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C. Sherman Hoyt memoirs: A typically frank extract from Yankee Yachtsman

C. Sherman Hoyt, the superstar sailor of his day, delivers some frank opinions of his helmsman on a Transatlantic race

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C Sherman Hoyt won the America’s Cup – and many others. Photo: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty

Born in 1878, C Sherman Hoyt sailed in every racing yacht imaginable for the best part of 60 years. Tireless, highly skilled, with an almost uncanny ability to spot a wind shift, he helmed Rainbow in her magnificent 1934 America’s Cup defence against Tommy Sopwith’s Endeavour.

Despite the English yacht being generally agreed to be the faster, he out-foxed Sopwith and retained the Cup. In his own era he was arguably the world’s most famous yachtsman and his appearances on the international scene brought him into direct contact with such notable figures as the Dowager Empress of China, Adolf Hitler and ‘The Sailor King’ himself, George V.

In this extract from his memoirs written from the New York Yacht Club in 1950, he describes the race from Bermuda to Cuxhaven in 1936. He has shipped as mate aboard the brand-new Henry Gruber yawl Roland von Bremen with an all-German crew and we join them as they approach the English Channel.

Hoyt’s comments about his inexperienced shipmates pull no punches. Yet, perhaps because of his influence, this unlikely crew win comprehensively and his generous seaman’s spirit speaks well of them at the last.

From Yankee Yachtsman by C. Sherman Hoyt

5.45 – SS Bremen just passed us close aboard – loud cheers! She made signals but our crowd seemed at first too excited to read them or acknowledge, but did get them finally. Never talk to me about phlegmatic Germans. Our crew more like a bunch of Greeks or Italians. Jabber, jabber, jabber, no attention to helm, just plain dippy. Lifted Bishop’s Rock Light at 8.15 and had it abeam at 10.30. Very light westerly nearly astern.

Wednesday, 22 July, 9AM

Very light all through night and practically becalmed in early morning watch. Lowered mainsail and struggled to remove broken battens and fit new ones. Hard job as battens are much too snug a fit even with sail bone dry, which it is anything but.

Past the Wolf and Longships, familiar marks of the Fastnet Course, and the Lizard in sight about 10 miles ahead. The tide has turned fair and light sou’wester just making. Usual struggle and also as usual to no avail to get them to sail course where balloon jib will be effective. But no, the Lizard is our next mark and we must go to it, let our sails flap as they may! Really have about given up the struggle, save in my own watch, when with constant nagging I can get most of the helmsmen to steer the course I want.

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Greeted our landfall last night in proper style. Broke out some of my Rhine wine and the Boss blew us all to what are called cocktails. Apparently a mixture of rum, brandy and some of my grapefruit juice. Of course no ice and quite unpalatable, but produced the desired cheering effect. Lizard abeam at 12.31.

The Boss has gone on a cleaning rampage having just awakened to the filthy condition of the galley and general dirt everywhere. Feel sorry for poor Schneider whose feelings seem much hurt as he washes dishes, pots and pans on deck, while the Boss leads a sanitary squad of the boys in a general clean up and flushing party, with a grand jettisoning of spoiled food in the cook’s usual domain.

8.00PM – Well, I have exploded again! And am too mad to make any entry tonight except that von Lottner, as a coastal pilot in connection with trying to race a boat, is something! Just told him so with considerable satisfaction, and relations somewhat strained. Schneider and Jesse also almost to blows at what is called supper. All hands getting jumpy.

Thursday, 23 July, 2PM

Well, lots doing. About last evening, don’t remember whether I have mentioned our compass peculiarity. Never adjusted or compensated, I am told on account of some fool’s bit of economy. They naturally have worked out a deviation table, but as it varies plus/minus 15°, it is slightly confusing when tacking or gybing at sea.

5.00PM – Find I went to sleep then, almost no sleep last 24 hours and had just been on deck practically 13 hours straight. In coastal navigation cross bearings became quite confusing and I had caught the navigator going wrong the night before in correcting bearings for their own deviation instead of for deviation on course steered.

I had left deck at 6.30 about halfway between Eddystone and Start Point. Gave von L. my approximate fix and time from Eddystone. Had noted we were probably a mile or so too much to south’ard, but as our course took us five miles or more south of Eddystone, it was hard to judge distance in the poor visibility.

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Contemporary yacht racing, 1930s style. Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty

About 7.30 felt something wrong, found to my amazement boat nearly before wind, had left her with wind abeam, and, as usual, trim of sails had not been altered so speed had dropped right down. Suggested that wind had shifted and why, for Pete’s sake, not trim sails accordingly?

Was told wind same, but course altered because the slap-dash-bang von Lottner, I suppose misled by incorrect bearing corrections, informed me that our former course would take us 15 miles south of Start Point! As the Start was in plain sight nearly ahead this was patently impossible.

Even if true, since our next objective was St. Catherine’s in Isle of Wight, some 90 miles away, why in the name of Hitler, on a 90 mile stretch, try to rectify a small amount of southing by running at right angles to our course before the wind, dead slow, just so he could get back to his blank blank blank theoretical course from the Lizard to St. Catherine’s? Also if he was going to be such a fool, why in hell not trim the sails so as to lose as little time as possible.

I left the deck to sulk in my bunk and ponder over German pig­headedness. Heard grand powwow going on and noticed that shortly we went back to within a few degrees of our old course. The wind gradually increased and went more southerly, had been west to south-west most of day.

At midnight, when I took over, it was blowing fresh with spatters of rain and we were making about 8 [knots] on close reach, with balloon jib, mainsail, mizzen staysail and mizzen. For once could find nothing wrong with trim. Some of my remarks must have penetrated.

