by Dick Blount, Chase 1
Hot blustery 95 degree weather, barging, pushing and impatience, shouts of disagreement in different languages, congested areas and stampede-like conditions. We had it all in Huatulco, Mexico at the O'Neill Hobie 16 World Championships. I'm not talking about the sailing conditions, I'll get to them later. This was the daily ritual at the breakfast, lunch and dinner table at Club Med-or as we now like to call it: "club fed."
Never before have I seen so many different types of food available for mass consumption. Each meal was unique, abundant and very French oriented. And yes, there were exotics like fresh fish, crab, and escargot from around the globe, Wellingtons, cream sauces, fresh baked breads, dripping calorie filled desserts. There were unruly people pushing and barging for additional plates full. These types of mannerisms are most often found at the leeward pin of a start line at a world championship. If you lost weight at this event, it's safe to say you were a gutless wimp at the chow line!
The dining hall like atmosphere was ideal for Hobie sailors to mix and mingle. Looking out the bank of glass was nothing short of spectacular. Mansions dotted the rim of the jagged, v-shaped bay surrounded by exotic flora. At water's edge Hobies were crammed together on a petite sandy beach between palm frond umbrellas, green trees and shrubs.
The hotel complex itself was sprawling. Hilltop units were brightly painted and had room enough for 1100 fun seekers. Being the off season, we had about 500 guests there. "land pongas" would deliver you around the 110 acres of terrace sloped grounds. The rooms were small, yet each one had a view of a bay, open ocean or majestic hillside.
If you didn't sail, it didn't matter. Whatever your interest, there were instructors able to teach you more. The short list included tennis, squash, kayaking, windsurfing, softball, fitness center, billiards, archery, golf, volleyball, soccer, arts and crafts, circus work shops, disco shows and the BAR. Even if you have never been to a Club Med, you must have heard about BAR BEADS!
Money is no good down there. Drinks are purchased with beads that are available in orange or yellow. Beads are available via credit card charged to your room. That way you never know how much fun you are having until you check out. (I recall one Club Med experience where I had "somehow" run up a $600 bar bill in a short period of time. I must have had help.) All you need to know is orange beads are worth more. And happy hour means two for one!
Did I mention the fishing? It was outstanding. Many of us were dubiously led to believe trophies, prizes and awards would be given to those that caught the most and biggest fish. Those promises were as incredulous as the wind. Nonetheless, on a bad day, one could catch dorado, bonita and tuna in the ten pound range. Better days brought much bigger fish. Those fishermen who knew which end of the pole to hang on to were able to land sailfish in the nine foot range. The best part of this fishing story is that all the fish caught on the race course were given to the hungry families of the ponga drivers.
The water temperature was 85 degrees. Need I say more? Its color was always changing from emerald green in the inlets to royal blue at the weather mark. The colors changed daily as the cloud cover was affected by the gentle winds. The depth varied from a not so bad 100 feet to a seemingly bottomless pit at 340 feet.
Then there was the current - many a sailor lost dozens of places misreading the unseen and unmerciful beast. There were some that would gain as many by short tacking "a" mark by 300 yards and still overstanding it. In the light air, going against the current was hopeless. It was hell at best. Some said it flowed like a river; others felt rapids was a better description. Our best guess was three to four knots of steady current south to north.
A record 25 qualifying spots were up for grabs before the event even started. Because several teams failed to show, that number increased. The qualifying rounds were excellent. Four (?) tight races were completed with people sailing the entire day on a preassigned new boat furnished by Hobie Cat USA. At the first cut, an astonishing 35 spots were filled with hopeful skippers and crews.
The distance from the beach to the race course was about 3/4 mile. In the light air, it might as well have been across the Pacific. It was obvious that this would not be an ordinary 16 Worlds. To date, the Huatulco doctor (wind) was not even a nurse's aide.
To maximize sailing, this venue was forced to try some creative ways to keep the sailors on the water. Normally sailors would switch boats every race during the 10-race elimination format. At Huatulco the schedule was set up so each sailor would compete in two back-to-back races to remove half of the time spent going back and forth to the beach., It made good sense at the time! The bad news was that conditions permitted only two races to be sailed on Tuesday. The wind was light with no trapeze work. It was on a par with a root canal for fun.
Wednesday brought good wind, steep swells and excellent racing conditions. Regrettably, group D had to sail in all four races. As the day wore on, it was clear that many of these people were not strong enough to sail three, let alone four, races.
Numerous boats lipped backward while tacking, a hand full of boats flipped while the crews were coming in off the wire at "a" mark. Hell-bent for leather, quite a few stuffed it on the way to "c" mark. It was a chase boat driver's nightmare. In one period, 12 boats were over at the same time. With the current being what it was, checking each boat for two heads was a necessity. (If a sailor was knocked away from his boat, there was no way to swim back to it!)
In one frightening crash, two boats hit head-on. One boat was heading downwind from "a" mark while the other was making its way upwind on starboard. They struck bow to bow, demasting one of the boats. To add to the interest, the crew of one boat was a very young boy.
