On January 20, 1961, as President Kennedy is asking his fellow Americans what they can do for their country, 31-year-old Elmer Richards is outside in the cold, strapping his Thistle to the roof of his ’57 Ford station wagon.
With his wife, Susan, conscripted as forward crew and navigator, Richards is bound for his fourth Thistle Midwinter Championship in St. Petersburg, Fla. They have stopped at his parents’ home in Somerville, N.J., to pick up the boat. Inside the house, the television broadcasts images of a snowy Washington, D.C., of an Inaugural Parade in which, as the New York Times will report the next day, “majorette’s legs turned blue, baton twirlers’ fingers froze and the nation’s beauty queens were driven to flannels and overcoats.”
Richards’ parents warn him that to drive into the heart of the storm is sheer madness, but he is determined to get on the road. He aims the station wagon south with the boat C-clamped to a homemade roof rack and the mast protruding forward like a medieval lance. “I felt a little like Don Quixote heading off to the windmills,” Richards recalls today.
Taking the slow roads-the only roads-through New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, they arrive in sunny St. Petersburg a day and a half later. After three days of racing, they’re northbound with a second-place trophy in hand.
Richards has made the same trip every year since-2007 makes 50 straight. Each winter when the snow piles high at his house in Ossining, N.Y., he heeds the circadian pull of Thistle Midwinters and heads for St. Pete. Some things have changed since the early days-the station wagon is now a Ford Econoline van with captain’s seats, and a new highway, Interstate 95, shaves a few hours off the trip-but this 77-year-old’s priorities haven’t budged. Sailing Thistles is his second love, Mrs. Richards his first. For the 2007 regatta, Elmer recruits a familiar crew, his 42-year-old son, Peter, and 59-year-old Fritz Goetz, who replaced Mrs. Richards at forward in 1963.
“Hey waiter,” the younger Richards shouts while waiting to get called up to the buffet on opening night at St. Petersburg YC. “We’ve got to hurry up and eat so the old man can get home and take his pills.”
On the opposite side of the table sits the tree from which that comic apple fell. With his wispy white hair and gnarly eyebrows, the elder Richards may look the part of old man up past his bedtime, but his sly grin gives him away. The waiter takes no pity and calls their table last.
Richards made his career as a New York-based civil engineer, overseeing such colossal projects as the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel. As a dutiful member of the Thistle class, says former class president and current US SAILING vice president Tom Hubbell, “he has officially and unofficially led the class on and off the water since before we all went to kindergarten.”
Like so many Thistlers, eight-time Midwinters East champion Greg Fisher sees Richards as the class oracle. “He is like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ to the Thistle Class,” says Fisher. “Whenever there is a question about how something should be handled, it is always prefaced with, ‘Wonder what Elmer has to say?'”
In the Thistle class-a community that measures character in the hoist line, not at the finish line-Richards is a true hero. They lionized him with T-shirts for his 40th consecutive Midwinters, and they repeat the tribute in 2007 for his 50th. More than 200 people don “Elmer” T-shirts and gather in a festooned banquet hall at the St. Petersburg YC for “Elmer Night.” Jess Murphy, representing Lake Hopatcong YC, Elmer’s home club in New Jersey, presents a video tribute compiled last summer at the lake. She then asks everyone who has ever sailed with Richards to stand up. One-quarter of the room rises. She asks again, expanding the field to everyone who has sailed with anyone who has sailed with Richards. By now, two-thirds are standing. After a third question-three degrees of separation-there’s a roomful of empty seats.
That evening, the guest of honor addresses his fans. Speaking softly into the microphone, Richards recalls how he fell in love with Thistles as a young boy summering at Lake Hopatcong. “I grew up looking at the water, looking at the wind blowing around the boathouses, and trying to make little boats out of whatever was lying around,” he says.
He didn’t get the chance to race a Thistle until he was 26, and when he did, he learned the old-fashioned way. “In my day,” he says, “the only way you got better was by going out there and taking a good beating.”
At his first Nationals in 1956, Richards finished third from last. But he was a quick study. By his first Midwinters in 1958, he was able to survive Tampa Bay’s worst. “It got to be so rough I sailed the second race with just my mainsail,” he tells the hushed crowd on Elmer Night. “I never jibed the whole race. Everybody else wound up capsizing, and I ended up fifth in the regatta just because I was too scared to do anything.”
Giving up is not an option on Elmer’s Glue III, nor has it been on any of the boat’s six predecessors. During one particularly calamitous race at 2005 Midwinters, Richards, his son Peter, and Goetz battled a series of breakdowns. Ten minutes before the start, the outhaul let go. On the first downwind leg, the spinnaker pole fitting sheared away. Midway through a tack on the second beat, the tiller extension pulled off, causing the boat to capsize. They finished the race dead last and half frozen, but they finished nonetheless.
More than his triumphs and follies on the racecourse, Richards best remembers the 1,200-mile trips to and from the event. “For all the times we made it down, there were plenty of times when we didn’t think we’d make it,” he tells the crowd.
There was the time during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1974, when a supply of five-gallon gas cans packed into the boat and between the front seats delivered Richards and crew Noel Cram to the event. In 1993, the trailer fishtailed on an icy overpass and smashed the port side of his boat, so he sailed the regatta in a borrowed boat. In 1963, a generator failure landed him and a 15-year-old Goetz at a seedy Virginia service station.
Richards remembers Goetz taking a peculiar interest in the mechanic’s lift, but Goetz recalls something else. “It wasn’t the car lift; it was the calendar in the men’s room and the magazines by the coffee station,” says Goetz. “After a while Elmer must have thought that it would be better for me to try to get some sleep in the car instead of introducing me to the side of life he told my father he would keep me from.”
The boy’s father passed away in May of that year, and Richards has looked after Goetz and his clan ever since. “I don’t believe Thistlers will see another individual as totally committed to the class as he,” says Goetz.
He has been called the Cal Ripkin of the class, but Richards insists that his milestone has never been about keeping a streak. “I didn’t set out to sail 50 Midwinters,” he says, “I just keep coming back.”
While his spirit may be indomitable, Richards’ body is not immune to the passage of time. He has a hard time stooping beneath the boom, so on windy days a crewmember must release the vang before each tack. And because tacks are slow, upwind game plans call for a minimum of tacks.
Despite this boathandling disadvantage, Richards still commands the respect of frontrunners like Fisher, 2007 Midwinters champion. “Whenever the breeze is 5 to 10 mph and a bit shifty you can always plan on Elmer leading the hunt,” says Fisher. In the first race of this year’s regatta, Fisher watches in awe as the aging New Yorker uses his expert knowledge of Tampa Bay to nail the first shift and lead the pack up the beat.
In Race 4, Richards again jumps to an early lead, rounding the first mark in first place. From boats approaching on the port layline come shouts of encouragement: “Way to go, Elmer!” “Woo-hoo!”
Halfway down the run, with 68 spinnakers popping in his wake, Elmer can do no wrong. But his crew knows the practical implications of momentary greatness. “This isn’t looking good,” Peter says to Fritz while in the lead. “He just might make us come back next year.” They cross the finish line in eighth place, their best race of the series.
Reality greets them at the dock, however, where they learn they were over early in the race, and the top-10 finish
becomes a 70. Fellow competitors express their condolences, but Richards shrugs off the sympathy. “Why is everybody patting me on the back?” he asks. “I’m the one who cheated.”
Elmer Richards expects no reprieve, and he does not yearn for former glory. He places 41st in 2007, a far cry from the top five finishes of decades past. But he still has his moments, and in the long run moments matter most.