Sep 7, 2009, 8:18 AM
Post #52 of 55
Tom Blackaller was my sailing father. He grabbed a hold of me when I was 19. I knew how to sail but he taught me how to race. I left his umbrella when I was 28 to work for Raul Gardini. Tom had a huge effect on my sailing career. I was so fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
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I began crewing in Stars in 1977 and met Tom around the docks that summer. In 1978, I needed to learn how to match race to compete in a youth event in Newport Beach called the Governor’s Cup. Already a Star World Champion, extremely adept speaker, extremely good looking, a natural litigator, Blackaller was brash and intimidating. But I had just enough nerve to ask him to teach me how to match race.
I told him I would get two Santana 20’s down to the dock in front of his office every Wednesday at noon if he would sail against me for one hour. He agreed. So for about 8 weeks that summer, Billy George, Russ Silvestri and I learned from the King. At the end of it, I bought a bottle of his favorite scotch whiskey (yes, I could buy at 18, no fake ID required) and put it on his desk as a thank you. We finished second in the Govenor’s Cup after I put my fist through the wall of the protest room after jury chairman Dick Deaver threw me out of a race.
Later that summer, Tom asked me to crew for him in the Star North American’s in Toronto. The deal was that I had to drive the boat out there as he would fly in from Europe and, in fact, he would miss the first race. I was excited and of course agreed. Craig Healy and I drove the boat out there with Craig’s Laser on the roof of Tom’s old blue Chevy Malibu station wagon (aka the blue pig). We got to Toronto one week early. After getting a few reprimands for not wearing our T-shirts in the 100 degree heat while washing the boat in the boat park (very conservative - the Royal Canadian YC/ Paul Henderson), we took the boat out every day and trained against the likes of Durward Knowles, Ding Schoonmaker, Buddy Melges. Not bad for 19 year old kids from San Francisco.
Finally Tom showed up and we went out to race the second race. It wasn’t that simple but if I don’t move along here, this will turn into a novel. (Something about not wearing a blazer to get on the club launch that takes you out to the island that the RCYC is on - Henderson again) We were almost out of the regatta that morning thanks to Tom’s language.
Anyway, we get out on the race track and around the bottom mark the first time, we are in second. Bill Buchan with Doug Knight crewing are winning, Dennis Conner with Ron Anderson are in third, Buddy with Andreas Josenhans are in fourth, Schoonmaker, Knowles, Driscoll, Wright, Whipple, Allsop, etc. Now for the not-so-nurturing part of Tom:
Me to Tom as I slide out over the side into the mini hike, “How is the jib?”
Tom replies,“WHAT!” in a high pitched, almost female voice.
Me a bit more sheepishly now, “How is the jib? Is it on the marks?”
Tom, “Yea, anywhere in there is fine. If that was important, I’d be doing it!”
Me to myself, “Oh.”
Nothing said for about 10 minutes as I curled up into a ball and pretended to melt into the topsides.
I got into the big time thanks to Tom. He took me to my first SORC in 1982, he took me to my first America’s Cup in 1983 where I was a trimmer with Mike Toppa and Rod Davis on Defender. Tom gave me my first job in the industry working at North Sails San Diego with Lowell, Vince Brun and Gary Weisman, and he sent me to Italy to fill in as skipper for Lorenzo Bortolotti on Nitissima in the ‘84 Sardinia Cup where we were top boat. That set my career in motion as Gardini and Landolif noticed a new young sailor from California.
In 1986, Tom got another AC program together this time out of our home club, St. Francis. USA was a wild idea, a boat with two rudders and a “T-Keel”. It was right up Tom’s alley. He wasn’t patient enough to do the Cup the way Dennis did it….4200 hours on the water two boat testing. Tom wanted fast results. It almost worked even though we had NO money and the concept was far from fully developed.
Dennis was Tom’s biggest rival. Probably because they were both from California, because Dennis won the Star worlds three years before Tom, and because they were so different. This rivalry got taken to a higher and almost false level in the America’s Cup because the media loved to wind it up. But the truth is that there was a lot of respect there, at least on Tom’s side. There was even friendship at times. I remember being in the living room of Tom’s apartment in Alameda, CA in 1978 before the SF Star Worlds that year and Dennis and Tom sharing a couple of beers and weighing each other on the scale.
I could go on and on but one last thought….the side of Tom that few people saw. When the 1983 Cup finished up, my best friend and roommate Kenny Keefe and I were packing our bags. Tom came by and gave each of us a check for $1000 out of his personal checking account. We had not been paid one cent over two years and we were pretty much broke. I don’t think Tom ever had any real money, but he found it in his heart to give us a little bit of what little he had.
I know we have stars in sailing now, but I don’t think we have ever had someone with as much Star power as Thomas David Blackaller. He was ahead of his time and, unfortunately for us, he departed too soon.