Exumas to New York in a 33ft boat: Dick Carter’s extraordinary east coast voyage

A race on a friend’s boat in the early 1960s led Dick Carter to design a revolutionary yacht that beat Admiral’s Cup contenders and won the Fastnet Race

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Rabbit’s crew had been up all night in a storm when this photo was taken. Dick Carter is on the helm

In 1965 a young American designer, Dick Carter, met up with Bernard Hayman of Yachting World in the cockpit of Dick’s new race boat Rabbit. Yachting World recognised a mould-breaking yacht when it saw one and Hayman went on to publish Rabbit’s lines at a time when magazines rarely offered their readers this insight.

Three years earlier Carter bought himself a 33ft Medalist cruiser-racer, also called Rabbit. From the board of Bill Tripp, the Medalist had a long keel with a swept forefoot and a steeply raked rudderpost, which was the fashion of the day as designers strove to cut wetted area.

The downside was that, as the keel-hung rudder crept ever closer to the centre of lateral resistance, its lever arm diminished and boats became harder to steer. Dick Carter sailed his boat to Florida in the cold of winter to participate in the SORC races.

The experience convinced him that offshore racing was what he wanted and he made the 1,000-mile passage back to Long Island Sound in time for the Storm Trysail Club’s Block Island Race in 1962.

Always colourful in his descriptions, the tale of this eventful delivery reproduced here is taken from Dick’s new book, Dick Carter, Yacht Designer in the Golden Age of Offshore Racing. The whole work is a grand read with cracking photos of the boats and people that have studded a life well lived, but perhaps the most telling sentence comes early on when Carter has just raced a friend’s Medalist.

The friend asks if anything can be done to improve the steering. Dick suggests moving the rudder from the aft end of the keel and re-siting it as a stand-alone unit as far aft as it would go. Dick’s first serious design, Rabbit, was the result. In the summer of 1965 Rabbit beat all three British Admiral’s Cup team yachts, Noryema IV, Quiver IV and Firebrand and went on to win the Fastnet Race. The rest, as they say, is history.

From Dick Carter, Yacht Designer in the Golden Age of Offshore Racing

After cruising in the Exuma Islands, I set off with John Bower and his friend Johnny Stouffer on a 1,000-mile voyage to New York. The trip was timed to arrive in New York one week before the start of the Storm Trysail Club’s 1962 Block Island Race, off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut.

This would be the first time I had done an ocean voyage. In preparation I acquired a secondhand sextant, chronometer, and tables for celestial navigation. By late after­noon on our first day out, I saw the last island of the Bahamas disappear behind us.

We now had 1,000 miles of ocean ahead. It was a moment engraved in my memory. For the first time in my life, I was leaving the civilised world and moving into Mother Nature’s vast realm… all to be experienced from the deck of a 33ft boat.

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Around 2pm the following day we noticed a squall to the north-west. I decided to keep mainsail and jib up and run off with it. When the first gust hit, Rabbit laboured some but held on while roaring off on a broad reach. No strain! As quickly as the wind came, it went.

In retrospect I should have realised that something was peculiar. We were in a weird, dark grey world, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Visibility was marginal but the first real warning was a tremendous thunderclap. The next thing I knew, the mainsail, vividly white against the grey, was flogging itself near to death.

The violence of the blast had spun the boat right up into the wind and the mainsail was luffing as I had never seen a mainsail luff before. Not a moment to lose. “Get the mainsail down!” Johnny Stouffer may have been short on sailing experience but he demonstrated his great instinct for the foredeck. Down came the main.

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Rabbit was an early fibreglass yacht, built in Holland to a Bill Tripp design

“Get the jib down!” No time to furl the main. The wind was blowing like fury. I ran up to the mast where the mainsail was still flapping wildly, pulled the slides off the mast and, with the foot of the main still attached to the boom, heaved the sail into the sea. With Johnny holding the jib in his lap, both sails were safe.

The sea by this time was boiling. The din was overwhelming. Suddenly, a much more powerful wind of hurricane strength hit us. The whine in the rigging increased in a split second to a much higher pitch. I had never experienced such force. The sea was in a lather. Rabbit was heeling a good 25° under bare poles.

And then the wind let up. We retrieved the mainsail, reattached the luff slides to the mast, did a tight furl and went below to wait out the rest of the storm before heading once again towards New York.

The next day I took some noon shots with the sextant, but then thought: “Why bother? Dead reckoning will do. Let’s just head north. After all, the North American continent is a pretty big target.” So we just sailed north, estimating our speed, drift and position.

Lightning storm

We were about 30 miles off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where elements of the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream converge. We had had a good day’s run before a south-westerly breeze. Towards evening, storm clouds materialised off to the north-west.

Weather phenomena change and develop at sea before your eyes in a way that we barely notice onshore. We watched this storm develop from one isolated squall to a point three hours later when we were surrounded by squalls. Storms at each quadrant, and spectacular lighting!

Sometimes a whole cloudbank would be illuminated; at other times a thick ribbon of electricity would plunge to the horizon. I wondered what might happen to Rabbit if one of those big bolts hit us. But I tried not to dwell on it.

Our excitement at watching the fireworks was tempered by our anxiety in wait­ing for the storm to move in on us. Three hours later, the first gust arrived. We dropped the mainsail, closed up shop and went below.

I was struck by the incongruity between the raging elements above and our peaceful setting below. Still wearing our yellow foul weather gear, we were sitting around having a drop of rum, neat, our private world illuminated by the flickering light of the kerosene lantern.

