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Stormy Weather

Part 4 : The Transatlantic Race of 1935

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After a short 1934 shakedown season, Philip Le Boutillier entrusted Rod Stephens with the job of skippering Stormy Weather in the 1935 Transatlantic Race. For crew, Rod appointed the owner's son, Phil Jr.; Everard C. "Ducky" Endt, who had raced the 1928 Transat aboard the Alden schooner, Mohawk, and in the 1931 race aboard George Roosevelt's Sherman Hoyt-designed schooner, Mistress; Professor Ken Davidson, who had never before raced offshore; Edward "Plugety" Foster, an expert radio operator and a veteran of the 1931 Mistress crew; navigator Chick Larkin, veteran of the 1928 Transpac on Mollilou and a couple of Bermuda races; and Joe Blagdon, a very keen young man who wanted to sail with Rod and who volunteered that he was a "cook" when he heard that it was the only crew position open. Joe told me in 1981 that he learned how to cook very fast, but whatever the quality, Rod always insisted that they got three hot meals a day. Joe also learned to play the mouth organ in order to accompany two accordions (Rod and Ducky), two other harmonicas (Ken and Phil), a tin whistle (Plugety), and a guitar and kazoo (Chick). Contemporary comments on the orchestral qualities have gone unrecorded, but Rod later said that they were in the same key - most of the time. The crew's average age was not a day over twenty-five, but the experience, courage, and will to win were unbeatable.

The small, private edition Between Cut Water and Wake by Charles Larkin published in 1937, is the navigator's recollections of this race. He starts, "A race that has been sailed two years past is not news. Those who lived between cut water and wake have gone. That is the way with ships, but for those who have left her there are memories: a fight for an offing on the Nova Scotia coast, fog and the ice it hid off Cape Race, the business of the Westerlies in the North Atlantic, whole nights of twilight, a drifter in the North Sea fogs manned by descendants of my ancestors who didn't believe us when we answered their hail, 'Stormy Weather eighteen days out of New York', and the very satisfying recollection that you have sailed in a Transatlantic race winner."

The start was set for 8 June and tried to take the ice limits into account. Rod had already consulted with Casey Baldwin, the "Sage of Baddeck" in Nova Scotia, who had just crossed aboard Bluenose and had counseled in a telegram from London that the best policy would be either to hug Cape Race to the north or to keep well south. Rod had prepared Stormy meticulously - he had removed the engine, embarked a sewing machine, a 16mm cine camera, three sextants, radio-receiving equipment for the ice forecasts and personal messages via Ham radio, and an impressive sail inventory. In fact, the quantity and quality of the sails on many of the boats were the subject of one comment in Rudder in October of that year, "the overstocked sail lockers of many of the competitors" would lead to "expense, that bug-bear of all racing" which "must not be allowed to restrict this sport to the rich man". The modern racing sailor will sympathize.

Also on the start line that day, were the 70'2" trisail ketch, Vamarie, owned by Vadim Makaroff, with Sherman Hoyt aboard; George Roosevelt's 60' Bermudian schooner, Mistress; Roger Robinson's 50' gaff schooner, Vagabond; Robert Ames' 54' gaff ketch, Hamrah; and Ludwig Schlimbach's 50' gaff yawl, Stoertebeker sailing as a cutter without her mizzen.

It would appear that Rod and his crew had the idea of beating Vamarie boat for boat - or at least so it seemed at the start with Stormy leading the much bigger ketch, and Mistress in third place. That night the winds were light, and in the current in Vineyard Sound the leading boats had to anchor to avoid being set back. But the next morning, towards Pollock Rip, the breeze freshened and the bigger boat finally got ahead. For the next several days Stormy Weather sailed against light Easterlies in the fog, listening to the radio for the ice reports. With few opportunities to use the sextant, Plugety's radio messages were plotted by Ken Davidson. They crossed the Gulf of Maine, passed Cape Sable, and believed there was an ice-clear passage only sixty miles wide just south of Cape Race. It's a tiring job sailing under such conditions, cold, and nerve-wracking, and, on top of it all, the winds were variable. Spinnakers were torn while slatting in calms, but Stormy Weather nevertheless averaged nearly 180 miles a day - and a week later she emerged from the fog and the ice.

