What did it take to dominate ocean racing in the late 1950s?
A skipper who rose above his peers, a crew that made the most of its opportunities, and a special boat. The funny thing was that Carleton Mitchell, already a two-time Southern Ocean Racing Conference winner, wanted his new boat to be primarily a well-found cruiser. Mitchell, a Navy veteran of World War II, already had thousands of sea miles under his keel when he commissioned Finisterre. He’d come up with the name from the Latin for land’s end, while sailing past Spain’s renowned cape. He’d cruised and raced extensively in Carib and Caribee and earned a living along the way writing for Sports Illustrated, Yachting, and National Geographic, authoring books, and taking photographs.
“Even during our most gung-ho racing days,” writes Mitchell, now 91, in a recent e-mail, “We covered at least 10 miles cruising to every mile in competition.” His intimate knowledge of the sea and boats helped define what he wanted in a boat, which he set forth in a 1954 article in Yachting: “Not forgetting the maxim that you can’t have everything in any one hull and that every boat must be a compromise, I must confess wanting to try to build a boat that has everything.” His experience with his Rhodes-designed Caribee and a desire to cruise in shallow waters dictated a centerboard for the new boat, and while the Cruising Club of America measurement rule of the day favored centerboard boats, taking advantage of that aspect of the rule wasn’t his intent. He wrote in a later article, “Not once in my discussions with Sparkman & Stephens when we were planning and building Finisterre did we mention the ratings, or any way we could beat the rule.
“Mitchell chose Sparkman & Stephens to design Finisterre primarily because of his friendship and sailing experiences with Rod Stephens. “I had raced with him aboard his boat Mustang, and he with me aboard Caribee,” says Mitchell. “Although it was my privilege to sail with many of the top sailors of the era, I don’t think anyone else combined Rod’s deckhand skills and knowledge of deck layout, rigging, and sails. Add Olin Stephens’ innovative design genius, as exemplified by such diverse vessels as Dorade, which revolutionized ocean racing, and the super-J, Ranger, and it was easy to see why S&S was the go-to team.
“Under the skilled hands of master boatbuilder Seth Persson and the watchful eye of Mitchell, Finisterre took shape at Persson’s boatyard in Old Saybrook, Conn. Mitchell immersed himself in the building process: Before starting construction he built a mockup of the cabin to test the ergonomics of the layout. He handpicked all of the wood-Connecticut white oak for the frames, African mahogany and teak for the interior, and 3/4-inch Honduras mahogany over 3/8-inch Port Orford cedar for the double-planked hull. The boat was neither light nor stripped out; its owner was a self-confessed gadgeteer and wanted all the equipment that a 70-footer would have: wheel steering, autopilot, refrigerator, icemaker, two generators, depth finder, bookshelves, a radiotelephone, and a shower.
Mitchell introduced his new boat to the world at the 1955 Southern Ocean Racing Conference, then a four-week marathon of distance and buoy races. He’d won the SORC in 1952 and 1953 with Caribee, but Finisterre didn’t bear much resemblance to the narrow, full-keeled ocean racers of the day. “My dream ship,” says Mitchell, “looked remarkably like a watermelon.” The boat may have looked plump, but it went like smoke, winning the Miami-Nassau race and taking a second for the series. Not a bad beginning, but easily forgotten the next year when Mitchell defended his Miami-Nassau title, won St. Petersburg-Havana, and the SORC overall. Finisterre’s performance was noted, especially by Sports Illustrated writer Ezra Bowen, who, in the late spring of 1956, wrote a remarkably prescient article about the upcoming Newport-Bermuda Race. “The hottest favorite is not a keelboat at all,” wrote Bowen, “but the fat-bodied little centerboarder, Finisterre.”
The only satellite circling Earth in June 1956 was the moon, and the accuracy of weather forecasts was poor. Navigators of the day relied upon the old methods and tools: sextants, thermometers, patent logs, and barometers. If clouds obscured the sun and stars, dead reckoning was the best they could do. This combination of crude technology, the unpredictable Gulf Stream and its eddies, and the lack of reliable weather forecasts made the race a piñata party: Crews sailed in the general direction of Bermuda, hoping that their guesses about where to go were correct. When dealing with such a race as Newport-Bermuda, Mitchell knew that nothing was guaranteed. “All aboard Finisterre had traversed the same piece of water before,” he says, “and knew that it was the world’s greatest crapshoot. You can go from Sargasso Sea calms to Cape Hatteras busters in a matter of hours; all of us have sat motionless while vessels in sight-or suddenly appearing from over the horizon astern-go ahead riding a narrow lane of wind.”
