Back to "Features"
  BIG BOATS 1998

If the Chronicle's 'little man' reviewed regattas instead of movies, he would have been clapping and jumping out of his chair after the first day of the recent St. Francis YC-hosted Big Boat Series. Held later than usual on September 24-27, the annual gathering of the clan drew 86 boats in ten classes, making this the second biggest regatta (after the 91-boat 1996 epic) in the distinguished 35-year history of the event. The weather was great on that first day, the courses and competition were excellent, and spirits were high for a fantastic series. Other than a few boats playing chicken with commercial traffic, the day went off without a hitch. However, a computer crash held up the race results well into the evening - a harbinger of the strange days to come.

Our 'little man' would have been reduced to sitting in his chair on Friday, but nonetheless still clapping. The sleds joined the fray that day, enlivening things with another of their by-now customary high-speed T-bonings. But the shifty and damp weather played havoc on the courses, reducing some weather legs to fetches, jumbling the fleets up with each other, and causing the race committee - for reasons that still escape us - to send all the boats off on the same windward/leeward course in the second race of that day. The ensuing mayhem at the windward mark (starboard roundings, no less) was the subject du jour at the following Mt. Gay party. Fortunately, no one died.

"I'm told I now hold the North American record for most meters of waterline per marine acre," joked race manager Matt Jones. "Geez, had I known they measured such things, I'd have put the marks even closer together and gone for the world title!"

By Saturday, the 'little man' would have been just plain sitting, hands folded on his knees. After a chilly but promising morning (the windsurfers were ripping around off Crissy at breakfast time!), the skies turned gray again and the wind began receding faster than a sailmaker's hairline. By the second race, things were so grim that our revered icon fell comatose in his reviewing chair - along with about half the fleet, who were drifting around in the second race until almost 7 p.m. Stalled out in front of the clubhouse, many boats anchored against the ebb. It was about normal for a midwinter race, but highly unusual for the BBS.

The weather didn't change much for Sunday's finale, other than it began drizzling. Without any hint of wind, the race was abandoned after lunch, a first in the annals of modern BBS history. The 'little man' was not pleased - in fact, by now his seat was empty, the lowest review. "Just take one of those 'Shit Happens' stickers and plaster it on my forehead," moaned Jones, who had one of the more humbling weekends in his long race management career. "The venue here normally makes us look pretty good. But when the wind gets marginal, like it was this time. . . well, it's a complete nightmare."

Though the racing obviously wasn't the best, the shoreside scene was as vibrant as ever. The regatta still attracts tons of national and international sailing talent, all rubbing shoulders at the various parties (courtesy of America True, Mt. Gay, and AmericaOne). Random billionaires, some with bodyguards and chauffeurs, were also spotted in the crowd, and there was even an unconfirmed Anna Nicole Smith sighting. Maybe it's not quite as wild as the old days, but it's still the social highlight of the year for West Coast racers.

One Design

Three classes raced one design - the One Design 48s, Express 37s and J/105s - while another, the ULDB 70s, raced levelly. Stealing the show for the third year in a row were the eight One Design 48s, which easily enjoyed the highest level of competition in the regatta. Four of the boats were staffed by America's Cup syndicates (Kostecki/Cayard, Kolius, Coutts, and Riley), and even the two boats steered by amateurs, Gene Mondry (Leading Edge) and Jim Dolan (Sagamore), were really well-sailed. "This was the best year yet for the 1D-48s," noted John Bertrand, the driving force behind this four-year-old organization. "With all eight boats here, and all of them so well sailed, this was the perfect conclusion to a great season."

The 'A' fleet at this year's gathering turned out to be Windquest, steered by Terry Hutchinson in the absence of regular owner/driver Doug DeVos; the one-two punch of John Kostecki and Paul Cayard on illbruck-Pinta; and newcomer Russell Coutts and his Kiwi compadres on John Risley's chartered Numbers. This trio was essentially tied going into Sunday, but the weather denied Pinta and Windquest a last shot at the title. Coutts was a tad erratic in his debut, ending up with a 1,6,6,1,5,1 record - but he was half a point ahead when the music stopped in this nautical version of musical chairs. His bullet in Saturday's second race was an emphatic 8.5 minute win, a landslide achieved through perfectly outguessing the deteriorating conditions.

