Hall of Fame Inductee, Jack Sammons
This past year (2004) Jack Sammons was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He has been a huge promoter of catamaran racing over many years, has written some of the best books you could ever read on the subject, was a Tornado World Champion in the late 60's when the design emerged, and has won many, many Hobie events.
When asked to send some information, Jack replied with this:
Sometime after the last ice-age, I left school in Kentucky and headed for the warmth of South Florida swearing to never be that cold again. The Palm Beach inlet fascinated me early on. At high tide, the water was crystal clear with all these beautiful shades of blue from the Gulf Stream that lay just off-shore.
Now there was a boat-builder in town by the name of Paul Lindenberg who would sail past me in this inlet on his gorgeous Hawaiian beachcat (Manu Kai 21' designed by Rudy Choy), always with several lovely ladies aboard, heading out into the stream. Other guys might dream of getting rich, or of a new car, or being president of some company. But this poor, but simple lad, just dreamed of the Manu Kai! Somehow I learned that Paul was going to refurbish this cat and SELL HER! I hocked every last thing I had, begged and borrowed the rest and somehow the seemingly unachievable dream became reality. That Manu Kai was mine.
So I set about putting some serious miles on this thing of beauty, and becoming in the process a "catamaran sailor" which around these parts was a rare bird… for South Florida was a far softer, gentler place in the 50's than it is today. Drugs wouldn't be invented for at least another decade. Interstates weren't needed, and the population didn't look like an adjunct of some third world country. The only accents were still Southern.
And the Gulf Stream was teeming with fish! Every weekend the Manu Kai headed out the inlet on a Easterly course till the water turned purple-blue and then turned right…streaming a ballyhoo on line tied to a shock cord hoisted up the mast. Never got skunked. Or, when the swells were steaming down Reef Road off Palm Beach in the fall, Steve Edmonds (later designer of the SuperCat) and I would surf Manu Kai all the way in , jibing just as the wave slowed to break. We'd come back in the inlet exhilarated at dusk…streaming Sargasso weed from both shroud adjusters.
Pratt Whitney (jet engines) had built a "Research Facility" in the swamp west of WPB the year I graduated…so I signed on, site unseen. As I had an Aero engineering background they put me to work designing the compressor section of the what later turned out to be the SR 71 "Blackbird" spyplane. I had neglected to mention that none of my courses involved designing multistage axial compressors. Later years in sequence followed the F15, F16, F22 and F35. The latter two quite stealthy. Two generations worth of this nations premier fighter engines…designed and developed out in this swamp just West of town. Now, just how lucky can a guy get?
At some point I acquired a used Le Mans Austin Healy—my first and last real automobile. An audacious black and red, with louvers through the bonnet lashed down with a 3 " leather strap. She leaked every fluid ever put in her, broke every mechanical linkage at least once. But I loved every fire-breathing moment I drove her. With no firewall insulation, the cockpit would get so hot you dared not put the top up. The compression ratio was so high I had to change the rings every 20,000 miles.
I rented a small cabin on Lake Worth a mile from the Palm Beach Inlet with the Manu Kai anchored outside my window, and drove my Healy to the most incredible job any engineer could ever hope to have. Lovely ladies all around. And I was warm! It just couldn't get any better than this.
Enter stealthy Joanie…with light tackle, no drag and a copious amount of line. Before I felt the hook, I was in the boat. And a good thing it was too, for I was fast on my way to becoming a confirmed bachelor and would likely have missed the best part of my life, so far.
Joanie then in seemingly rapid sequence presented me with three dainty little girls. GIRLS! Now, I came from a family of all boys (mothers aren't really girls), and even coached Little League for years. I figured I could raise a son. But daughters? What, for goodness sake, can you possibly do with them?
I was still sailing, or course, and navigated for Paul in the SORC aboard 30' Soverals. During one Miami-Nassau, just as night fell we watched Windward Passage storm by us with this incredible wind noise and spray flying. A sailor perched on the bow calling the jib. If you were to take that visual/audio experience and put it up on the screen of a modern movie house…NO ONE WOULD BELIEVE IT. I can see her still. God, what a machine!
One day Paul called and said the Tornado Worlds was going to be in Melbourne the following year and asked if I'd like to crew for him in a campaign leading up to it. He had ordered a new Reg White boat that ought to be competitive. At this point, I had never been in a round-the- buoys race, had never been out on a trapeze, and had no earthly idea what a different animal the Tornado was from my beloved Manu Kai. I said, "sure ."
The Worlds turned out to be a light airs affair. We won the first two races going away and eventually the whole thing. I've often thought back over the years and have since come to the conclusion that Paul had an innate ability to get that boat up to speed from a dead hold on the starting line quicker than anyone else in the fleet. We just walked away from everybody at the start. Banged the Port tack layline and sailed in new air the rest of the course. (Years later I would watch Bob Curry with amazement do the very same thing at H14' starts.)
During this episode, I was introduced to this guy in the bar who was definitely not having a good day, last name of Alter. He said the main on his 16' had a better shape than his Tornado's, and that Hobie racing was a whole lot more fun than what we were doing here.
Don't know why, but I had the feeling this guy was on to something. These Tornado sailors were far too dour. No one really appeared to be having any fun.., they just sat around complaining in foreign accents. But, and this was the most important part, there was NO DOUBT but what this was one game I just had to learn to play.
So we mortgaged the house so I could order enough of these banana-shaped 14' boats to become the local dealer. The guy at the bar advised this was the best way to get started. Duh…
Of course we never made any money as a dealer, but we were able to equip and start a racing fleet in the area. From there it was a easy step to the state levels of competition. It soon became apparent that my new circle of Hobie racing friends did have a lot more fun, but nobody really had any idea what was going on out there. Almost none had any prior background in sailing at all, and didn't know anybody that did.
