Bidding Farewell to a Racing Mentor

/SW/ editorial director John Burnham remembers the uncle who gave him his first crewing position.

John Burnham crewed in his Uncle Bill's Bullseye for three years before his family bought their own boat, /Querida/, which they've sailed ever since. Here are Paul and Dave Burnham at the 2008 Bullseye Nationals at Fishers Island, New York. For more

John Burnham crewed in his Uncle Bill's Bullseye for three years before his family bought their own boat, Querida, which they've sailed ever since. Here are Paul and Dave Burnham at the 2008 Bullseye Nationals at Fishers Island, New York. For more photos from the event, click here.Chip Riegel

Uncle Bill died over the holidays, a few months shy of his 90th birthday, peacefully, I'm told, and surrounded by family. The news took me straight back to age 15, the first summer when I crewed for my uncle on Sea Witch, his Herreshoff-designed Bullseye, at Fishers Island, New York.

Over three seasons on his sturdy 15-and-a-half-footer, as I learned to trim the genoa and set the spinnaker, I began looking around and noticing how some sailors gained an edge by steering a course into or out of the strong currents we sailed in on Fishers Island Sound. Uncle Bill got frustrated sometimes, like any other sailor, and he was known to grump and grouse when things didn't go well, but I learned that he didn't mean anything personal when he yelled for me to sort out a twisted spinnaker or pull on a runaway foreguy. We didn't win much, but gradually I improved and I know we picked up a trophy or two. As time went on, I became more than simply the young muscle that could get the sails up and down at the right time-I was learning about and getting a little sharper at the whole game.

My dad had taught me to sail early on, and I had already been racing for a few years in informal races in our single-sailed Sunfish when Uncle Bill and I struck our deal. I crewed for him in Saturday's Bullseye races, and he let me skipper Sea Witch on my own every Wednesday in the junior races. Uncle Bill got a good deal-- steady weekend crew-- but I got a better one-- I got to race twice a week.

To be eligible to race, I had to join the Fishers Island Yacht Club, the sponsor of the races. My interview took about 15 seconds on the club lawn, and I think the dues cost me $15 the first year. That year, I finished third and was excited enough about the sport to join my high-school sailing team the next spring. When I was 16, I moved up to second. And my last year of junior racing, I won the first-place trophy. A year later, I began teaching sailing every day at the club in Bullseyes. Although I officiated at the Saturday races rather than sailing in them, I learned by watching how the front-runners made their winning moves. My father bought a family boat that year, and we took it to the Bullseye National Championships, where he put me at the helm and we won the three-race series with two firsts and a second. The next year, we won again, this time with three firsts.

I sailed with Uncle Bill a few other times in the cruising boats he later bought, and I once delivered one of them for him from Atlantic City to Long Island Sound, sailing it through New York City's East River on a fair current even though the engine had quit. But no memories stick with me more clearly than those summer races when I was 15. I was a sponge, ready to soak up everything I could learn about sailboat racing, and it was Uncle Bill who put me on the water.

Thanks, Uncle Bill.