When the storm abated, we resumed sailing with our night squall rig – our No2 genoa alone. But I was off watch so I went to sleep. Sometime in the early morning, I awoke to an awful racket. Evidently the squalls had cleared and the wind came in from the north-east.

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Dick Carter, Yacht Designer in the golden age of offshore racing by Dick Carter is published by Seapoint Books. RRP: £19 from online booksellers

It began to blow hard. John Bower and Johnny Stouffer decided to close up shop again – hence the racket – and I was not at all disappointed to have a chance at more sleep, even though the seas were building and Rabbit was bouncing quite actively.

When I awoke later in the morning, the wind was blowing in earnest: 25-30 knots directly against the Stream. The sun was very bright and the water had that greenish-grey tinge so common in the North Atlantic. We were saying goodbye to the intense sapphire blue of warmer climes and approaching the great turning point of our passage: Hatteras.

The sea was acting up in fine style. We roller-reefed the main to the second batten and set the working jib. It was too much sail for the conditions – we weren’t trying to set any speed records – so we changed to reefed main alone. The reduced speed added immeasurably to our comfort.

We were for all intents and purposes hove to, riding up and over the seas like a cork, while the Gulf Stream carried us into the eyes of the wind. What a splendid way to go to windward!

Passing ships

We saw a number of ships during the day. There was no question that we were entering the main north-south shipping lane. Although our original plan was to stay outside this lane, an excessive amount of northerlies brought us in closer to Hatteras than we wished.

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A freighter looms out of the swell in the shipping lanes off Cape Hatteras

That afternoon we sighted an aircraft carrier on exercises – some of the jets buzzed us – and a little later a freighter coming up below our course steered parallel to our heading. One moment nothing but her bridge deck would show. The next moment she would surge into full view with spray flying over her decks. She was the SS Marine Leader. Her captain hailed us: “Are you all right?”

We replied with a friendly wave. I was deeply touched. The old traditions of the sea lingered on. It was moderately rough weather for a commercial vessel that could not enjoy the luxury of slowing down and I am sure that a boat the size of Rabbit looked quite small in that seaway.

On the eleventh day we hit the New Jersey coast and followed it up towards New York. With no wind, we were wallowing for seven hours off New Jersey. New York was within striking distance. It was frustrating, but it made me size up the situation.

A couple of nights earlier, John Bower had woken me up around 4 am: “The compass light has dimmed. I can barely see the course.” This meant only one thing. Sure enough, the engine wouldn’t start. Our battery was pretty much dead. “How are we going to get into New York?” he asked. “Sail”, I replied, “just like the olden days”.

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Dick Carter’s Medalist called Rabbit was his introduction to the world of offshore racing

Obviously we didn’t want to sail into New York harbour at night with no running lights and poor visibility. Timing was everything. At 1.30 in the afternoon, a light south-easterly wind arrived. Up went the main and then we set the spinnaker. Three hours later, we spotted Scotland Lightship, guardian of New York’s harbour entrance.

The low afternoon sun made her red hull glow. I’ve always loved lightships, so we headed straight for her to take a closer look. By now the wind had freshened and Rabbit was going at a great clip. Our appearance out of nowhere brought the light­ship’s entire crew on deck.

We gave a wave, gybed the spinnaker and headed straight for New York Harbour. Even though it was 5pm, I thought we had a chance to make it all the way to the 23rd Street Marina before dark.

All the time the wind was increasing. We gybed the spinnaker and roared up South Channel, past Romer Shoals where the seas were breaking spectacularly. The tide favoured us as if we had planned it.

It was an exhilarating feeling, sailing with our spinnaker up under the newly constructed Verrazano Bridge, and then past the Statue of Liberty and the Bay Ridge ferry landing. Johnny calculated our speed at 7.8 knots. It was a thrill to cap off our voyage with such a grand entrance to New York.

We kept an eye open for traffic as we sailed past the Brooklyn docks. With the wind becoming fluky, we took down the spinnaker and hoisted the genoa for our sail up the East River. The sunset was magnificent and bathed all of Lower Manhattan in pink light. But I was also gauging the sun carefully because the East River is no place to be caught after dark given that we had no lights and no motor.

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A frosty arrival in the southern Chesapeake for Rabbit’s crew heading for the SORC in Florida

Navigating by street

Next we had to find the 23rd Street Marina. Our chart showed Manhattan with the streets precisely laid out but unnumbered. John Bower remembered that the southern border of Central Park was on 59th Street, so on the chart he counted down to 23rd Street, marking it with an X.

It looked a long way upriver to me. Fortunately, we had a fair tide so we headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. The wind, though very fitful, came in at just frequent enough intervals to keep us moving and it seemed like no time at all before we rounded the bend in sight of the marina.

We dropped the sails at the entrance and coasted in. Though we were travelling at a relatively slow speed, there were still 4.5 tons of Rabbit that we had to bring to a complete stop. As we came up alongside the dock, Johnny Stouffer and I jumped onto it and just managed to halt Rabbit’s momentum.

The dock master scolded us for our sloppy landing but frankly I was pleased we’d been able to accomplish it with no engine. As darkness fell, we celebrated with toasts of rum all around, and then went to bed with the roar of the East River Drive traffic in our ears. For the first time in 12 days, the crew of Rabbit slept the whole night through.

First published in the October 2019 edition of Yachting World.

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