Mitchell’s crew was far more experienced than most. They were older, barely changed from race to race, and included some of the best that yacht racing had to offer. Armed with a fast boat and Mitch as their skipper, they were always prepared to make the most of their chances: Dick Bertram, formerly a watch captain on Caribee, soon to be famous for his line of offshore powerboats; Star champion Lockwood Pirie, owner of Hoot Mon, a close competitor of Mitchell’s in many regattas; Corwith Cramer, ex-Coast Guardsman who’d also sailed aboard the Woods Hole research ketch Atlantis; Henry “Bunny” Rigg, according to Mitchell, “One of the finest sailors afloat;” Edward Freeman, helmsman and friend who had helped with the final touches of Finisterre’s construction; Bobby Symonette, sought-after ocean racer and member of the Bahamian Olympic team in five Olympic regattas; Henry Davis, the only professional sailor on board, responsible for the boat’s upkeep.
Mosk Harmons, a frequent competitor, said in a 1960 interview in the New York Times: “Many of the yachts are manned by young men who, although willing, cannot stand up under all kinds of sea conditions. Finisterre’s crew are all experienced men who have been with Mitch a long while. Whether it blows hard or easy, they always are able to give their best to the boat, and they are dedicated to her besides.”
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The start of the 1956 Newport-Bermuda Race was slow. Eighty-nine boats, the largest fleet to date, ghosted past the Brenton Lightship at the traditional Friday start in a light southerly. Armed with a pamphlet titled “A Prediction of the Unpredictable Gulf Stream,” courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Mitchell decided to head west of the rhumb line to Bermuda. By noon on Sunday, the barometer started sinking. “The sky took on a hard look,” says Mitchell. “That to a sailor means trouble.” A request by watch captain Bertram to take down the “gossamer nylon ballooner” jib was discussed and rejected by Mitchell. Two hours later, it was in tatters. Under a smaller, heavier Dacron jib, Finisterre stormed happily along, crossing into the warm waters of the Stream by 11 p.m. Sunday. A day later, a line squall roared over Finisterre, heralding the passing of a front. Mitchell described the squall in National Geographic: “The squall struck with a roar. We were blinded and deafened. Rain and spray blasted in our faces as from a high-pressure hose, physically painful. Lightning flared continuously, while simultaneous crashes of thunder shook the deck under our feet. Finisterre lay over, forced down by an enormous solid weight of wind. In the lurid light the sea looked calm, momentarily knocked flat.” Still under full sail, Finisterre rode the new breeze, an easterly, all the way to Bermuda, passing larger boats that had been forced to reef down. By late Tuesday evening, navigator Cramer, using dead reckoning, knew they were near the islands, but because of cloud cover he couldn’t use a sextant. Later that night, while an exhausted Cramer slept below, Mitchell shot the stars Altair and Polaris through a break in the clouds, pegging Finisterre 40 miles ahead of the DR plot. A slight course alteration, the sighting of Bermuda’s light loom before dawn, and Finisterre was across the line and headed toward Hamilton Harbor by mid morning on Wednesday. Upon arrival at the Royal Bermuda YC two hours later, the crewmembers were escorted to the winner’s berth and told they were first on corrected time, that they’d set a new corrected-time record, and that Finisterre was the smallest boat ever to win the Newport-Bermuda Race.
Twice Is Nice
For the ’58 race, Finisterre was rewarded with a tougher rating, but it didn’t faze Mitchell. “Despite Finisterre’s rating getting the biggest adjustment in the fleet,” he says, “we were guardedly optimistic.”Defending a Bermuda race victory is difficult: It’s impossible to cover the whole fleet and the variables make the previous race’s tactics unsound. Mitchell chose to target one boat, Colin Ratsey’s Golliwog, which was built in imitation of Finisterre. For the entire race, every sail sighted was Golliwog, and the crew pushed themselves accordingly. At the beginning, the wind had favored the big boats, but by Tuesday, the wind had died, and a horizon full of boats sat off Bermuda. As the big boats drifted along at two knots, the little boats were sailing up tendrils of breeze and effectively re-starting the race. Finisterre was one of them. On Wednesday morning, with most of the fleet still becalmed within 100 miles of Bermuda, the weather turned foul. Line squalls and a breeze came from the direction of the finish and again the big boats reefed down and steered toward St. David’s Head. Finisterre and crew, reveling in the blow, crossed the finish line only four hours after the first Class A finisher. As an incredulous race committee asked for confirmation of its sail number from the spotters at St. David’s lighthouse, a crewmember of a Class A competitor asked: “How can any of us ever beat you?”
