Hall of Fame Interview: Randolph Lyle Smyth

Another multihull sailor join SW's Hall of Fame and reflects on his sailing career in an interview with SW's Editor.

Sailing World: Where did you learn to sail in California? How did you get started?Randy Smyth: We lived in Fullerton, about an hour from the beach. My grandparents lived in Long Beach, so we'd go down there on the weekends to get out of the heat and play on the beach. My mom had a Sabot, like an Optimist pram, West Coast style. She had built it back in high school as a plywood boat. I was 5 years old and that's what I was sailing. It was more fun to capsize than sail it. That was my introduction to sailing. My sailing on multihulls started after a boatshow when my Dad came home with this box with an Aquacat inside it, a $695 boat show special. We got out our pliers and screwdrivers and put the thing together. That was 1964, so I was 10 years old. That was my first catamaran sailing. I thought that was pretty cool because it was already twice as fast as the Sabot and a heck of a lot more fun. You could take more friends out on it.SW: Were you doing any sailboat racing at that point?RS: The next year when I was 11, I raced a long distance race on that thing out to Catalina Island, which for an 11-year-old is pretty far-it's 25 miles or whatever. Fourteen Aquacats started, all adults except for us. Only seven people made it over; I don't know what happened to the others, maybe they got tired and turned back. Anyway, we made it over there.SW: Who were you sailing with?RS: My little brother David who was 9 at the time. It was pretty funny.SW: Did your parents know you were doing this?RS: Yes, in fact, we had a Cal 24, and my parents went over on that with my other brothers and sisters. We met them over there and slept on the big boat, then raced back the next day.SW: Did you get hooked by the idea of sailing long distances on beach cats?RS: That's what I'm trying to point out. This was Day 1, I guess so; it was in my blood pretty early on. SW: Were you scared at all doing that?RS: I'd been over a bunch of time with my parents on keelboats and a lot of times we'd take both the Aquacat and the Cal 24, and we'd just jump off the Cal and sail the Aquacat in tandem, never really by ourselves, always within sight. This was definitely the first time we had to say, "Where are we? How do we find this place?" But we knew the island pretty well so we found it pretty easy, where most of those adults racing had never been over there, so it's not surprising that most of them got lost.SW: Did you win the race?RS: They had singles and doubles. We were the first doubles team over there-of course we were pretty light, so we had an advantage.SW: Did you grow up in Fullerton?RS: After a while we moved to Huntington Beach, and I spent 35 years there until I moved to Florida.SW: It sounds like sailing just came naturally, with the whole family doing it.RS: We had five kids, two parents, all on a 24-foot sailboat. We'd line up all the kids on the rail and do pretty good when it was breezy. My dad was an engineer, and maybe a little too theoretical, so it turned out I was clearly the better skipper. I got a lot of tiller time at a young age.SW: Were you the oldest?RS: I have an older sister. I'm the oldest boy.SW: It sounds like your Mom was pretty handy, too.RS: I'm not sure how much of the Sabot she built, but she and my grandfather put it together. I guess they used to buy the plywood pre-cut, in kind of a kit. It was still quite an endeavor, and she did all the varnishing and got it ready to race. SW: Whatever skills you developed you learned hands-on?RS: Mostly summertime, capsizing, playing around, not really in a junior program like a kid would do today. There wasn't much of that back then. Sailing was for enjoyment more than anything. There were races and you had the competitive blood in you, but it wasn't the only driving force in my sailing world.SW: Did you do other sports?RS: No, I was kind of one-dimensional. I didn't do football or baseball. I started a sailing club at Marina High School in Huntington Beach. SW: You were pretty focused on this and clear you wanted to keep doing it. Did you imagine you were going to make a career out of it?RS: My dad is a professor at USC. He introduced me to all the deans, and I was such a nut for sailing, I said, "I don't think they have any courses here that I'm looking for." This doesn't relate to my real interest. I think that probably let my Dad down a bit that I wasn't a college type and couldn't figure out why I should go there.SW: At what point did you start sailmaking?RS: When I was 16 and had my drivers license, there was an announcement in my home room in high school on the P.A. system for job openings flipping hamburgers and so on, and then all of a sudden they said, "Sailmaker." I said, "Sailmaker? That's me." I applied for this job, working part-time after school with Rick Taylor of Taylor Made sails. He was kind of a forerunner in the Tornado sailmaking world. That was back in 1971 when the Tornado was being started.SW: Did you immediately get involved in more formal racing at that point?RS: I did. I went to Germany with Rick as his crew at the Tornado World Championship in 1972. I'd done some other racing, too. In 1969, there was a real big multihull championship, a