At three, just getting barely light, noticed something wrong with luff of mainsail, got spotlight going and found luff line of mainsail parted just below headboard, leech line still holding. At once doused mizzen-staysail to lower and stow main. Then got trysail on her.

Hell of a row on deck and below getting trysail out of forecastle with only my own watch. Neither Perlia nor von Lottner even as much as put their heads above deck to see what was going on until called to take their watch at four! They could not have slept through the hubbub. Blowing harder all the while and speed not materially reduced by loss of mainsail.

At 7.00AM another catastrophe. Sister-hooks on mizzen backstay straightened out, we had reset mizzen-staysail as soon as mainsail was down, mizzen mast snapped off instantly at middle shrouds. Considerable circus getting mizzen down, clear up wreckage, etc. Von Lottner up and down in rigging like a monkey. Good seaman when he takes time to think and wants to be. Wild suggestions how to attempt jury rig at once.

I insisted in getting balloon jib off her before it went, since it was nearly gale force at the time, and set staysail and storm jib in its place, the latter, later in day replaced by patched regular jib. Never did give a damn for mizzen except for balance, although will admit mizzen staysail some help to speed in beam wind.

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The Roland von Bremen is still afloat and regularly seen sailing in the Baltic. Photo: Tom Cunliffe

Blowing hard all day and grand progress up Channel. Rain, poor visibility, lots of traffic, disagreeable, but progress fine. Start Point 9.15 PM last night, Portland Bill 2.30AM. St. Catherine’s 8.45AM and so on to North Hinder God only knows when, certainly not the navigator.

Saturday, 25 July, 1PM

Have been in too bad a temper to write since last entry. Made fast run up Channel and across North Sea until early this morning shortly before reaching Norderney Lightship. Wind generally SW to S, and constantly varying in strength from hard blow to moderate breeze, with intermittent rain and poor visibility. We are now some 30 miles from finish almost becalmed and only a few more hours of fair tide left. Had hoped to finish before dark but it looks doubtful.

Most trying time since entering Channel, a few days more of Perlia’s and von Lottner’s coastal pilotage would make me a candidate for a lunatic asylum. Jittery, jumpy, theoretical-course mad, little thought of proper amount of or trim of sail or speed of boat, stops to sound with deep sea lead, skirting dangerous shoals to pick up some damn fool buoy when it was utterly unnecessary to find it and much safer to forget it.

Night before last, after suffering for hours with inadequate sail, got full mainsail and large spinnaker on her in my watch. A mistake, but such a relief to have more than enough and held on to it too long. Result, belaying pin, for spinnaker halyard (rotten cast brass), snaps off, halyards pay out until coil fetches up in block aloft, spinnaker under bows, eventually comes up astern in several pieces and cussedly shaves off log strut.

Remove wreckage, replace strut and continue and, even I confess, more sanely under boomed out trysail and reefed spinnaker, my pet patent rig.

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C Sherman Hoyt spent 58 years on the water. Photo: Nina Leen/Time Life Pictures/Getty

2.00PM. Am informed Heligoland just now in sight. May finish before dark. Don’t know where we are relative to others. My guess either 1st or 4th or 5th. Have good wireless but operator strangely inept at his tuning in at proper time. The only outside information I have had in two weeks is that serious revolution is on in Spain!

(At that time I little knew what this portended and could not understand the wild excitement of my Nazi shipmates who were beside themselves with joy, shouting “Jetz der tag ist hier!”)

Well, Heligoland is in sight, the finish according to one navigator is 11.5 miles off, the other says 18! It has been a grand sail, but trying to what I now consider my phlegmatic American nerves. Never a better bunch of all round seamen, our youngsters; hard-working, intelligent, smart, willing, only in general poor helmsmen.

They lack sense of feeling of the boat, and any idea of course and trim to get speed through water. Compass-course crazy from skipper down. I really like them all, and my short temper often has been inexcusable. I should remember that their racing experience has been practically nil, compared to my more than 40 years.

At times I agree with one of the youngsters who suggested that the Boss ‘had better in Bremen have stayed,’ but he is most charming personally. I fear he is too old to learn the value of sails when racing, their trim, and the necessity of altering course momentarily rather than trim. I feel certain that if he lives to Methuselah’s age he will grimly stick to his theoretical compass course, but I am now going up on deck with my last bottle of port in hand to say ‘prosit’ to him.

Well, well, well, pilot boat hailed us half hour back, about 4 o’clock, to tell us we are in the lead. We are now about four miles from finish, drizzle of rain, almost becalmed. We naturally are elated, and am having devil of time to keep them shifting sails and trying to get over these last few miles. Whether we are the winner or not, time allowances will only tell. At least we are ahead of the other eight who started at St David with us and most of them give us time.

Don’t think I have ever worked harder than this last week and am about all in. Once across the finish line I shall probably get good and tight, and when we reach Cuxhaven miles up the Elbe, shall jump ship, make for a hotel, bath and 24 hours in bed.

c-sherman-hoyt-memoirs-yankee-yachtsman-book-coverSaturday, 25 July, Cuxhaven

Did all of the above in due course. Finished somewhere around 8.00PM and were towed up the Elbe to here. Much celebrations, triumphal arches, lunches, dinners, etc. The Brema and Aschanti are reported to have finished this morning but on any allowances Roland must be the winner.

I spent nearly two months in Germany. Had the time of my life and nearly broke down at the final parting. May I be lucky enough, some time in the future, to again be shipmates with one and all of the Rolands.

First published in the November 2020 issue of Yachting World. Yankee Yachtsman is published by Robert Ross and Co.

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