Thursday's conditions were much like Tuesday's, a crap shoot at best. Eight knots of fickle wind and strong current made a mockery of the race course. Nobody really wanted to race, but to give everyone a throwout, two races were needed.
As luck would have it, the skies were ominous and the wind was a steady 15 knots Friday morning. Something was brewing off the coast, but we had no idea what. Weather reports are not easy to get in Huatulco. Setting the race course was the first sign that this would be a long day. The committee boat wasn't able to set a hook, make that two hooks. By the time sailors were hailed off the beach, the swells were six to eight feet and the wind was 22 knots. Ideal conditions for a world championship in my book.
Enthusiastic sailors were called off the beach. Boats were out of control almost immediately. In one brief incident, a powerful shoreline breaker snatched a boat waiting to shove off the beach. Despite several people holding on to the boat, a wave drove the Hobie up on a rock jetty. Boats were flipping just getting out of the protected bay.
In short order the conditions got worse. The wind blew harder, and more boats were getting into trouble. In no time, we had ten-foot seas and 30 knots of wind. Keep in mind our 14 degree location on the globe. This air was very thick, and the wind had a great deal more power! Boats were getting swept toward the rocks that lined the coast Abandon race flag were blown out of the chase boats as quickly as they could be raised.
Jeff Alter and crew, Kathy Ward, had a horrifying experience.Attempting to return to the beach, their Hobie flipped. Trying to right it, they cartwheeleed the darn boat three times. The wind and waves nearly drove them onto a jagged rock formation!. Their only choice was to abandon the boat and swim like HELL against the wind, current and waves. A gallant rescue boat controlled by Dan Carpenter responded. The Washington native swept in and grabbed Kathy on the first pass, but another wave forced the ponga to pull out. Seeing an opportunity for another attempt, another rescue boat shot in and managed to yank Jeff out too. In a matter of seconds a breaking wave literally propelled the wayward Hobie onto and over the rock formation.
To balance the weight in the heavy seas, Jeff rode in my ponga. Several times we thought his boat was a goner. We left it for dead and went to help several others back to shore. I'm sure that Jeff was thinking, "boat depositxboat" deposit.""
Jeff's capsized boat somehow got into the current that ran parallel to the shore. It was still floating, although it was less than 50 yards from another cliff. Did I mention that Chuck Brown was the only other beef in my boat? Jeff managed to talk me into making a pass to try to save his boat deposit--I mean boat. Needless to say, Chuck felt particularly safe right where he was. Determined, Alter talked, conned and bribed all of us into going back in to rescue the mutinous boat. With life jackets on, we ran a gauntlet of waves, shot in and Jeff and Chuck jumped over the side.
One could imagine my relief when they reached the boat. I figured 380 pounds of beefcake muscle could right it, and off they would go. I turned white when their boat cartwheeled haphazardly even closer to the cliff. Thirty-five yards from the rocks, I had to go back to get them! As we timed the waves, fear must have taken over. Scrambling, they finally righted the boat. Now they had to tack to get the hell out of there. And tack they did!
There were close calls all over the race course. Just when we though everything was under control, a call came in. Two boats were still unaccounted for. Continuing to search, we found nothing! As time passed we heard that one boat was now missing. Then sometime later we were told all boats were on the beach, but we were missing one person.
At the height of the squall, the RC boat registered 38 knots of wind. This normally isn't any big deal for Hobie Catters. Thanks to some incredible efforts by the RC, chase boats and beach crews, everyone was finally accounted for. And yes, Jeff's boat made it safely to shore without a scratch. I think he owed Chuck and me a beerxor more!
Saturday brought the same conditions we had early in the week, nine knots. Several sailors still had a shot at winning the Worlds. It was steady, yet sailing against the current to weather was painstaking. Rounding "c" mark for the last time, Claudio Cardoso of Brazil was leading. Misjudging the current, he was forced into two-tacking the finish, and Aaron Worrall snuck in for a come-from-behind bullet.
The second race nearly got underway, but the wind dropped to under seven knots. Despite a square line, hardly anyone could make headway against the current. The only choice was to sit tight and wait for the breeze to fill in. As time passed, the sailors were sent into the beach for lunch. The wind went with them, never to be seen again.
And so it was over. The 1995 Hobie 16 World Championship was won by Australian Aaron Worrall and crew David Sylvester with 4.25 points. Disheartened, Claudio Cardoso placed second with 5.5 points. Third went to the defending world champion, Shaun Ferry with 6.6 points.
Sponsors came in many forms: O'Neill of Europe, Club Med, Corona, Leo Tours, NAHCA and Fleet 238 of Mexico. Without their joint cooperation and patience, this event would never have happened. Ron and Shirley Palmer, despite a family problem, worked like slaves for months pulling this event together. Eighty-hour weeks for each was the norm. Every single item and detail had to be solved before they left home. It was a logistical hell.