festival thing, and I had my little Aquacat in the speed trials and I won that as the overall "most efficient boat." It totally bummed out all the guys in the C Class cats with their wing masts and everything else, and it was just because the Aquacat was pretty good on a reach but hopeless upwind, and the ratings were set so you had a good rating on a reach. I did something like 11 knots in 10 knots of wind. Anyway, so I did do some formal racing, too. I also won some big races in my little Sabot. By that time I'd done a lot of sailing.SW: Who were your mentors other than your family?RS: One fellow, Henry Sprague, a Finn sailor back then, ran an advanced sailing course. He hopped onboard the Cal 24, and it was the first time I'd been introduced to someone who was internationally skilled, sharing his information with youngsters like myself. It was eye opening to learn that there was a sport rather than just a pastime. It was kind of a turning point for me when I saw his attitude toward sailing. I thought, "Oh, wow. This is kind of a serious thing. Not just about going out and playing around after school." SW: How old were you then?RS: I'm not sure. I was definitely in high school.SW: Did you see Henry frequently after that.RS: No. I'd read about him magazines to see how he was doing.SW: Others?RS: Rick Taylor, definitely. In my teeanage years he was 27, so he was an older guy-kind of a father figure in a lot of ways. He was my employer and we traveled to Europe together. We had a close bond in those years. Rick gave me an overall sailmaking, quality control attitude. He was kind of a semi-perfectionist guy, always looking for new ideas, innovative, and he always wanted to execute them in a perfectionist manner. That was probably the biggest memory I have left over from him. SW: It rubbed off on you some?RS: I would usually be the opposite: "Let's get the thing done, I want to go sailing." He was always saying, "You've got to do it right; do it this way." You know we had hand-sewn rings and all that back then. His input probably molded me in the right direction.SW: And since then?RS: Robert Hopkins was a coach we had in our campaign when we were going for the '84 Olympics. He had been sort of the college, brainy kind of guy that came out of America's Cup type thinking and got into the technical side of sail analysis using photos and his scientific techniques to improve one's learning curve and boatspeed in particular. He was probably the most influential person on me. I took what he taught me and implemented it into our 1992 campaign in particular. It was just amazing what can be done with that kind of attitude. SW: Did you get together with him again in '92?RS: No, but we used his skills from then on. We had kind of a self-made training camp, but we didn't have enough money to hire people like him at that time. We made rapid progress because of the step-by-step program he drilled into my mind. How to find quantitative answers instead of feelings. Getting yes/no's out of all the questions you have while sailing; if you can get yes/no's on a few questions each day, by the end of the month you've pretty much answered all of your questions and come a long way. SW: You've won quite a few events over the years. Do any of them stand out as being the biggest or the most exciting?RS: The beauty of the sport, even though I'm sort a freak case--just a multihuller now-but even within multihulls there's such a variety that it can keep my interest. It was totally cool to do the 1988 catamaran with Dennis Conner in the America's Cup. I was like a kid in a candy store, being able to build those big old cats in short order without any real restraints from rules-"How fast can you go in 6 months?" That was really an enjoyable time. And way back in 1985, doing my first Worrell 1000, thinking, "I wonder if I can even finish this thing," and to actually go there and be real prepared and throw some asymmetric spinnakers on a little beach cat and to have it work and win-that was a huge challenge to look back on as an achievement. And although I'll never do it again, the around the world Race with Cam Lewis was definitely mind boggling. I got put in over my head: I don't do sails for 110-foot catamarans, but for some reason I was the candidate to design all those crazy things and spearhead the sailmaking end of that project. And then to sail on the boat, dodging icebergs and seeing all the people in hospitals with spinal injuries was like, "Yeah, this is the top of the line, insanity." Going around the world at high speed like that, and, like I said, once was about right for me. It was like rolling the dice a little too heavy.SW: What was it like sailing with Dennis Conner?RS: He was a businessman No.1 , and a sailor No. 2-not that he was better at one than the other. The business side was the most eye opening. We had 18 people in the room to conceptualize the design of the boat-catamaran, trimaran, monohull, whatever-but we never ever saw Dennis until the boat was finished. That was mind boggling to me. If I was the skipper I would have been at least at those meetings, curious about which way these designers were aiming the project. But at least from our perspective we never saw the guy until we got to the San Diego YC announcing the boat. At that point, the only time he