Thousands of Star class boats are spread around the world, each with a unique personality, and certainly a unique story. It’s true that a boat can eventually reflect the persona of its owner, and this is especially true of the Star boat Gem IX, once the pride of Bahamian legend Sir Durward Knowles.
Gem IX is an appropriate name for this boat, for many reasons. Built by the late great Skip Etchells at the Old Greenwich Boat Co. in 1963, the hull is as stunning today as it was when Etchells sculpted its Port Orford cedar, a light, strong and fine-grained timber milled in the coastal mountains of Oregon. The boat was commissioned and first owned by Knowles, my mentor and dear friend. Knowles and Cecil Cooke won the Gold Medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo with Gem IX.
I first met Knowles in 1978, at the Royal Canadian YC in Toronto. I was crewing for another mentor of mine, Thomas David Blackaller. At 18 years old, I was in awe of the Star class and the luminaries who coveted racing this special boat. In crewing for Blackaller, I was immediately competing against Dennis Conner, Buddy Melges, Carl Buchan, Lowell North, Ding Schoonmaker, Pelle Petterson, Joe Duplin and many others. Knowles’ peers were North and Melges, the Gold Star and Gold‑medal winners of the day. He stood out as an island boy, then even at the age of 61. He had an unmistakable relaxed aura, and his accent made him virtually impossible to understand.
After crewing for Blackaller, Bill Gerard and Vince Brun, I eventually began skippering in 1983. A year later, at the Western Hemisphere Championship in Nassau, I won my first Silver Star. At the time, I was a guest in Knowles’ home throughout the event. He would coach me every morning on the wind and current for the day. He was a heavy-air specialist, and I was too, having grown up sailing on San Francisco Bay. Nassau was always windy in April, and he loved that I was winning in his hometown.
I went on to win the Silver Star four times in Nassau over the following 25 years. My crew and I were always house guests of Knowles and his wife, Holly. He and I would sit up late at night, on his porch overlooking Montagu Bay, and he would talk story to me. There was the trailer that broke away from his car in Alabama in 1947, Bahamians who couldn’t drive in the United States, splitting tacks with Dick Sterns and Petterson on the last windward leg at the Tokyo Olympics.
He took me down to the port of Nassau at 4:30 one morning to bring a ship in with him. Once, he drove me to the airport at 5:30, got in a head-on collision returning home and spent two weeks in the hospital. He traveled to San Diego in 1992 to bring advice and support to me in the America’s Cup.
In 2015, Don Parfet and Jon Vandermolen, longtime Star sailors, had a vision to restore 12 wooden Stars as a way to celebrate the history of the class. They decided to organize the first Vintage Gold Cup in 2017, hosted on Gull Lake, Michigan. I was invited as a guest skipper, and knowing my relationship with Knowles, they put me in Gem IX. Knowles was thrilled when I told him about the regatta. After the first day of racing, I called him immediately and shared that we had won two of the three races and were leading the event. I told him I would organize a call with him on FaceTime the following day so he could see the boats. “See da boats?” he asked. “In da phone? No mon, not in da phone!”
I said, “Yes, mon! I will call you tomorrow.”
The next day, I shared the boats and some of the skippers he knew over FaceTime. He was incredulous of it all. Can you imagine a 100-year-old seeing people and boats live through a phone?
The first time I sailed Gem IX, I experienced sensations I’ve never felt in the two dozen other Stars I’ve raced in my 40 years of Star sailing. It was perfectly balanced, which concerned me about pointing, but it proved to be a strength. Fast is high! As a 55-year-old wooden boat, it reacts differently to gusts than a stiff and rigid fiberglass hull; it torques and works its way to windward.
How it feels under sail reminds me of something Knowles used to say when giving me advice on sailing through the chop in Nassau. “Slack da hand, mon,” he used to say. “Let de boat walk.” Knowles was like Gem — relaxed and forgiving, not rigid and stiff.
Knowles stopped racing as the years passed, but I always made time to see him or call him to stay in touch. Sometimes I made special trips to visit him: for his 100th birthday party, and several times during the Star Sailors League event in 2017. But something called me to Nassau in February 2018.
I was in Miami, racing in the Star Masters at the time, so on Monday, after the event, I hopped on a plane and had a lovely lunch with him, Holly and their oldest daughter, Jill, on the very terrace where we’d spent so many nights talking.
The next day, I returned to Miami for the Star Midwinter Series, and Vandermolen said to me, “Paul, you should buy Gem. She’s calling you.”
He was right, so I did. I was excited to be the custodian of such an important part of Star history, to own a boat that was so dear to Knowles.
Two weeks later, his youngest daughter, Charlotte, called me and told me he was in the hospital. I asked if I should fly there. She said he had an infection in his lungs but it seemed to be under control. At 100, it’s hard to shake an infection, even if you are the Sea Wolf. I told Charlotte to tell him that I had bought Gem and that I would take care of her. She said he smiled broadly.
He passed away on February 24, 2018, as the oldest living Olympic champion. He was the pride of the Bahamas, being their first Olympian. He was dedicated to his church, his country and his family. He was an icon far outside of his tiny island nation. I am lucky to have happened into his life, to have him take me under his wing. Gem represents all of this to me.
In September 2018, I introduced Gem IX to its future custodian, my son Danny, a third-generation Star sailor behind his grandfather, Petterson, and me. In a fitting tribute to Knowles, we won the Vintage Gold Cup, Danny got his first gold wreath and Gem IX stands undefeated on Gull Lake. I am certain Sir Durward is smiling, as am I, for the boat is now part of my family, where it will remain long after my time on this planet.