On Vamarie, 20 June, running down-wind at 10 knots in a Force 7, the sailing master, Alexander Troonin was knocked over the side by the spinnaker pole. He passed under the keel - all 10' draught of it - surfaced astern and grabbed the patent log line which snapped. On board, Sherman Hoyt was at the helm; all sails were on preventers, so he tacked with everything aback, made sternway while the crew sorted the guys and vangs, and then returned to Troonin. Within ten minutes Troonin was back on board, resetting sails. In his log, Hoyt noted, "We lost, or, rather did not try to recover, both ring buoys and waterlights (only one lit), and now have only the rather inaccurate Kenyon speed gauge and our own estimate of speed to rely upon, for dead reckoning. Our spinnaker booms are gone, but can probably fish and repair the solid one for light weather. Day's run, 215."

But the real tragedy had already occurred aboard Hamrah. The previous day she was at about 46°N 40°W, lying in fourth place, close reaching under a double-reefed main and a staysail in a Force 8. Charles Tillinghast Jr. was at the helm with the owner sitting alongside him. A wave broke over the cockpit, and the owner was swept off to starboard. Charles yelled for the crew to come up on deck, and began to gybe. The owner's eldest son, Richard, jumped over with a safety line. Twice they managed to get within a few yards of the two swimmers; they got a life preserver to them, but they failed with the life raft. Then, on a second gybe, the main boom broke. By now, the father, in full oilskins was tiring and the crew set the mizzen to gain some control of the yacht, while the younger son, Henry, launched a dinghy, and reached his brother, but the father was already gone. The small boat swamped and started drifting away from Hamrah, whose crew were trying to set sail and keep a weather eye on the men in the water - but now only three men were still aboard the yacht. When at last all was sorted, they sailed back and forth for five hours but found no one. Finally, they hove to for fifty hours while the gale blew itself out. Tillinghast, only twenty-one at the time, then sailed the boat back to Sydney, Nova Scotia, and was subsequently awarded the Blue Water Medal by the CCA for his seamanship and meritorious efforts.

Further south, Vagabond and Stoertebeker were both nearly hit by ocean liners, but Stormy was approaching the Pentland Firth. On 24 June Plugety intercepted a radio message from Vamarie telling family that they expected to arrive in Bergen on 26 June. Vamarie could only be a few miles ahead. Near the Orkneys, Rod thought that he saw the distinctive wishbone rig. Meanwhile, on board Vamarie, a lookout spotted a yawl, but could not believe that it was Stormy. Thus began the final sprint in moderate visibility but a good breeze.

On 27 June, Vamarie crossed the line, nineteen days, sixteen minutes and forty-eight seconds out from the start - her crew confident that they had won "That couldn't have been Stormy near the Orkneys - look at our daily runs, we've done days of 210, 215, 219 miles!" But at midnight, just as they were finishing a victory dinner at the Hotel Norge, they received a message. "Drink to the health of Stormy Weather, the winners". In nineteen days five hours, thirty-two minutes, and twenty-one seconds, Stormy had used just five hours of her forty-seven-hour handicap allowance. Mistress arrived two days later taking third place, Vagabond on 4 July, and Stoertebeker closed the race after thirty-five days at sea.

Stormy's victory was duly celebrated by crews, owners, journalists, and public on both sides of the Atlantic. Rod Stephens had prepared a fast boat and had skippered a great race in conditions that were generally difficult, with enough fog, wind, and cold to last everyone a lifetime. Stormy and her crew deserved to win. The only slightly discordant note was set by William Atkins, editor of Motor Boat, who favoured Mistress's more southerly route to Rod's more competitive, but possibly more dangerous, route amongst the ice floes.

And so to the Fastnet.

Stormy left Bergen with the King's Cup, and for a week or so cruised along the Norwegian coast, and through the canals of Holland, heading for the Isle of Wight, a day or two with Uffa Fox and the start of the Fastnet. Rod had sailed on the winning Dorade in both 1931 and 1933, and fully intended to win his third victory. Ken Davidson and Ducky Endt had to return home, and were replaced by the owner, Philip Le Boutillier, and Stuart T. Hotchkiss, the navigator of Vagabond, for a start at Yarmouth on 7 August at three o'clock.

