackle new challenges. During this era, as I approached my 20s, one event that stands tall in my foggy memory is St. Francis Yacht Club’s Big Boat Series in San Francisco.

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I grew up in the sprawl of Los Angeles, so San Francisco was my first real big-city experience, and San Francisco Bay was unlike any venue I’d ever seen. The headlands, the shorelines and the shifting current provided so many opportunities to problem-solve on the fly. Then there was the big wind, none of which we had down south. It was all a colossal learning experience that stretched my mind and connected me to other intricacies of the game.

As a regular crew, we had to deliver a 46-foot International ­Offshore Rule boat 300-plus miles up the coast, into the wind, to the Big Boat Series. Kimo Worthington, already a legend, had enlisted Bob Little and me to help. This was back when kids worked during the summer — or at least I think I got paid. We didn’t get too far out of Marina del Rey before the weather turned snotty, so Worthington found a headland behind which we could drop anchor. Seamanship in action. We must not have stocked too well, as I recall days of eating canned fruit. Little really liked the peaches — and thus a nickname was born.

The Big Boat Series started in 1964, before Block Island Race Week and Key West Race Week. (It was a week of racing, but it wisely did not incorporate that fact into the event title.) Of course, situations change — just ask the folks at Blockbuster — and the boats aren’t so big anymore, but they are faster. Maybe it should now be called the Fast Boat Series.

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The Series had a brilliant schedule back then, Sunday to Friday, with lay days on Tuesday and Thursday. Better yet, Wednesday had a “businessman’s schedule,” with a midafternoon start, which then attracted a predominantly female population to watch the finishes after work. St. Francis YC is a prize in the city, and the idea of boatloads (literally) of men became a draw. This schedule, I was told, was intended to minimize the impact on work life. To me it seemed to maximize the impact on social life.

I’ve been known to say that sailing is something I do to stay busy in between the parties. Don’t get me wrong; I race hard to win. But I have long recognized that our sport is recreation, and recreation includes both morning and nighttime hours. Our sport was less intense back then, but even today, any event that fails to recognize the relevance of socializing should take a close look at the big picture.

Whether due to economics or fear of what we might do in a hotel, it was quite popular for boat owners to retain motorhomes for crew housing. The parking lot of St. Francis was full of them. We were literally stumbling distance from the club at night, which was equally handy in the morning: The bar opens for breakfast, and the club is famous for its Ramos fizz. This “breakfast in a glass” is a St. Francis staple. No morning shall pass without one.

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I was the “kid” on the boat, however, which meant I had crappy chores, like pumping out the RV’s holding tank. I was also entrusted to drive this engine-powered heap of sticks, staples and aluminum. I’m not sure what the universal measure of manhood is, but driving a wobbly motorhome across the Golden Gate Bridge, in the fog, in a pumping thermal, was my moment. That bridge ranks second in the world for suicides. People jump off it because they are certain to die. I grew up driving across it, white knuckles and all.

Few events still have lay days. Maybe that meshes with our societal shift toward not doing stupid things, like climbing the main tower of the Golden Gate Bridge to hang a battle flag (not me). A trip to the Russian River was an essential lay-day event, entailing a packed motorhome, an hour’s drive, canoe rentals and a half-day float downstream. This was back when boxed wine was the rage. (It was always hot, and hydration is important, right?) This was also when life jackets weren’t so standard. Lessons were learned.

And it was the heyday of the IOR. The Big Boat Series was a worthy test of men and machine. On years that coincided with the biennial Transpac Race, the regatta attracted the maxi crowd. The harbor is tight but manageable, though on one occasion the helmsperson on one of the 80-footers was struggling. Why our boat had a handheld loudhailer, with fresh batteries, remains a mystery, but there it was in my hand, offering docking instruction. Later that night, upon walking by an auto-parts store, I splurged on a purchase of curb feelers (Google it) that would later be attached to the boat

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While it sounds like a lot of shenanigans, I was still star-struck. The heroes of the game played this tournament. It was truly an assemblage of the best boats, the best gear and the best venue. Each day, for only one race, it was full on. I was amid a crew of elites, but with the wind howling through the Gate, boats walked a fine line. The Bay was as much a stadium then as it is now. Mistakes did not go unnoticed. Wipeouts and broaches were for all to enjoy from the many landside vantage points.

The event has changed a lot since then. More boats now arrive on a trailer. You won’t find any motorhomes on the property. The lay days are gone, with the schedule now Thursday to Sunday. With the demise of IOR, gone too is a widely used international rule. The event now uses the Offshore Racing Rule, popular in certain pockets, though, dare I say, it doesn’t encourage new boat development. And the Transpac Race now attracts off-wind-oriented boats that lack upwind wheels. The 2016 edition had a record fleet, just fewer ocean liners.

What remains are elements that make this event a leader. The trend of events increasing races per day has not impacted the Big Boat Series. While the tradition of one race per day has now given way to two, there is a mixture of courses using fixed marks and bay features. On the final day of the event, as always, all classes big and small do one extended Bay Tour race with zigzagging courses, varying sail decisions, dicey current patterns, and obstacles. Problem-solving galore.

St. Francis is literally on the racecourse sideline, and the surrounding land is open to the public, providing for spectacular spectating. The final race each day finishes downwind off the club. Time on the water is respectable, boats dock quickly, and parties start promptly. Socializing is not forgotten.

And while I might now be more mature and advanced in years, some things haven’t changed. The Balboa Cafe is still good for last call, rooms at the Cow Hollow Inn overlooking Lombard Street are still noisy, Mel’s Drive-In still serves that day-starting breakfast, and ­Jessie still makes the best Ramos fizz. Yes, sir, may I have another?

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