There was breeze enough at the start of Lauderdale, when the big A Class racing yachts swooped by each other's bows and the horn sounded to start the sixth annual race to the southernmost tip of the United States.
"Dive, dive!" came frantic cries from up forward. Skipper Jack King swung the wheel hard over and Merrythought crashed through the wakes of Running Tide and Williwaw, heading south in front of a dozen other boats. The race was on.
There is just plain nothing like the knife-edge exhilaration of offshore racing on big, fast yachts. Where Merrythought goes, she's as likely as not to be leading the fleet.
"She's fast," said Danny Leary, her paid captain, the man who makes sure everything works. "I've been doing this for 15 years, delivering yachts, racing. I've been on a lot of boats but I never saw any faster, pound for pound, than Merrythought."
Merrythought isn't as much the name of the boat as it is the name of a commitment -- King's commitment to owning and running the best racing boat in the world, if he can.
In the last eight years, there have been four Merrythoughts, all owned by this gray-whiskered beer distributor from Fairfax, Va. This latest, launched in October 1979, is a 45-foot aluminum Frers design. She was part of a three-boat U.S. team that won the Sardinia Cup in the Mediterranean last summer. The cup is one of yacht racing's most coveted prizes.
Now she was back for the winter season in more familiar waters.
Last week's Key West race was the tuneup for the annual Southern Ocean Racing Conference, the top annual U.S. competition. After three weeks of offshore racing starting Feb. 7, SORC will establish the cream of the 1981 American crop. The top three boats will represent the nation next summer in England's Admirals Cup.
Jack King intends to rise to the top again.
The wind fell out Thursday when Fort Lauderdale still was receding in the dim distance. Sky blue holes poked through an overcast sky. Blue-gray water swept less and less quickly under Merrythought's perfect white hull.
"What are we gonna do?" somebody asked King.
"I don't know," he bellowed back in his foghorn voice. "Park it, I guess.
Have a couple drinks. You know, a little dinner."
He was joking. He also was right.
After eight hours of racing, there were only 20 miles on the log. The condos of Miami were silhouetted in the light of the setting sun. Merrythought's spinnaker hung limp in the still, cool air three miles off the beach.
She'd slid out from shore while the rest of the fleet stayed inside. The other boats were moving. She was Merrythought. Only she was going backward, with the tide.
"Cripes," someone said, "let's drop the hook."
Not every race is a smashing success, even for great boats and good crews like Merrythought's. They sat for an hour or more, watching a fingernail sliver of moon rise over Miami and smaller, slower boats slip by closer to shore where there was no foul current.
At last came a whisper of breeze. The spinnaker went up, the hook was raised. Merrythought sailed slowly at first, the crew of 13 operating with cat-like grace to keep her moving. Then came the wind, moderate at first when half the crew went below for sleep.
As the men lay in their bunks, the boat heeled more and more severely until she was rocketing through the chop at eight knots.
"Damn, we're flying," first mate Scott Bradford said from his rack.
It was sudden and severe. At 8:08 p.m., load exceeded reason on the big spinnaker and it exploded at the top. The boat lurched wildly, the slumbering crewmen leapt from their bunks and clambered above to help out. A new chute was set and the long night was under way.
"We're night fighters," Leary said. "We'll be passing those other boats like trees along the roadside."
The crew split up to do three hours on, three off. There was no slowing down. As the wind dropped two knots, men raced to positions on the lurching deck to change foresails; if it switched direction by 10 degrees, they'd shift from a jib to a spinnaker, take in or let out a flattening reef in the mainsail.
It was cold and fast and exciting, riding the razor edge of perfect trim and perfect equipment on a boat so light and tight that when you step on the deck, the aluminum pops in and out like an oil can.
"The skin only has to be thick enough to keep the water out," Bradford explained.
Merrythought raced past boats under waht grew into an incredible starlit sky. Each passing was noted, the competition disparagingly assessed.
"There goes another one with windows," Gregg Garnett said, pointing to the lights of a slower boat. "A 41-foot Winnebago with a mast."
Merrythought was defending champion in the Key West race, having romped home at the head of the fleet last January. The distinction is significant, since the winning boat gets to host the wet-T-shirt contest during the insane weekend of parties that follows the race.
The crew wanted this one but they didn't get it. The tactical error of getting caught in the foul current early in the race was too great to overcome. g
From a position hopelessly back in the pack, Merrythought did manage to rocket to fifth place in A Class, the top category in the race. The winner was Bravura, a Frers-designed sister ship to Merrythought.
She didn't win, but she showed this intrepid observer an undeniable something.
"Stick with this boat, man," Leary said when the race was done. "Just stick with it.You haven't seen anything. We're gonna win it all."