Club News

50 years ago — SDYC’s Lowell North wins Star Gold in Acapulco

By JJ Fetter | June 06, 2018

SDYC hosted the Star Trials for the '68 Olympics

The 35-boat fleet included many champion sailors including several from the San Diego Bay Star fleet: Lowell North with crew Peter Barrett, Malin Burnham with crew Jim Reynolds, Alan Raffee with crew Dennis Conner, Pete Bennett and Kim Fletcher among others. World-class sailors traveled from around the country to SDYC including Bill Buchan, Don Trask, Hilary Smart and Dick Stearns. As a young SDYC junior Sabot sailor (and now the US sailor with the most Olympic medals) Mark Reynolds recalls “cleaning boat bottoms for $1/day” during the Trials.

Lowell North and Peter Barrett had independently tried to earn selection to the ’68 US Olympic squad in other classes – North in the 5.5-Meter and Barrett in the Finn – but each had finished fifth in those trials. So they teamed up together and, despite a 9th place finish in the first race, won the Trials by twelve points (Olympic low-point scoring gave 0 points for 1st, 3 points for 2nd, 5,7 points for 3rd, etc.).

Malin Burnham with crew Jim Reynolds finished in a second place – the same result as at the Star trials four years earlier – and a heartbreaking spot since only one team from each country can compete at the Olympic Games.  Bill Buchan from Seattle and local team Alan Raffee and Dennis Conner were both coming on strong towards the end of the series with a 3,3 and a 1,5 respectively but a “dnf” (did not finish) in the last race kept them off the podium.  DC recalls “we hit the last weather mark and had to withdraw as the rules were different” (and didn’t allow an alternative penalty).

This would be the second trip to the Olympics for both North and Barrett – in Tokyo in ’64, North had won the Bronze in the Dragon with SDYC member Charlie Rogers and Dick Deaver while Barrett had won the Silver in the single-handed Finn.  Mark Reynolds remembers “when Lowell came back from Tokyo ’64, I had just started sailing but got to share his bronze medal with my third-grade class (taught by Mrs. McMenomy). In ’68, I was fully into the junior program and we were lucky to have the US trials for many of the classes in Southern California.” Local builders, Eichenlaub and Driscoll were building top Olympic FDs, Stars and 5.5-Meters.

After winning the Trials, North and Barrett headed to Acapulco with crucial support from their local fleet. As Peter Barrett later wrote for One Design and Offshore Yachtsman magazine, “One decision which helped us win … Lowell decided to take Alan Raffee’s [fiber]glass Star down [to Acapulco] as a trial horse, and Malin Burnham, runner-up in the trials, volunteered to come down and steer it for a few days … we had to work hard to go as fast all the time.”

 -- Racing for the Gold -- Lowell battles the flu and a broken main halyard --

Racing for the Gold -- Lowell battles the flu and a broken main halyard

The yachting competition took place in the resort town of Acapulco with conditions that were windier than expected. Offshore storms caused confused seas close to shore and the weather was very hot and humid. Paul Elvstrom, who had won four consecutive single-handed Olympic Gold medals from 1948-1960, had returned to Olympic class competition in the Star class and was the favorite for a medal after winning back-to-back Star Worlds in ’66 and ’67 with North and Barrett the runners-up each time.  However, in Acapulco, Elvstrom’s boat speed proved to be no match for North and Barrett who handily won race 1. Sailors from 20 nations competed.

However, by Race 2, as Peter Barrett wrote in One-Design and Offshore Yachtsman magazine “Lowell was feeling sick … not 'tourista' which we had avoided by drinking no water but just plain cold and flu … he didn’t say much, but it was easy to sense how poor he felt.  … We were discouraged at losing second [place on the final beat] and Lowell felt terrible. He lay in the bottom of the boat all the way back to the yacht club.”

With opening scores of 1st, 3rd, 3rd, 1st and a good lead, Lowell wasn’t showing any weakness out on the race course but according to Barrett, Lowell didn’t recover his strength until the lay day after those first four races.

Peter Barrett again: “Race 5: This was really the deciding race in my mind … we were fourth starting the last beat. So we played shifts again up the last beat, got by all three and were leading for a while [before losing one boat near the finish]. For the first time I was absolutely certain we would win … Lowell felt well enough to really enjoy it.”

“Race 6: Our last real challenge in the series came when we started to hoist the main after towing out to the course … the main halyard broke at the ball, a foot from the sail. We looked at that Star mast wondering how to get the sail up there to stay … climbing it was out of the question … it isn’t strong enough. There wasn’t enough time to tow back and out again. Even though there was an unpleasant swell running, we finally decided to unstep the mast, pull the sail along the mast and lock it, then put mast and sail back up… it took 45 minutes (we barely made our first start) and some tricky moments … Lowell had to swim out astern to get the sail to the top, as the mast is so much longer than the boat, and lifting the entire rig while the boat rolled around was a tricky proposition.” In the only light air race of the series, they struggled to finish 12th which was their throw-out. Ironically, for a race where everything went wrong, they clinched the Gold Medal as their closest competition finished fourth.  Regarding re-stepping the Star mast on the water and making the start, Dennis Conner put it best when he told me recently “yes, it was super human.”

Even though they didn’t have to sail on the final day, North and Barrett went out and won the final race to win the series by over 30 points. As Barrett wrote “we were determined not to finish with a 12th!” Silver medalists, Peder Lunde and Per Wiken, from Norway just edged out the Italians, Franco Cavallo and Camillo Gargano by one point while Paul Elvstrom and crew Poul Mik-Meyer finished 4th.

As Iris Engstrand wrote in The San Diego Yacht Club – A History, “Newspaper reports gave extensive coverage to North and his achievements at the Olympics. Many of the club juniors were at the airport carrying large signs at North’s return to San Diego. Other passengers on the plane held back to allow Lowell and Kay North to be first off.  A red carpet and barriers did not contain the juniors. A welcome home parade thrown by the city and a reception at the San Diego Yacht Club honored North for his victory.”