Out of seventeen starters, thirteen were British including the old Ilex, the 50' Nicholson yawl newly rigged as a cutter; Trenchemer a 72' yawl designed by Olin Stephens, but somewhat modified during her building in Scotland; Kismet III a 75' Fife-designed Fifteen-Metre with a rig specially cut down for this race; Foxhound a very recent and very beautiful 63' Nicholson cutter. There were three French boats: Georges Fortin's Brise Vent which had raced in 1931; Adrien Verlack's schooner Hygie, and Isis, owned and designed by Georges Baldenweck. Stormy was the only American entry.

There was a good breeze from the southwest, with a few calm patches, but forty-eight hours after the start Foxhound, Kismet III, Stormy Weather, Carmela, Rose, and Ilex had already passed Land's end. The wind veered into the west-northwest and the fleet was faced with a hard beat to the Fastnet Rock. After three days and three-and-a-half hours, Foxhound was first around, followed, twenty-two minutes later, by Kismet III, then Trenchemer and Stormy neck and neck, then Ilex some five hours later. Close-reaching back, Foxhound, possibly with a faulty compass, fell too far off the wind and allowed Kismet to take line honours in Plymouth at the end of a voyage that had lasted four days fifteen hours and one minute, part of which she had completed with her mainsail torn clear in half. Trenchemer came in one-and-a-half hours later for second place, but could not save her corrected time on Stormy Weather who crossed twelve minutes later for a convincing win - she had six-and-a-half hours of her handicap in hand.

Although some of the British press displayed a severe case of "sour grapes" when they bemoaned the quality, and perhaps quantity, of Stormy's sails, Yachting World gallantly noted that, "By winning the Fastnet Cup in such a convincing manner, [Stormy Weather] has demonstrated her right to be the champion deep-sea yacht of the world". And went on to add, "At the same time she is undoubtedly of a type which is well suited to the requirements of ordinary cruising."

Thus, Olin and Rod Stephens had made it three in a row and had even disproved Weston Martyr's statement that "the best way to win the Fastnet was to shoot Sherman Hoyt with the starting cannon"! And, in the world of ocean racing, pitting men and boats against the elements, one yacht stood out on both sides of the Atlantic - Stormy Weather, named for a song.

Some of Stormy Weather's Early Race Results

Of thirty-one major, well-documented, ocean races between 1934 and 1954, Stormy Weather won twelve outright, with fifteen class wins, nine runners-up, five thirds, and one disqualification in the Governor's Cup, Nassau, 1937, when the whole fleet except two boats went the wrong way around a course mark. The donor of the Cup, Governor Clifford, was on board Stormy Weather at the time!
Some career highlights are:
  • 1935 - Transatlantic, Newport-to-Bergen, first overall.
  • 1935 - Fastnet, first overall.
  • 1936 - Bermuda Race, first in class, second overall; a tough race in which ten out of forty-two starters retired damaged.
  • 1937 to 1941 inclusive - Miami-to-Nassau Race, first overall five times in a row, under the ownership of Bob Johnson until 1939, and thereafter of Bill Labrot. The weather in 1938 was such that three boats were refused the start, four more decided not to start, six retired, and one sank. Stormy Weather won easily.
  • 1941 - SORC, tied for first overall.
  • 1947 - The Bluenose Trophy, first overall, during Stormy Weather's only Great Lakes season.
  • 1948 - SORC, first overall.
  • 1954 - Storm Trisail Race, first overall in her 20th-anniversary year.

Since those early glory days, Stormy Weather has maintained her reputation as probably the most significant 20th century sailing yacht, racing across the Atlantic and participating in the Fastnet and the Bermuda Races. Her more recent history, including restoration work undertaken over the last twenty years, will be told later.

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The author has spent nearly all his life on vessels ranging from sailing prams to aircraft carriers. After a single handed circumnavigation on a 29 foot boat in the 70's, he bought Stormy and considers, aside from nearly a quarter of a million sea miles of cruising, that winning Stormy's class in the '95 Fastnet - the 60th anniversary of Rod Stephen's victory - and placing 6th overall out of a couple of hundred modern boats represent her greatest recent achievement. The Royal Ocean Racing Club trophies hold a place of honour in the silver cabinet.

© The Skipper, 1999-2024


Stormy Weather
Sparkman and Stephens design no. 27, 1933.


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The Canadian Collection

31 March 2012