When Grand Prix Sailing Was New (and a Little Scary)
Yachting author and historian John Rousmaniere reviews Bill Barton’s new book, The Legend of Imp: The Magical Yacht that Rocked the Sailing World:
“I used up my fourth life racing sailboats,” says Bill Barton. He could spend his next five lives looking back to his time in one of the most successful boats in the early years of modern grand prix ocean racing. Now he’s written an entertaining, provocative book that’s part-memoir, part-history. The Legend of Imp: The Magical Yacht that Rocked the Sailing World will appeal to anyone fascinated by our sport’s development, or, for that matter, anybody who likes good sea stories, of which there are a great many here.
In 1977 the green-striped 40-foot Imp, hailing from San Francisco Bay, won nearly half her races, including the Fastnet, and was top boat in ocean racing’s two most competitive series – the Southern Ocean Racing Conference and the Admiral’s Cup, the sport’s unofficial world championship. Everything came together in Imp, says Barton, who describes her campaign as “an alchemical oven, through the heat of design changes and technological advances, and through the crucible of competition and challenges by nature, transforming our elemental matter and melding it into pure gold.”
Imp was designed by New Zealander Ron Holland, one of the hot race-boat designers of that day, and was built light and rigid in Florida by Holland’s brother-in-law, Gary Carlin. Her highly innovative structure was more like a race car’s than a typical boat’s, with an internal metal tubular frame supporting a thin shell of a hull. All was supervised by the boat’s owner, David Allen, whom Barton describes as “the planner and organizer extraordinaire who left no stones unturned.” Allen was not new to the game, having campaigned widely in his Mull-designed, New Zealand-built downwind flyer Improbable. A Marin County real estate developer, he was as unique as his boats – impish yet humble, driven by what Barton calls a “warrior attitude and code,” and also a man of spiritual conviction. In one of his many nicely told anecdotes, Barton tells of coming below in the middle of the night during a wet, raw Admiral’s Cup race and finding Allen standing at the chart table. “No, we weren’t lost, as I feared. He wasn’t straining at the chart but rather was calmly reading his Christian Science lesson for the day, and he happily shared it, pushing the book toward me. ‘Here, you’ll like this.’”
No less remarkable is Imp’s skipper. “A good sailor is always anticipating the unexpected,” writes Barton, “and our captain, Skip Allan, was a master. Aboard Imp, we trusted Skip and responded along with his keen instincts, which improved our own.” Allan had already won the Transpac, the Congressional Cup, the Admiral’s Cup, and much more. In that pre-professionalism era, he raced as an amateur and worked as a boatbuilder and delivery skipper. Grand prix boats – even the experimental 40-foot Imp – routinely crossed oceans on their own bottoms to get to starting lines. (For more about this great sailor, see Scuttlebutt 2675.)
Bill Barton, our chronicler, came out to San Francisco from Rye, N.Y., as an aimless MBA hoping to find a calling and do some sailing. An aggressive competitor, he’d already gained the rough-weather experience that’s much prized on the Bay in the brutal 1972 Bermuda Race, and so he’s recruited to Imp’s mostly Bay-area crew. Barton tells his many war stories vividly and persuasively, with considerable humor and attention to detail about the racing, the weather, and his shipmates (Skip Allan expresses relief after tense moments by yelling “doggies!”). The ebullience ends at the start of the last race Barton sailed in Imp. “This is the hardest chapter to write,” he tells us in the first line of his very edgy story of the killer 1979 Fastnet Race storm. The boat handles the appalling conditions with only a few problems, but another storm intrudes dramatically when a panicky shipmate awakens Barton and says he can’t take it anymore and is harboring thoughts of suicide. By now Barton has made the reader aware that he has found his calling as a clinical psychologist. Setting aside Bill the sail-trimmer, he puts on his professional face as Dr. Barton and begins a full-on, successful intervention.
More troubling behavior arises after the finish. Even as the death toll mounts, a few race finishers get caught up in publicly telling stories about how easily they had managed. Barton comes down hard on this “annoying disconnect.” (To add a personal note, when David Allen, of all people, cheerfully told me he’d never had a better sail, the only sense I could make of it was that feelings of vulnerability can silence our better angels.) Barton himself was so stressed out by the storm that for weeks he was unable to think about it without throwing up. Extensive psychological counseling kept PTSD at bay (he was not alone).
Today, Imp is approaching age 35 and still winning silver, and Bill Barton is still racing hard and has written this unusual and engaging book, which he published himself at a high standard with 130 illustrations and a cover painted by Jim DeWitt of Imp and her confident crew under sail. The Legend of Imp: The Magical Yacht that Rocked the Sailing World is available at http://www.implegend.com.
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