Remember this was a new phenomena; we were just at the beginning of a new sport and it was pretty exciting. But it wasn't racing. Not yet. The boats weren't set up right. Everyone barged at the start. Most never really understood the course. The leeward mark was a Chinese fire drill with every boat going ever which-a-way.
I mentioned my frustrations often to Joanie. She finally said "Jack, why don't you just write a book so they'd know the basic stuff…you could help a lot of sailors that way." Right, me write a book? I slept through English and almost flunked literature.
But I did have some experience with "storyboards". In proposals to the USAF at work we would have to condense all our facts on any one subject to one page of text. (A discipline that was probably invented to force engineers to get to the point.)
So I put together a series of storyboards for "Boatspeed". But it was pretty dry stuff. And the left hand pages were blank (surprise!) So I put stories, or little personal thoughts on those pages. Got a good friends wife to edit my atrocious English, and another buddy to do the cartoons. Then we sent it out to several publishers (that's what you do with a book, right?) Nada.
Joanie, ever the optimist said: "Well, lets just do it ourselves. I saw a print shop up in Jupiter…" A quick interview with the production manager was sobering. 20 grand for the minimum printing order of 4000 books. "Joanie, even if we could afford to print this, what if we can't sell 4000 books?" Joanie allows we wouldn't have to buy toilet paper for a good long while. Now 20 grand in '75 was more than we had paid for our house. So I asked if he had an editor that could read the book and give me an opinion. The latter said "It's verbiage", which sounded a whole lot like garbage to me.
Joanie said "Well, lets just do it. We can market the book thru the Hot Line and distribute it ourselves to the dealers. The money we can get by refinancing the house again". Not enough. "The cars". Not enough. "The furniture, and we both can get signature loans on our salary". Just enough.
So it was a Mom and Pop effort from the start. The books did sell, of course. Remember, this was just the beginning of what turned out to be an awesome wave and the book did fill a vacuum at the concave point. Some 48,000 of the two books were sold the next 15 years around the world. Joanie and the girls would push the gurney loaded with boxes of books up the ramp behind the Post Office. After a few years she became known around town as the "book lady".
In truth, there was not a lot of money in it, but the ability to take sailing trips off as "research" for the books allowed us to compete in major regattas around the country, and World Championships in exotic, warm places like Hawaii, Tahiti, Canarys, Pueto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. We met some of the most interesting people along the way that have become lasting friends. Like Yasuo Sato of Japan, Jack Arndell of Australia, Rick Whitehead of South Africa and Gaulden Reed of Daytona. It was the experience of a lifetime.
I had a feeling of loyalty to the H14 and was probably one of the last to make the transition to the 16', but all it really took was one screaming reach in a building storm to hook me, again. The racing catamaran needed that jib and double trap. It was still an animal, but it was controllable in strong winds.
For the first few years Joanie sailed with me on the H16—which took a leap of faith for her as she never had learned to swim. I would sail with Steve Edmonds in the bigger events, and my brother Bill in the Worlds. Later our girls moved up to that position. I found something I could do with these daughters! They took to sailing like a chicken on a junebug.
Other girls their age wouldn't get caught dead out with their fah-ther. But we never had that relationship. Out on the water we were really a team. We would discuss the start and which side of the course was favored, and they would call the start and each layline…keeping up a constant chatter about what the other boats were doing. To their credit, the other sailors on the beach always treated them as peers, not kids. Later on they would take turns at the helm, particularly to weather. I never could go to weather and each of the three girls had a better feel for it.
We mostly traveled like mongols, and stayed in tacky motel rooms. Joanie would make us lunches out of a cooler on the beach. But on Saturday nights we'd go to a civilized place for dinner. I will always remember those evenings talking the days racing over coffee. The three girls raced with me alternately from age 12 into college. We'd double deck the 14/16 and the girls would take turns on the 14. We rode the crest of the wave; 20 years of endless regattas. What a great way to bring up kids. (Later on I heard from one of the teachers in their high school that one of the inside jokes was "Oh, that's just one of the Sammons girls…they tend to sleep through class on Mondays".
Of course all good things do come to an end. The girls grew into professional women and a world of their own. My blue-eyed bride makes regular trips to the dermatologist to repair the ravages of her time in the sun. And the wave? It inexplicably just passed on by. Perhaps that's just the nature of a wave.
My first and enduring love is still the ocean…but there is no such thing as a one-man cat you can drag easily up an ocean beach. So my boat is now a 38-lb surf-ski. A 19' by 18" fiberglass kayak that you sit on top of and work the rudder w/foot pedals. The airfoil-shaped double bladed paddle is carbon fibre. The Aussy's developed the design back in the 30's for their lifeguards. It's a piece of work. It gets me out in the ocean on average once a week all year long. More often when a low blows through and the swells march in against a West wind. It is a stretch to get out into the Gulf Stream, though.
In a little boat like this your focus changes. From the next mark on the horizon, to the very next wave. You feel each wave. I return exhausted to my yellow lab Sandy who has been guarding our umbrella on the beach. Call Joanie on the cell and warn her we're headed home for lunch. Two of the girls have settled down within minutes of us, and the third is only 3 hours away. Still a lucky guy.
No, I never returned to Kentucky. I've found where I belong. But ever once in a while my thoughts will return to a given race, to a screaming reach in a building storm, or to the special people we met during those unique times. And I smile…because there are no bad memories.