Of Gales and Storm Trysails
The birth of The Storm Trysail Club dates to the 1936 Newport-Bermuda Race, the gale that battered fleet and the winter that followed. A beat to windward in 40-knot winds and big seas, the ’36 Bermuda Race is widely considered the roughest before 1960. Nearly 20 percent of the fleet retired. The exact time the Storm Trysail Club was founded would be the moment when the mainsail aboard the schooner Salee blew out beyond repair less than 300 nautical miles from Bermuda. A storm trysail – a triangular sail used in place of a mainsail for heavy weather sailing – was set for the long sail back to Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island.
The winter of 1936-’37 saw various members of Salee’s crew and other blue-water racing sailors assemble from time to time at the New York apartment of Geoffrey Smith. The founders were a mixed crew: Henry Devereux, a future commodore, was a naval architect; Robert DeCatro, a journalist; Geoff Smith worked for Texaco Oil; James Thornburn came from Wall Street; Henry Sears, a boat builder; Ed Raymond, a sailmaker; Dick Goennel, was in advertising sales.
Through salutations and libations among that group, the Club grew. As the group had weathered the previous Bermuda Race, the Club’s name was arrived at easily. A simple burgee featuring a red storm trysail was designed, and dues were set at a bottle of Myers’s rum. No efforts were made to recruit new members but one or two drifted in occasionally, and a half-dozen informal dinners were held at the City Island Club and at a small French restaurant on 48th Street in Manhattan. The first annual meeting was held on February 8, 1938, and with 22 members in attendance a constitution was ratified. A year later the membership had grown to 33 and dues of $3.00 per year was approved.
Iron Men in Wooden Ships
The first generations of American ocean racers believed the best test of a boat was whether she could blast her way safely across the Gulf Stream bound for Bermuda and then house her crew once she got there. The ultimate challenge under that standard was a two-or three-week Trans-Atlantic race from New England or Bermuda across the North Atlantic to England, Europe or Scandinavia.
Many of the crews in the early Bermuda races were dinghy sailors, some of the best young sailors in the world. Those men could take rough and tumble conditions. In that extremely rough 1936 Bermuda Race, one of several sailors who was injured was 53-year-old John Parkinson. He flew stark naked out of a windward bunk, across the main cabin and smashed face-first into the leeward side. “He unhooked his lower lip from his lower teeth,” a witness remembered, “spat out a bloody handful of his smashed upper dentures, paid no attention to his son’s down-the-hatch exclamation, ‘Jesus, the old man’s had a tumble!’ put on his gear (including a knitted, blue worsted cap), went on deck (it was 4 am), and took his trick at the helm. He was kept alive for the next few days on a diet of soup and raw eggs, and recovered completely in Hamilton with the aid of other liquid refreshment.”
Sailboats had many limitations in those early days, before Dacron sails, nylon rope and aluminum masts came into use in the late 1950s. Everything about those boats was natural and none-too-reliable unless carefully nursed by a watchful crew. “Racing sailboats were very unsophisticated back then,” remembers Dick Goennel, a Storm Trysail founder while a teenager who would later crew aboard the 1964 America’s Cup winner Constellation at the age of 40. “For example, we had this wonderful Italian rope for sheets called ‘balloon rope.’ But it would shrink when it got wet. So if it rained you’d have to ease the halyards so the cleats wouldn’t pull off the mast. And if you didn’t shorten down in time, you’d lose sails. You’d have to make a sail change quickly or it would be blown out or a sheet would let go. When that happened it was usually it was all hands on deck. Of course, you had to dry a cotton sail or a stitch might rip, and you couldn’t always do that. Still, the crews pushed those boats as hard as they could.”
While the founding members of the club enjoy telling stories about the technological primitivism of the creaky, hairy boat of the early days of ocean racing, they also take pleasure describing the human factor. First of all, like any community on a frontier, it was cheerfully intimate. “In the beginning, we all knew each other,” recalls Dick Goennel. “I remember going on races and every time we passed another boat I’d recognize somebody on board.” Legendary STC member Sean O’Connell, who could often be found playing his bag pipes in the cockpit before the start of a race, says that while thumbing through the crew rosters before the 1950 Bermuda Race (his first of 14), he realized that he knew just about every sailor on the 54 entrants.