The BBS was the fifth and final stop on the ID-48 season championship circuit, which Jim Andrews, John Kolius and the core of their Aloha Racing America's Cup syndicate won with Abracadabra. Kolius started the season strongly, and then held on down the stretch as more America's Cup syndicates jumped in and raised the level of competition. In a interesting trend, the last three regattas have been won by class virgins - John Kostecki won the Newport/Manhattan Regatta, Peter Gilmour (Team Nippon) won the Kenwood Cup, and now Coutts just won this regatta using the same boat ('007') that Gilmour sailed in Hawaii. But don't get the impression this is a drop-in class - it's arguably the toughest racing on the planet right now. "Next year, as the lead-up to the America's Cup continues, should be another great one for us," said Bertrand. "After that, who knows?"

The ULDB 70 fleet fielded five of the six competitive West Coast sleds (only Alchemy was a no-show) for an abbreviated four-race series beginning with just one race on Friday. ("Obviously we have a better crew union than the other guys," joked one sledhead.) The playing field was quickly reduced by one when Grand Illusion speared Mongoose five minutes into the race. GI had flopped to port and tried to duck Mongoose, but the mainsail didn't get out fast enough and they plowed into the dark blue boat at the driver's station. Owner Bob Saielli was thrown off Mongoose's helm hard enough that an ambulance was waiting for him at the dock. He broke a few broken ribs and hurt his spleen, but will hopefully recover soon. Mongoose, which suffered a two-foot hole and a broken ring frame, will be a lot more expensive to patch up.

Accidents of this magnitude are unfortunately becoming part of this class's BBS tradition. Lately, their 'greatest hits' have included royal collisions between Maverick and Blondie in 1992, and Orient Express and Mirage last year. Ironically, Mongoose had hustled back here directly from the Great Lakes, where she had come in third in their summer season against ten other sleds. "We never came close to getting hit back there, despite the bigger fleets," said John Glad-stone. "But the West Coast sailors push a lot harder, and accidents happen." Grand Illusion owner Ed McDowell, to his credit, tried to give the Mongoose crew his boat for the rest of the series, an offer which was declined.

Meanwhile, Don Hughes picked up where he left off last year, sailing his yellow R/P 68 Taxi Dancer to a triple-bullet victory over the depleted fleet for the second year in a row. "We had to work hard for it though," claimed tactician Dave Ullman. "It was a lot closer than the results indicate." The second race was a case in point - Taxi beat Evo by just one second! "We crossed the line together, and there was dead silence on each boat," said Taxi crew (and keel and rudder designer) Alan Andrews. "Literally, no one knew who won." Evo 's second place finish was good enough to earn them the '98 ULDB 70 season championship without needing to appear in the finale, the Alessio Race from here to Santa Barbara, on October 10.

The Express 37s returned for their ninth appearance at the Big Boat Series, which once again doubled as their Nationals. Though they'll probably never again achieve their high of 13 boats (set back in 1991), eight solid entries answered the starting gun. Among them were multiple champs Blade Runner, up from King Harbor, and Re-Quest. The two boats that tied for this summer's ODCA honors - Bliss, which won on an obscure fifth level tiebreaker, and Expeditious - were there, too. But in the end, the winner was none of the above - it was Mark Dowdy's Eclipse. After "falling asleep" while out front in the first race and coming in DFL, Dowdy, tactician Bill Melbostad and a "pickup crew" slipped their boat into overdrive to win four of the last five races.

It was the first one design regatta win for Dowdy, who concentrated on ocean racing this summer rather than ODCA. Eclipse ended up two points ahead of Blade Runner, making her annual trip north for a one design 'reality check', and three points ahead of Bliss. The latter crew, led by owner/driver Mike Grisham, has one more important regatta coming up - they'll represent Area G in the U.S. Sailing Offshore Championship, to be held in Catalina 37s at Long Beach in mid-October.

The J/105s returned in force for the seventh time, fielding an unprecedented 18 boats (out of 28 now on the Bay). Though not a big boat per se, St. Francis basically allowed these 34-foot sprit-polers into the Big Boat Series in return for the use of their boats for the Brut Cup (and, let's face it, to help fill the ranks when the BBS was hurting). These days, the boats are being used for the International Masters (Oct. 16-18) and they have become a stalwart in the BBS. Easily the most successful local one design fleet of the mid-'90s, the J/105's winning formula includes a strict owner/driver rule, sail and weight limits, and other restrictions aimed at keeping the pros out and the cost down. A ticket to the BBS each year hasn't hurt sales either.