After another rating drubbing and with a host of design imitators on the line, Finisterre had her work cut out in the 1960 Newport-Bermuda Race. The early stages had light reaching and running conditions, but a storm lurked beyond the Gulf Stream. By the time Mitchell and crew reached the weather, the bigger boats had suffered knockdowns, were hove to in Force 8 to 9 conditions, or were running under bare poles. Finisterre simply lifted her skirts and flew toward Bermuda’s Onion Patch under a No. 3 jib, a deeply reefed main, and a full mizzen. When the dust had settled and the race committee had done their calculations, Finisterre had beaten 109 of 135 starters boat for boat. Again, Finisterre claimed the Lighthouse Trophy for best corrected time.
Mitchell discussed his record in a 1976 Yachting article: “For any boat to win the Bermuda race, she must possess certain virtues, the most important of which is the luck of being in the right place at the right time. For a boat to win three times in a row is simply proof that luck, like lightning, can indeed strike more than once.” Mitchell let the record stand at three. His interest always had been primarily in cruising, and that’s what he set out to do. Well before the 1962 Newport-Bermuda Race, he sent a letter out to his crew of stalwarts, explaining his decision. The responses from some of the crew are noteworthy; their loyalty to Mitchell and to Finisterre outweighed their desire to try to win the race again.
Charles Larkin: “I think the rule changers overlook quite a chunk of what makes her go fast, and that is Mitch, and you can’t penalize that.”Dick Bertram: “The reaction should be a sigh of relief that the monster will not be out there.”After cruising unhurriedly for the next several years between Maine and Florida and through the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Mitchell switched to powerboats and sold Finisterre to an acquaintance on the Chesapeake. “The greatest regret of my life,” he says, “is that she did not finish her days at the Mystic Seaport Museum, only a few miles from her birthplace on the Connecticut River.
“Unlike many legends of the past, Finisterre still races and cruises. In the Adriatic now, she’s far from her birthplace, but still sailing just past the end of the land.
A Life of Words and Photos
For more than 80 years, Carleton Mitchell has been passionate about sailing and writing. “Lost somewhere,” he says, “are schoolboy-lined exercise books with pictures cut from the pages of Yachting and Rudder-discarded by my uncle, my only known kinsman with an iota of interest in the sea. I began penciling commentary under the photos.”
Not lost however, are 20,000 photographs, some 12,000 of his own. They repose in the Mystic Seaport Museum archives along with his notes and articles. Born in New Orleans in 1910, Mitchell’s youthful sailing adventures were with his uncle on a gaff-rigged sloop, Skylark, and as a skinny third in Southern YC’s Fish class races.
After military school, surveying work in Canada, flying lessons, and college, Mitchell answered an ad calling for delivery crew on Temptress, a ketch. This memorable delivery from Virginia to the West Indies introduced him to tropical islands, perhaps whetting his cruising appetite. Later, during the Depression, he tried his hand at shipbuilding, fishing, and worked as a salesman at Macy’s. But the tropics would lure him to his first professional job, as a photographer with the Bahamas Development Board. He sold voyaging articles and photos to such magazines as Country Life and Yachting.
For Mitchell-or Mitch as he’s often known-writing was his true love. Photography simply provided caption material for his stories. “It was a means of instantly capturing total recall,” he says.
During World War II, he organized the U.S. Navy Combat Photography Unit, and between 1948 and 1971, he published eight books, including Yachtsman’s Camera, a blend of sailing manual, photography how-to, and illustrated prose about the sailing life.
In 1953 he published Passage East, a book about the 1952 transatlantic race from Bermuda to Plymouth, the only race he both competed in and documented.In the Summer of the Twelves, published in 1958, he covered the preparation and trials to determine that year’s America’s Cup challenger.
Writing mostly e-mails at 91, a humorous and precise Mitchell says, “I always had time to take another editorial assignment, but never time to tackle the fallout. An appalled visitor suggested writing to the Museum, as an alternative to navigating around the piles in my study. I did. I can remember only the closing lines of my letter, suggesting a final resting place for my life’s work if they didn’t like what they had seen, ‘Your dumpster or mine.'”
-Trixie B. Wadson