Past Commodore Jakob Isbrandtsen, a mover and shaker in the Club’s formative years, remembers the camaraderie of the at-large community. Trans-Atlantic and other long-distance races were to him an extension of shore side relationships. “I’d much rather cook up something on board and have a good show,” said Isbrandtsen. “Of course, you can only do that with people you know. We were all good friends who enjoyed working and living together on the boat. Everybody lent a hand. We paid a lot of attention to good living and had one of the best galleys afloat.”
The Club’s First Race: New London to Hampton (1941)
In 1941, five years after the Club was formed, World War II had broken out across Europe. As a result, many of the trans-Atlantic races dear to club members were put on hold. It simply was too dangerous to cross the Atlantic Ocean, lest a German U-boat take aim. In an attempt to keep competitive ocean racing vibrant the Club organized its first race: New London, Connecticut, to Hampton, Virginia. Organized with the cooperation of the Hampton Yacht Club, 20 yachts, including three from the U.S. Naval Academy, took the starting line on June 21, 1941. Blitzen won the big prize given by the City of Hampton and the race was a success from all angles. The Storm Trysail Club was established as a race-sponsoring club and membership began to grow.
There were 67 members in the Club when the U.S. entered WW II later in ’41, and within six months all but a half-dozen were in the services. The Club was dormant for the duration of the war, but the burgee flew on many beaches in the Pacific and Europe. The war records of the members rate high but have never been recorded or publicized.
The Block Island Race (1946)
With the end of World War II, a great many letters were written to round up the scattered membership and the Club was slowly reassembled. The first of the post-war races, which was to start off the series of Memorial Day races, was held in 1946 and each year since, The Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race has been an early season fixture in New England. The Club celebrated the 50th Block Island Race in 1995 with the rededication of The Harvey Conover Memorial Trophy to the Overall Winner.
Block Island Race Week (1965)
In 1964, Commodore Jakob Isbrandtsen and NY Herald Tribune yachting reporter Everett B. Morris were jointly instrumental in urging The Storm Trysail Club to establish Block Island Race Week. Isbrandtsen and Morris patterned the Club’s new race week after Cowes Week in the U.K. The dominant theme is hard racing with fine competition and time for daily camaraderie in complete informality. The first Race Week in 1965 attracted more than 175 boats and 1,200 sailors, and was hailed a complete success.
In 2015 the Club celebrated the 50th anniversary of Block Island Race Week, with 167 boats racing in 15 classes. Block Island Race Week is the largest big boat regatta in the Northeast, and one of the most prestigious regattas in the United States. It regularly attracts the world’s best sailors who compete in the latest offshore one-designs, grand-prix and cruiser-racer designs. In 1969, the first Everett B. Morris Trophy was awarded for the Best Performance Overall for the Week and, in 1975, the first Isbrandtsen Overall Trophy was awarded.
Roots throughout the Country
By the end of the 1960s, the time had come for the Storm Trysails Club to expand beyond its roots in New England. It was running two races that attracted great competition and its members were instrumental in the sport throughout the country. Although the Storm Trysail Club doesn’t have a central clubhouse, it is unique in that it has stations throughout the country which are tied back to the main club in Larchmont, N.Y.
The first station beyond New England was the Southern Station in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Founded in 1970, the station was logical because of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference, a popular month long series of distance races around Florida and out to the Bahamas.
A few years after the Southern Station was formed the Club founded the Ft. Lauderdale-Key West Race, a 160-nautical mile jaunt down the Florida Keys. It has become an annual fixture on the winter racing calendar.
In 1984, under the prodding of Southern Station Fleet Captain Skip Mansfield, the Club took over management of the Miami-Montego Bay Race. Otherwise known as the Pineapple Cup and held in odd-numbered years, it is an incredible 811-nautical mile sleigh ride through the Bahamas, the Caribbean Sea, and the Windward Passage (between Cuba and Haiti), before a downwind sprint to Jamaica.