Winning this huge gathering, the biggest yet of J/105s on the West Coast, was Steve Podell's dark blue Thrasher. Their finishes of 1,6,2,7,7,5 were consistent enough to beat runner-up Blackhawk by three points. Newcomer La Pavorini and Charade were tied for third, with the nod going to the former on the tiebreaker. Either La Pavoni or Advantage, which finished one point out of third, might have won the series had they not sailed the wrong course (along with four other 105s) in the first race. Apparently, these guys learned the hard way that the sailing instructions, not the fancy color program, dictate the course to be sailed.

This was the second BBS class win for Podell, who first won in '96. Speedwell, the '98 class champ, collected two bullets and a deuce during the series, but only managed to come in seventh.


Only six boats sailed in the IMS division, which was revived after a one year hiatus. It was quickly apparent that this lightly-attended gathering would be a match race between the two newest boats, Flash Gordon III and Beau Geste. The two beautiful Farr 49 sisterships, which met for the first time two months ago at the Kenwood Cup (Beau Geste got the best of Flash), both went under the knife for this series. Flash lopped 1.5 feet off her keel, including the bulb, and replaced it with a wooden shoe, while Beau Geste took three feet off and snapped on a hollow fiberglass shoe. Both boats' righting moments came back about 10% tippier, thereby picking up a better rating without losing a corresponding amount of speed due to fact that the IMS rule basically overrates stability. The two boats easily garnered all the class bullets between them, often by comfortable margins.

"The games these guys are playing with the IMS rule are getting out of hand," claimed local measurer Dick Horn. "It almost makes IOR look good in comparison." Hopefully, the ITC is going to plug up this recently-discovered loophole at their November meeting, as carrying around an arsenal of snap-on keels would only hasten the demise of this already precariously perched measurement rule.

Despite all the rating chicanery, the series was decided in The Room instead of on the water. Karl Kwok's Beau Geste, steered by Gavin Brady with tactics by Dee Smith, appeared to have narrowly won the series after Helmet Jahn's Flash Gordon was hailed over early in the last race and didn't go back for several minutes. Driver Ken Read and his afterguard, Ed Adams and Jeff Madrigali, were sure they had cleared themselves and that the race committee hadn't seen them. They finished fifth in that race, but ultimately won their lengthy redress hearing and were awarded the average of their finishes (1.8 points). Beau Geste, meanwhile, won the race but had to eat extra two points for an 'I' flag penalty incurred in pre-race maneuvering with Flash. They, too, appealed for redress (twice even), but after hours of convoluted sea-lawyering they still came in second.

The rest of the IMS class sorted out more or less by hull date - no big surprise there. The only exception to this generalization was the new M-Project, a French-built production racer/cruiser from Newport Beach that struggled in its BBS debut.


The so-called Maxi Class served as this year's 'exhibition' division, a hodgepodge of four completely different designs that no one else wanted to race against. More of a beauty pageant than a real race, this class pitted Sayonara, the best IMS maxi in the world, against three boats that were thought to be the PHRF equivalent of human sacrifices. The 1986 Tanton 73 Velos, sailed by an all-amateur group of Etchells buddies from San Diego, was at least in the same size range. The other two 40-foot sprit-polers, the new J/125 Javelin and the canting-keeled DynaYacht 40 Red Hornet, looked hysterical next to the other two behemoths on the starting line - which was about the only time this class was together.

The winner of the parade was Pat Nolan's skinny red Javelin, sailed hard by Chris Corlett and Norman Davant, along with their usual hit squad. Javelin and the big black Velos, which sailed with as many as 30 people each day, actually ended the series tied at 12 points each. Both boats had three bullets, but the aptly-named Javelin won the tiebreaker for holding the only deuce. Maybe the pickle dish helped ease the pain of buying a brand new boat only to discover it wasn't allowed to race in either the 40-foot or the 50-foot class (where it was originally placed until the SC 52 owners heard about it). Presumably, as more information is gathered on the new 125, it will be included with the mainstream boats �or better yet, the sprit-pole boats will field enough boats for their own class next year.

The smallish Keefe-Kilborn class consisted of four SC 52s, Sy Kleinman's Schumacher 54 Swiftsure II, and the outgunned IOR 50 Infinity from Seattle. Despite a yearlong layoff and a different crew, Swiftsure made it three BBS victories in a row - a relatively rare hat-trick. "Not bad for the 'B' Team!" joked new driver Ted Wilson, who brought along Ray Delrich as tactician. Marda Phelps drove her for-sale SC 52 Marda Gras to second place in class and first SC 52, a nice finish for this Seattle-based amateur group. "We practiced for a week beforehand," explained Marda, "and we had a lot of fun, which is always fast!" Hopes are high for a SC 52 one design class next year - the currently-dismasted Vitesse should be there, as should Chuck Jacobson's new Allure, and several others.