ever talked to me and Gino Morelli-we were both in charge of the soft-rig design-he says, "Gino, how tall should the mast be?" Gino says, "Ninety feet." Dennis says to me, "Randy, how tall should the mast be." And I say, "Oh, 100 feet, there's not much wind here in San Diego." Dennis goes, "One hundred feet. See you guys later." That may degrade him a bit, but he's one of those guys who could make decisions. He only took the decisions that he needed to take, and otherwise he had so much respect for the people he hired that he didn't have to micromanage. I guess that's really the sign of a good business man. He's not trying to run the show; he's trying to manage the show. SW: How about once you got on the boat?RS: He played up his strong points; you know, he's the master of time and distance. He loves this little game, saying, "How many minutes until we get to that bridge?" Everybody puts their bets down, which is a dollar bill. He'd always collect all the money. He was awesome in time on distance, and he also had an open attitude. He wasn't a know-it-all, because he was out of his specialty. That was kind of cool, he was open to ideas, probably more so than he might be in a 12-Meter campaign. As one of the team members I felt that we were always highly respected because we had views that he wanted to know because he didn't know. So we were kind of teachers as well as being teammates, too. You could also see his training style, even though it was relevant, of his boat-on-boat ritual. But we had such different pieces of equipment we could figure out the differences pretty quickly. You could still see his regimen was very organized, long days, disciplined. A little bit like Robert's coaching style, wanting to find answers to all your questions.SW: What's the fastest multihull you've ever sailed on?RS: The fastest was Team Adventure. We got over 40 knots in the middle of the night, ripping along. That gets your nosebleed rolling.SW: Where were you?RS: Down in the Southern Ocean. We'd dropped off a lot of our crewmembers with spinal injuries; we started with 14 and I think we had 10 people.SW: What's your favorite multihull?RS: Probably the most fun I've had was in the Formula 40s: super short course racing, big crazy monster boats, with a crew that's totally aerobic the whole time so it was a total workout. It was high stakes and high thrill, not to mention the prize money. It's hard to imagine anything better than that.SW: The European Formula 40 sailing?RS: No, the U.S. was much more exciting because we had much shorter courses. Europe was sort of a cultural exchange. It was fun and good racing, but they were longer races and weren't in any way, shape, or form nearly the excitement of the American ProSail circuit when it was in its prime.SW: Now you're sailing trimarans. You've added a hull and won again at the Corsair Nationals? Is that more of a commercial interest or are you enjoying this style of racing more?RS: You see a lot of the same people in our little multihull world, but they've grown more gray hairs and there are fewer beach cat people; they've graduated to trimarans. I try to play both sides of the fence because my roots are still small boats, and I've got my little A Class cat, but I have the trimaran for those races. Again, in terms of variety, it keeps things interesting. That's what keeps me going-I always like to look for what's new and exciting. This year was hopefully going to be the Worrell 1000, too, and unfortunately it folded. That's the type of thing that intrigues me because it's the same old racecourse but in a brand new boat, and there are a lot of skeptics out there questioning whether that light little boat [the Jav 2] can do the race. It was fun this winter doing all the prep work for the race even though it never happened. That's they type of thing I find intriguing. The Tornado Olympic campaign, which I haven't said a word about, was a real big challenge, but to me-not to graduate above that-but I like to do different things within the sport rather than being in the same one-design my whole life. SW: Some would say people who have to do different things have short attention spans.RS: I have a lot of focus for a certain period of time. When the Tornado was new, that was exciting, but once you get to where you're looking for a 1-percent difference, it's not as exciting as when you're learning crazy new things like the wild thing. I like big-picture challenges rather than fine tuning the fine tuning.SW: Do you have any reflections on joining the august group in our Hall of Fame?RS: There are a bunch of other interesting characters in there who are very one-dimensional in their approaches. There are a lot of focused people who have hit the sport from different angles. Some are in the commercial side of it, manufacturing, new ideas, new boats; a number are in the expertise sailing side, winning races. Stuart Walker would be more known for sailing his knowledge. He won regattas, but that's not his forte. I appreciate the people in there mainly because of their specialty within the sport. There are so many different aspects it takes to make a sport. To me it looks as if you kept your selection process open enough, that you're allowing self to choose people in all those different categories that are spokes of the wheel in our sport.