In August of 1969, Hurricane Camille hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and devastated the area. At the time, my dad owned a 52-foot lugger named “Frisco.” The Frisco was destroyed by Camille, and for the first time in his life, my dad did not have a boat. My uncle also lost his Excalibur 26 sailboat in the storm.
My dad was affectionately known as “Son” because he was the firstborn, and my uncle was known as “Bubba” due to my dad’s inability to pronounce the word, “brother,” when he was a child.
Anyway, they were both boatless and were obviously suffering from “water withdrawal.” So, they immersed themselves in boat research, and by the summer of 1970, both had purchased new boats.
My dad’s pick was a 28-foot Irwin Sloop, which was made by Irwin Yachts in Clearwater, Florida. He and my mother actually went to the plant and handpicked the hull color (seafoam green with a gold waterline). The Irwin was a centerboard boat that drew about 2.5 feet with the board up and five feet with the board down. Dad wanted a centerboard boat, so he could get close to the shore when he went to the islands. Also, he could pull the board up when sailing downwind and really haul ass.
Uncle Bubba bought a white full keel Ranger 26, which was designed by Gary Hoyt of California. It drew about 4.5 feet, was very light for 1970, and was super fast.
Son and Bubba had been competing with each other and their friends since they were kids, but for the next couple of years, it was really going to be “game on” for the brothers.
The highlight of every summer was the annual Gulfport to Pensacola Sailing Race. The race was generally the last weekend of June, and it covered approximately 100 nautical miles.
I had been dying to go to the race my entire life (yes, I know I was only 11 years old, but still, you get my drift). It was a big deal for me that they had decided to let me join. I was stoked!
Another really big “rite of passage” in the sailing world was getting your first pair of Sperry topsiders. Nowadays, they sell them for all ages, but back then, you had to wear a 7 1/2 to get a pair. Miraculously enough, my foot grew and I hit a size 7 1/2 a month or two before the race.
Finally, Friday, June 26, 1970, had arrived, and it was time to load the boat and start the race. Starting time was 1:00 p.m., and the fleet was divided into classes. Class A boats were the biggest. Our Irwin 28, which had affectionately been dubbed the “Lima Bean,” and Uncle Bubba’s Ranger 26, known as “Cornbread,” were both in Class C.
The weather was great and everything was awesome. However, the wind velocity was steadily going up, and by nightfall, it was a howling a consistent 25 to 30 miles per hour. Our crew on the Lima Bean consisted of my dad, his best friend Bobby Taylor, plus Chuck Brent, and Walter Thatcher. Chuck was a student at Tulane, and Walter was a student at Gulfport High. They both puked. But I never did. Yet another thing I was immensely proud of.
We ended up finishing the race at about 5:00 a.m., and it was a two or three-hour trip from the finish line to the Pensacola Yacht Club. Dad and Bobby drank beer all day, all night, and for breakfast, but neither seemed impaired to me. I later learned that you can drink a lot on the water, but once you hit land, the party’s over.
As soon as we tied up the Lima Bean and crawled off the boat, Dad hit the pier and turned to rubber. I managed to get us to a payphone on the premises to call Mom to come pick us up. When I hung up the phone, I turned around and found him sitting against the Yacht Club wall, sound asleep and with a huge grin on his face. Hence, his other nickname of “Sunshine.”
That 1970 race set a record for the fastest time.
Life lesson: Sometimes the event does meet the hype. I had a blast, and I wouldn’t trade the memory of my first Pensacola Race for anything.