I read the On Watch piece about my friend Sheila McCurdy yesterday, which brought back many memories of the early 1970s, Sheila, and her father, Jim. John Rousmaniere will remember the gang of extraordinary offshore sailors at Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Sheila was immersed in offshore sailing as a young woman, even from the outside, and she had a sailing sister in Cold Spring Harbor, in Susan Noyes, daughter of David Noyes, Jr., who was Jim’s opposite watch captain on Caper and Zest. I later did three Bermuda races on Dave’s boat, an Ohlsson 38 yawl called Elixir, with Susie Noyes and some of the Zest crew. I think Jim had drawn the lines for Commodore H. Irving Pratt’s 57’ sloop Caper, when he was at Philip Rhodes in 1957. Caper was built by Knutson Shipbuilding in Huntington, and now lives in Oyster Bay as part of Hunt Lawrence’s fleet. I began crewing for Capt. Pratt in 1968, having met him at Knutson’s yard while working on my Dad’s K-35.
After the 1970 Bermuda Race, Irving asked Jim, then at his own firm, McCurdy & Rhodes, to design a replacement for Caper, which he did, as almost a twin of Carina, which Jim had just drawn for Richard Nye (now owned by Rives Potts). Carina was 48’ and Zest 47’, both aluminum, and built by a yard in Erie, PA, then building mostly Swift boats for the Navy Riverine forces in Viet Nam. I sailed as regular bowman on Zest for five years, until Irving died in 1975. Jim was my watch captain. One story about the 1972 Bermuda Race on Zest, where it blew really hard. I remember Jim getting into his oilskins at about 0330, in the glow of the one oil lamp in the cabin, the stump of a cigar clamped in his mouth.
Later, on deck, Jim was driving when we plowed through an especially big wave (it was blowing in the neighborhood of 50 knots). All three of his watch were tethered on the weather deck and the solid water sent us aft to the end of our tethers. Zest had a quirky motion in a big sea, where her stern would pop up. When we took that sea, Jim, sitting on the lazarette hatch with both hands on the wheel, was catapulted up, along with the lazarette hatch cover, and he came down, butt into the lazarette, without the hatch cover. He came up spluttering, and I’ll never forget his first words – “Is everybody here?”
We had nine in crew on that race, all experienced offshore sailors, and I remember making a sail change in the dark of night. That sail change, I think from a #3 to a #4, or maybe #4 to storm jib, in 50 knots of breeze, took a couple of hours, with me changing the tack on the bow, being underwater most of the time. It was, of course, an all-hands drill, and not a word was spoken all during the change. Everybody knew the drill and sequence, and just did it!
Reading the article about Sheila has triggered memories of my sailing with the Cold Spring Harbor crowd and Sheila’s father Jim, a great yacht designer, sailor and curmudgeon! Jim was selected by Capt. John Bonds to design the Naval Academy’s first generation of 44’ sloops, to replace the fleet of aging 44’ Luders yawls. John knew he was getting solid boats for offshore skills training for the Midshipmen.
So, with her skills and background, Sheila’s involvement on the Fales Committee is no surprise. She has been an extraordinary leader of both women and men in offshore sailing, and a solid innovator and proponent of Safety at Sea. Hats off to her for the amazing career she has had in pursuit of excellence in safety and enjoyment in offshore sailing!
Wes Oliver, Norwalk, CT
(Editor’s note: WindCheck is honored to have Sheila McCurdy “On Watch” in our 200th issue. If you missed the article, it’s online at windcheckmagazine.com/article/sheila-mccurdy/. Because we had insufficient space for all the wisdom Sheila shared in our interview, here’s a sea story (with a valuable lesson) in her words:
“The crew of Selkie received the Hanson Rescue Medal for a man overboard recovery made simple by good training. We were a couple of hours from the finish of the Newport Bermuda Race, skirting the North Reef with a 12-knot SW breeze and flat water on a clear but moonless night. We could clearly see the lights ashore miles away. My brother Ian and two others had just set the spinnaker and dropped the jib. We were on a fairly close reach moving well. I was on the helm. My other brother Charles was trimming the sheet. The mastman yelled, “Ian’s Overboard!” With the spinnaker pole almost on the headstay, I turned Selkie into the wind.
“The spinnaker was plastered against the rigging making a racket. The flogging mainsail added to the cacophony. I called for the spinnaker halyard to be dropped at the mast to give us maneuverability to turn around. Nothing happened. Someone in the cockpit said they thought they had seen Ian go by the leeward quarter. I knew he had a lifejacket on, but in the dark could not see him even a few feet away. I yelled his name. He answered from the foredeck, which brought me up short. The explanation was simple. To his great credit, Ian had clipped his tether to the jackline even on a lovely, warm night. The guys at the bow did not drop the kite because they saw his tether and were hauling him back aboard. We cleaned up the deck and got racing again.
“I believe the Hanson Committee of US Sailing awarded the medal to our crew because we practiced and demonstrated safe procedures and emergency response, but also because of the lessons learned. On a dark night, limitless visibility does not help seeing a person in the water only feet away from the boat. With sails flogging communications were nearly impossible, even on a 38-footer.
“Selkie is a strong, maneuverable sea boat that can be turned into the wind from a shy reach and not risk losing the rig. By stopping Selkie almost instantaneously, I didn’t drag Ian under the leeward bow and risk drowning him.” ■