The San Francisco Bay Area, the St. Francis Yacht Club and the sport of sailing have lost a giant as Robert “RC” Keefe passed away at age 90 last weekend. Keefe was the StFYC’s most senior staff commodore, having served in the lead role way back in 1975.
The Founding of the Big Boat Series
As former president of Barient Winches. which produced the game-changing self-tailing winch, Keefe was instrumental in bringing organized international yacht racing to Northern California and the West Coast with the founding of the Big Boat Series in 1964. (Rolex has been the title sponsor since 2005.)
“Chubasco coming north from Newport Beach to race in 1959–60 was really the start of the so-called Big Boat Series,” recalled Keefe when I interviewed him a few years back. “We didn’t realize that at the time.”
One of the legendary races in the history of the club took place between Bolero and Baruna on April 10, 1960. The models and paintings that adorn the interior of the St. Francis tell the story of the matchup. Sports Illustrated even showed up to cover the event.
The first BBS featured nine yachts from California. Keefe worked with then-commodore Stan Natcher to create a regatta worthy of welcoming competition from around the world. (Athene, a Sparkman & Stephens 63-ft yawl, captured the inaugural St. Francis Perpetual Trophy.)
He was part of a group of men in the 1960s that included Natcher, James Michael, Tim Mosely, Derek Baylis, Jim Kilroy and others who were notable in their shared vision of what West Coast sailing could become, not only on the racecourse, but through industry and business as well.
Just the mention of those legendary racing yachts conjures up images of the profound impact Keefe and these men had in shaping the foundation of yacht racing in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. In 1966, StFYC named Keefe the Yachtsman of the Year.
6-Meters, 12-Meters and the America’s Cup
He went on to rekindle club interest in 6-Meters with the purchase of Toogoolooloo in 1969, renaming her St. Francis IV. He brought in a young Tom Blackaller to lead the program, which eventually led to multiple championships (16 wins, no losses) over the Australians from 1970 to 1979 in the American-Australian Challenge Cup. This all became the impetus behind the Golden Gate Challenge in 1984 to compete in the America’s Cup.
That effort again showcased West Coast innovation in the revolutionary front-ruddered 12-Meter yacht, designed by Gary Mull, Heiner Meldner and Alberto Calderon. Nicknamed “The Geek,” the yacht’s radical yet tricky steering system capitalized on straight-line speed capabilities. Keefe was an integral part of the syndicate leadership, and his son Ken was the project manager on the team.
The Golden Gate Challenge, according to Keefe, was the “total brainchild of Blackaller. I had been involved in 12-Meters for some time in Newport, Rhode Island. There were some people here who felt they could raise the money, and that was all that Thomas needed. He ran the whole program, he sailed the boat, he built the boat — it was a Thomas David Blackaller effort.
“What he didn’t have was the checkbook to carry it forward,” recalled Keefe. “But there was a group of men here who said, ‘OK, we’ll do it.’
“What wasn’t OK were all the controls to control the boat. Thomas used to describe sailing the boat as ‘a woman who has had too much to drink driving a cart of baskets through a Safeway store!’ You could never really tell what way it was going to go.
“Sometimes the boat was blazingly fast. The problem was that it was going right when you wanted it to go left. But the other teams could see that too, though they could see that even though she was going in the wrong direction, she was going fast in the wrong direction!
“My son Kenneth, with Paul Cayard, was responsible for the build of the boat, maintenance of the boat, repairs to the boat, and keeping it sailing,” said Keefe. “Ken would sleep all day and work all night with his crew in Australia, then when they also needed him on board, he was there.”
Model Yacht Collection
One of RC’s most cherished legacies is his work behind StFYC’s model ship collection. Just step into the clubhouse and you can’t help being instantly drawn to the rich and illustrious history of each and every model in the building.
“One of the most unique things going on at this club, in relationship to every other yacht club around the world, is our model collection,” Keefe recalled. “The model room at the New York Yacht Club is what it is, world famous. We don’t pretend to be in competition with them. They have been at it for 150 years and they are the holy grail. We recognize that, and they are our friends. If you put them on the pedestal, all the rest of us are somewhere else.
“We are doing something really unique here,” said Keefe. “The membership of this club has sponsored this to make it happen. The yacht club has always had models, but only as decoration or atmosphere. They were never really considered a collection.
“In 1976 the club was destroyed by fire, and 12 models in the building were either consumed or very badly damaged. For the next 25 years many of those models were replaced, and a few new ones were donated by various members.”
The club itself had never commissioned a new model. In 2004 then-commodore Terry Klaus appointed Keefe to create a museum-quality model collection.
“Each model tells a story concerning the history of the yachts and the men who owned them,” remarked Keefe. “They speak in a way that paintings, photographs, and the written word cannot equal. A hundred years from today they will illustrate yachting achievement during the latter part of the 20th century as furthered by the St. Francis Yacht Club membership. The collection will continue to grow, and be of value to our members, and to all that appreciate fine marine art.”
Keefe also served as StFYC’s chief historian and regularly contributed to Mainsheet, the club’s monthly magazine.
He had a favorite passage from Ships by John Masefield (1868-1967), which befits not only the model collection, but his life as well: “They mark our passage as a race of men; Earth will not see ships such as those again.”