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Preview: SPARKLE: The Boat to Beat

April 2, 2015

In 1947, two NASA rocket scientists started playing around with sailboat design. The result was SPARKLE: the boat to beat on the U.S. west coast for the next six decades.

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– I was sailing down the coast on the Lady Washington, which is our state flag ship. I had been on board for about nine months and I decided that I should probably buy a boat because I loved it, was having fun, I was 19 or so. Walking to waterfront in San Diego, I saw Sparkle sitting there. It had a for sale sign on it, and a price I could nearly afford, which was for sale, $3500 and a good car. And all the crew of the Lady Washington and the Chieftan came and looked and said no way, don’t get that boat. I offered him five grand, and he took it so I bought this derelict, sinking boat with my college fund instead of going to school, put it on a truck brought it to Port Townsend. Sparkle was built in 1947 down in Southern California by a man named Alex Irving. Really neat guy. He designed a boat with a friend of his, Norm Schwartz. Alex and all of his crew worked for jet propulsion laboratories for NASA, so they had access to the CalTech tank testing and things like that. They were avid sailors, loved racing, Southern California. They wanted a boat that would go a little faster than they had been racing in the past. They started with the lines of a New Bedford Whale boat, and they lengthened them a time and a half for size, and gave it a little more keel rocker, and came up with this. Came up with Sparkle. Designing boats was really easy because all of the math they always had to do was for rockets and spaceships and stuff to go through air, so they thought that designing something to go through water was easy! We benefited quite a bit from that I’d say. Alex owned the boat for 32 years and raced it competitively the whole time. She won the Lipton Cup down in Southern California, she was a force to be reckoned with apparently. We have all of these trophies, we’ve got a full trophy room that they had. Yeah, took Guy out on a couple of races. I just spent 10 years before I came to Port Townsend teaching sailing skills to young people and making sure everybody knew how to be safe on the water. So Brian’s this young guy that I met. He’s got this new boat Sparkle which was falling apart. And I went down there, I had to see Brian’s approach to sailing, which was kind of refreshing, which is to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, and have a really great time.

– We started late, and we’d pass every boat in the fleet and finish with a couple feet of water in the bilge, but ahead of everybody else. I didn’t know anything about racing at all, I’d never done any, but had taken Guy on both of those races and it was obvious the boat was worth saving. To him. I just thought it was worth having as it was.

– It wasn’t until I saw the boat hauled out of the water that I really got excited about being involved in Sparkle. I’ve been racing all my life, Sparkle I could tell was something special. She was really clean in her lines, these V-shaped sections that come back together aft and stand behind her when she’s hauled out on the hard, you just know she’s fast. She just looks fast underwater, and she is.

– If my memory’s right we went out that first season and won 57 out of 62 races, two seconds and three thirds. A lot of that is small-town relaxed racing, while a lot of it was not. Yeah we raced her for seven years or so, all the time. 70 races a year, for some reason the boat draws people to it, it seems like we never fail to have people walking down the docks saying, can I come sailing, all the time. And we said yes, if they had beer, of course, and if they were women. But, we’d have eight or 10 people on the boat, every race, two or three races a week. And always new people coming. We’ve taken hundreds of new people out sailing and introduced them to sailing, or at least introduced them to racing. I really think that’s been a great part of Sparkle’s story, is having so many people able to get out on the water as well as able to learn a little bit about sailing and learn a little about racing, and why it’s important to keep it around, I think. We did a little bit of a rebuild in ’99, 2000, somewhere in there. Had it hauled out and fixed the things that were really bad, and we found out about Alex, who was 88 years old at the time, while we were doing this first little rebuild on the boat. And got in touch with him, he had owned this boat for 32 years and was in some failing health and having a hard time. And told him what we were doing and we were rebuilding the boat, and he got so excited, it reinvigorated him. He started golfing again every week and taking ladies out, he started dating and going on cruises with women, in his late 80s! And ended up getting Alex and eight of his crew from the 40s and 50s to come up and go sailing with us after we launched. All of these old guys came up and, such a blast to hear all the history and hear all of the old stories of the boat. We were really concerned. We changed a lot of things, the cockpit is a really different layout, we put a spade rudder in it, not sure how he’d feel about a lot of that, but he got up here and he was just really complimentary and super nice. He told us all, oh this is so much better than when I had it, and oh you guys have done a way better job than I would have done. You know you worry about things that like adding carbo blocks and modern line and things like that because there are so many traditionalists out there, and Alex said that the traditionalists weren’t around back then, traditionally you would want whatever is the fastest, whatever is the best for the boat, you don’t want something that doesn’t work very well, but is in period of the boat, you would never do that. He was very complimentary of all the high-tech changes because he thought that that was what it should be, it should be a race boat the whole time. We had a great sail with those old guys. They scared us a little bit, you know they just kind of wandered down a dock and just jumped on, they didn’t say hi, how you doing? You know Alex of course was greetin’ us, but the whole crew just jumped on and resumed their old positions. They’re pulling sails out and hanking sails on, getting everything ready to go, and it was a beautiful day but it was a little overcast and a little windy. It was October I think in the Northwest, gets a little nasty. And we left the dock, the wind building and building, and these guys are laughing and having a great time of course. They told us all these great stories of when they used to race the boat. And Guy and I are getting a little concerned, ’cause these guys are all, ah, the youngest guy was about 78 or something like that. And it looks like they’re having a hard time getting around, Sparkle sails on her ear, she’s really heeled over, and so Guy and I are kind of talking amongst ourselves about reefing, but they overheard us and reefing! Your turnbuckles aren’t even underwater yet! So okay, we said, fine, we’ll keep going, ripped the outhall out of the boom, tore up tracks, and the guys had a blast. This is exactly how it oughta be, they told us. So alright, we’ll stop reefing until our turnbuckles are under water, and it’s done well for us through the years, sometimes we wished we’d reefed, but then we think back to Alex and the boys and alright. Let’s just keep going, sail on. And just made it all more special for us and give us more reason to care for the boat and to want to continue the tradition and try to keep history going. He called probably every two or three weeks and tried to catch us while we were out sailing so he could talk to me while we were racing. Are you winning? He would always call and are you winning? It’s how he’d answer the phone. Yeah, we’re doing good, we’re out in front of everybody. Oh, I knew you would be! It’s really sweet old guy in his 90s by this time. But it wasn’t until 2007 we hauled out to do a complete rebuild. I guess what really led to the decision to rebuild was the constant sinking and the little work we had done in the shop in 2000, we fastened with bronze and moved our locations, but we were still using old planking and the jib tracks would lift the top two planks if we were pushing it hard, of course by that time we’re rail down and a pile of water would flow into the boat, and a lot of little things like that would keep up from being able to race the boat. As well as scare most people that were onboard. And we decided that we needed to do a little better job rebuilding. So we hauled out in 2007 and neither one of us has much money, couldn’t hire anybody to do anything, so we had to do almost all of the work ourselves. We had a lot of volunteer help and had help learning some planking, but the rest was just Guy and I. For five years! Well anyway, we did tons of good work on the boat and got a bunch of people out sailing with us and we started winning races. We kept in good touch with Alex through the years, and the week we hauled out to do this complete rebuild on the boat was the week he died. He will be missed on Sparkle. But he gave us one heck of a boat, and we’re gonna try to keep it going for Alex.



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