This Week in Block Island's history, February 8, 1938"Fog-cutting liquids proliferate at Block Island"
This week in history 75 years ago — on February 8, 1938 — 22 members of a new sailing organization called the Storm Trysail Club ratified a constitution at their first annual meeting. This was a fun club, a group of mostly young men who had no dock, nor even a headquarters building.
Many of them, due to various degrees of enthusiasm, connections or wealth, belonged to other, long-established yacht clubs. To join the Storm Trysail Club, though, they each had to have met a different, quite unusual, criteria, one summed up in the group’s name: setting a small trysail — called a storm trysail — on the mainmast of a boat under storm conditions, and having witnesses to prove it.
After the outbreak of World War II in 1941, the club’s race-sponsoring efforts became dormant, with all but a half-dozen of the 67 members joining the war effort.
But with war over they resumed the fun part of life, and on Memorial Day weekend 1946, initiated their annual 200-mile “Block Island Race,” beginning at the Larchmont Yacht Club in western Long Island Sound. During the early years of this event, the more than 100 participants were allowed to round Block Island in either direction, producing many frazzled nerves — and good stories later — as boats passed in the night.
Then, with the concept of having even more good stories to tell uppermost in their minds, club members borrowed an idea from the English town of Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, and decided to endure an entire week of racing — and what better place for intimate summer camaraderie than Block Island?
Their dream began here in 1965 and the stories haven’t stopped being written since. They are often preserved for posterity in the small daily newspapers that are published during each race week, some years under the banner “Block Island’s Only Biennial Daily,” and sometimes “All the news that fits.”
Two headlines in 1979 summed up duel concerns of all race weeks, in the realms of land and sea:
“Fog-cutting liquids proliferate at Block Island’s P.M. places”
And, in further reference the island’s daunting fog every late-June:
“Fair weather foils tradition, delights record fleet”
Other shoreside activities, for the wives and friends left behind during the day, were noted on June 26, 1973, by writer Jean Lannan:
“You can go biking ... or a dip in Champlin’s salt water pool ...
“Another fun thing is the wildflower kick. The island abounds with them. The only problem is, they last just about long enough to get them back to the boat and there you are, covered with scratches and nothing but memories of all those lovely scents.
“Of course you could get your hair done, but the fog is about as hard on that as it is on the tan ...
“You can catch up on your sleep, assuming there’s a bed that is not mounted on some racing craft out in the murk someplace ... “
But the best stories seem to be the ones told much later — perhaps gaining in the retelling. Under the headline “Women, wine, fickle weather fill memories of BI veterans,” the daily paper of June 23, 1979, reminisced:
“‘I can’t remember anything but fog, lack of women, the lobster cookout under the tent, and more fog,’ said one grizzled veteran of the ’65 race week. He recounted losing a halyard up the mast during a race when you couldn’t see the bow of the boat, let alone any of the other boats. When he was hoisted aloft, six other masts were visible above the fog. Who they belonged to, he never found out.
“The record for the foggiest day of any Race Week may well have been in 1971 ... the old nemesis appeared and confounded the navi-guessers aboard most boats. Several boats were sailing east, believing that they were sailing south. At least two respected crews managed to navi-guess themselves into the wrong harbor. Another boat was not located until the next morning — she was discovered safely moored at Point Judith.”
Of the 1971 race week a participant also later remembered:
“No skipper has control over Block Island fog. Nineteen seventy-one was such a year. Those were the dark days before Loran, when sailors groped around Block Island in light air and an impenetrable mist, at the mercy of their depth sounders and an erratic RDF. Often the committee was unable to see the far end of the starting line, and tacticians gave in to blind faith.”
In 1973 the interesting events did not stop, as remembered later in a daily paper:
“The action on the water remained interesting. More than 100 sailors milled outside the protest room Tuesday evening in ‘73, as 12 protests, involving at least 17 boats, were filed and heard. One boat filed four protests independently and was involved in one other. Six boats were ultimately disqualified and protesting became about as socially acceptable as a beer keg on a hot day.”
In 1977 good weather allowed three around-the-island races, a record number.
And so the weeks have continued — continued to be held and continued to be remembered.
Color pictorials of race week were published in Life magazine, July 23, 1971 — with the caption “Don’t even try to guess what this mass of fiber glass and aluminum, teak and brass is worth” — and in the 1972 book “The Sailor’s World,” by Arthur Beiser — captioned “Fog is common in Block Island vicinity in June ... nobody seemed to mind very much.”
Stories of the early race weeks and how to survive them were described in 1981 by Ted Jones in his book “The Dogwatch,” offering this near mystical advice:
“There is a distinct shelf running around most of the island. This can be used to advantage — getting on the shelf in diminished current when it is against you, and riding the edge of the shelf in stronger current when it is favorable.”
The New York Times Sunday Magazine’s major 1982 article — by longtime Block Island Times publisher Peter Wood — described the nation’s overall boom in yachting:
“For Race Week at Block Island, the Thomson stable consists of two bright green boats with the name Infinity painted across their sharply angled transoms. They lie side by side beyond the Thomsons’ live-aboard motor yacht, Lazy Eight .... The smaller of the two sailboats is a Holland-40, a 1978 brainchild of Ron Holland. She is a fast boat, but Mr. Thomson has outgrown her and she is being raced this week by one of his friends. The bigger Infinity, built in 1980 ... is also a Holland design, measuring 47 feet. Her hand-picked crew happens this morning to include Ron Holland himself, standing in for Infinity’s navigator...”
In the Summer 1985 issue of the hardbound magazine Nautical Quarterly — presented to each skipper at that year’s race week as part of the goody bag — can be found a general history of the Storm Trysail Club’s early members. Jacob Isbrandtsen is quoted on the creation of Block Island Race Week:
“We just decided that we were going to have a good time, and if anyone else wanted to come and have a good time too, they could.”
So, that’s how it started. And they’ll all be back this June of 2013, for their grand 25th biennial Race Week.
But if Mr. Isbrandtsen and his fellow club members had known what tens of thousands of landlubbers know — that you need not bring a racing sailboat to Block Island to “have a good time” — then there never would have been any Race Week at all. Don’t tell anyone.