BREAKTHROUGH AT THE 1978 WORLD’S
By Paul Cayard
Flying home from Europe recently, I began thinking back over my career and my thoughts focused on my first Star World’s Championship. The year was 1978, the venue was San Francisco and the characters are now famous to all of us. For a change of pace I thought I would take a look back at this event. The protagonists are legends of our sport. I think you’ll enjoy the story.
At 18 years of age, 6’ 2” and 205 pounds, I was the perfect 505 crew. However, Tom Blackaller had taken notice of me and asked me to crew for him in the 1978 Star North American Championship in Toronto as a lead up to the Star World’s in San Francisco later that year. I drove the boat from San Francisco to Toronto, cleaned it, rigged it, got it measured and waited for Tom to fly in the night before the first race. Such is the life of a keen young, aspiring, sailor. The championship was not to be as there was no wind to be found in Toronto that year. But I was exposed to the world of “Big Time” sailing. Durward Knowles, Buddy Melges, Bill Buchan, Joe Duplin, Dennis Conner, Lowell North, Ding Schoonmaker and of course Tom Blackaller were all present. So was a lesser-known boat builder named Bill Gerard. As Tom was to sail the Star World’s with his regular crew, Ed Bennett, Bill asked me to crew for him and as keen as I was, I said sure.
Star sailing in those days was a “man’s” sport. No hiking vests, no self bailing cockpits and sliding track backstays that had to be tacked. What this meant was that the crew was hiked out over the side hanging on by his ankles, pulling on a rope that was attached to a bilge pump and retracted by shock cord, and tacking and releasing the backstays on tracks at each tack. It was a workout to say the least. But because you had to hang out over the side with no support, 205 pounds was not that far off the pace for weight. Of course there were exceptions; Ron Anderson, crewing for Dennis Conner at 275 could hike the whole way and Bill Munster at 285 crewing for Malin Burnham could most of the way.
To say that Bill Gerard and I were underdogs was an understatement. The best Bill had ever done in the World’s was 15th and this was my first. But to our good fortune, two days before the World’s started, Buddy Melges came up to Bill and, handing him a bag of sails, said “Here, give these a try.” We had no idea that we had in our hands was pure speed…an innovation the likes of which comes around once every 10 years in one-design sailing and produces speed that makes a significant difference. The sails in the bag were the first of the heavily yarn-tempered Dacron cloths and cut into the flattest set of Star sails ever seen. Buddy brought five suits to San Francisco; two for himself, and he gave one set to us, one to Ding Schoonmaker and one to our current ISAF president Paul Henderson. Little did anyone know that those five suits would win every race in that regatta. The standard in the class at the time was the North “DC2” main with a “TA4B” jib. “DC” stood for Dennis Conner, the reigning World’s champion having won every race at Kiel the year before. But the DC2 would be too full for the strong wind of San Francisco Bay once Buddy Melges came blowing off the starting line in truly a different gear.
In the first three races of the regatta, the story was told. Buddy first, Dennis second and Tom third in each race. Buddy would come off the line and within five minutes it would look like he had started 30 seconds over early. With Andreas Josenhans at 255 holding the boat down and the supper flat supper hard “SF” main, Buddy was untouchable. There was nothing that stalwart Star Champions Blackaller, Buchan and Conner could do to equal Buddy’s speed. Through excellent sailing and experience in the class, Blackaller and Conner dragged their extra full sails around the course better than anyone else but Buddy was in a league of his own.
There were 99 boats at the World’s that year, the biggest fleet ever to that date. At the first windward mark of the first race five boats sunk, all but one being retrieved off the shallow bottom of the Berkeley Circle. A relatively short 2 mile beat, a shiftless 20-25 knots of wind, and 99 boats was a recipe for carnage. Places 30-70 arrived at virtually the same time. A scene like that had never been seen before. In fact, the first leg of a Star World’s race is now 2.75 miles for this reason.
After three races, Ding Schoonmaker gave up on his North sails and went for the Melges sails and proceeded to win the next two races. Buddy finished second or third in each and virtually sewed up the regatta without having to sail the last day.
The last race is a historical one. We were having our best race in 2nd place fighting it out with the current ISAF President, Paul Henderson for the win. Henderson was the better sailor on the day and won the race, the only race he has ever won in the Star World’s. I am sure it is one of his fondest memories.
In the final tally, Melges won the World’s (the first of two in a row) and his legend continued to grow in yet another class. The win also launched Melges as the boat builder and sailmaker of choice in the Star class at that time. He must have sold 400 suits of sails and 20 boats in the year following his win. Dennis Conner finished second, Tom Blackaller third, Gerard/Cayard fourth and Ding Schoonmaker fifth.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that regatta.