John Kilroy's Farr 40 Samba Pa Ti ('dance for you', named after a Carlos Santana instrumental) worked hard to win the tough 10-boat Richard Rheem class. Sporting the famous sail number 13131 - which father Jim Kilroy retired from Kialoa duty and transferred to John as a boat present - Samba was expertly sailed by a group that included Gary Weis-man, Chris Perkins and Matt Ciesicki. Pushed hard by Blue Chip, the Kilroy gang took three bullets en route to a four-point victory over their sistership. High 5, a six-year-old Farr 40 IMS boat from San Diego, pulled up to third based on hor-izoning the fleet in the drifting conditions of the last race. Raven rounded out the 'A' fleet, while everyone else - including last year's winner Recidivist, which tumbled to ninth - fought it out in the second tier.

The StFYC-A division was another tie, broken in favor of Tom Mitchell's Swan 53 Mistress over the much lighter Wylie 42 Scorpio. Both boats had 18 points when the racing abruptly ended, but Mistress, sailed by Greg Palmer and a group of his Sausalito pals, had the upper hand with three bullets. "We tried not to tack a lot, and prayed for heavy air," said Palmer. "Things were going south pretty fast for us near the end. I'm reminded again of why we never take this boat in the midwinters!"

The green J/130 Mr. Magoo, owned by Bay Area newcomer Steve Madeira, was a close third in her BBS debut, while defending champ Cadenza, now equipped with a grinder, fell to fourth. The chartered 1D-35 Windquest - sporting a full inventory of PBO 'sundried tomato' sails - didn't have a particularly good series, but by all accounts the boat is lively and fun to sail.

Two disparate designs dominated StFYC-B, the 12-boat 'small fry' division. Dale Williams' Beneteau 42 Savoir Fair, with local pro Scott Easom driving, dominated the windier early part of the regatta, earning three bullets and a deuce before stumbling to a tenth in light air. Meanwhile, Bill Burnett's Seattle-based IMX-38 Jubilee was enjoying the lighter going, but their seventh in Saturday's fluky final race to Savoir Fair's second created a tie going into Sunday's final race. Savoir Fair won the tiebreaker, which won't hurt the resale value of the boat when Williams steps up to a hotter design next year. (For the record, Jubilee is for sale, too.) The Los Angeles-based J/35 Fast Lane took third in class, as well as a trophy for top J/35 - a small consolation for losing their one design status last year.

The Farr 36 Petard, the slowest rating boat in this year's PHRF fleet, took fourth from Sweet Okole in yet another tie-breaker. Given the sheer number of ties among the top boats in so many of the classes, it was hard to understand most (but maybe not all) of the complaining we heard about the ratings. "You'll always have people whining about ratings," figured Norman Davant, who chaired the 10-man group that doled out the customized numbers. "It just human nature, I suppose. On the whole, I think we did just fine on the ratings this year."

For that matter, everything humanly possible was done to make this one of the best series ever. But there was a flaw in the plan, and it was a fatal one - namely the decision to hold the regatta a week later than normal, too late in the year for reliable winds and the white-knuckle sailing that everyone has come to expect from this fine series. Ironically, the three weeks leading up to the BBS featured perfect weather, a fact hopefully not lost on the regatta organizers.

The reason for the later date was purely political - for years, the BBS has floated around in mid-September, with the dates dictated by whichever following Thursday featured the best currents for starting the Stag Cruise up to Tinsley Island. This tradition, which was more valid when out-of-town racers used to 'stagger' upriver on their sailboats after the Series, won out this year at the expense of the quality of the racing. That's a trade-off that the 1,000 or so racers certainly don't deserve to experience again.

Altogether it was a pretty weird year for the Big Boat Series, which felt more like a gigantic midwinter regatta than the grand prix lovefest we know and love. But in yacht racing - and life in general �you learn to take the good with the bad. Fortunately, the good things about the Big Boat Series - the energy, the teamwork, and the just plain fun of getting so many good friends together for a few days - still easily outweigh the problems that occurred this year.

- latitude/rkm

� 1998 Latitude38