The Club is always looking to add more blue water races and Southern Station members have been readying for a race to Havana, Cuba, in the not too distant future. Hopefully, it will not be long before Cruiser/Racers and Grand Prix yachts, under Storm Trysail auspices, will be finishing off Moro Castle.
The Club broke out of its New England area focus a second time, in 1981, when a Great Lakes Station was founded on Lake Erie, under the leadership of Milton Knight. The biggest long-distance race on the Great Lakes – the Mills Trophy Race – is managed by the Storm Trysail Club. Yes, more yachts sail in the Mills event than in the Mackinac races.
The Chesapeake Bay Station was founded in the mid-1980s under the command of Jim Scott and Past Commodore Jack King. Actively involved in race management on the Bay, the Chesapeake Station has become a co-sponsor of the Annapolis-Bermuda Ocean Race, held in odd-number years.
The Storm Trysail Club gained a foothold on the Gulf of Mexico with the formation of the Gulf Coast Station in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1997. In the early 2000s members in the San Francisco Bay area formed the Northern California Station, followed by the Southern California Station a few years later. In all, the Club has 10 stations around the country: Chesapeake, Long Island Sound, Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, Gulf of Maine, Marblehead, Newport, Northern California, Southern California and Southern.
The Club in the 21st Century
All this suggests that The Storm Trysail Club’s growth has become more national, and its influence in ocean racing is expanding further in this country. After all, the Club did break out of its floating Greenwich Village bar headquarters (though it still has no clubhouse to call its own), and it has raised its membership limit over the years. If more and more offshore sailors are hoisting more and more storm trysails on our coasts, the Club will undoubtedly grow and continue to attract seriously competitive blue water sailors. The Club sets its racing calendar based purely on the interest and initiative of its members. From start-up events such as Block Island Race Week to revitalizing classics such as the Montego Bay Race, the Club continually works to support events in which its members want to compete. Past Commodore Jakob Isbrandtsen articulated this philosophy, stating, “We’re not hidebound. The idea is to try it and, if it fails, we’ll try something else. It will be a sad thing if we get an organization that loses its flexibility.”
The onset of a new century brought with it a new wave of enthusiasm within the Storm Trysail Club. The Club has renewed its blue water roots by being a co-organizer (with the New York Yacht Club, Royal Yacht Squadron and Royal Ocean Racing Club) of the Trans-Atlantic Race in 2011 and ’15.
As a strong proponent of blue water racing it was only natural for the Storm Trysail Club to become very involved in Safety at Sea training. The Club has formed the Storm Trysail Foundation, which conducts hands-on seminars for sailors of all ages. Such a class is necessary to compete in blue water races such as Newport-Bermuda and Trans-Atlantic.
In addition, the Club in 2016 took over management of Quantum Key West Race Week, an annual attraction every January for boats from 24 to 72 feet. And every October the Club hosts the Intercollegiate Offshore Regatta in western Long Island Sound. The winning school typically receives an invitation to the Collegiate Keelboat World Championship, held annually in France.
The Club, which was born in the middle of an Atlantic gale and grew into adolescence through the desire of a few shipmates to have a drink or two together, has grown into an outstanding organization of ocean racing sailors. The Club’s membership stands at more than 900 members, every one of whom knows how to handle themselves when the barometer drops and the wind and sea whip up.
Membership in The Storm Trysail Club is by invitation and, to quote from the Club’s 1995 By-Laws, “Candidates for membership must have set a storm trysail under storm conditions offshore or have weathered a storm under greatly reduced canvas or sailed 1,000 nautical miles offshore. They also must be experienced blue water sailors, capable of taking command of a sailing vessel offshore under any and all conditions.”
In an effort to increase membership the Club now accepts Corinthian Members. Corinthian members aren’t required to have flown a storm trysail, but must have completed an offshore race or passage that shows the candidate has a serious interest in offshore sailing.
The Storm Trysail Club is alive and well. Our roots are firm, our mission clear, and our leadership strong. If you meet our rigorous requirements for membership, you are welcome into our ranks.