(By John Rousmaniere) The winner of a record three straight Bermuda Races in Finisterre, a cruising sailor and powerboater of great accomplishment, and one of boating’s best and most influential writers and photographers, Carleton Mitchell died of heart failure on July 16, 2007, at his home in Key Biscayne, Florida. He was 96.
Mitch (as he was always called) first sailed as a boy in an uncle’s racing sloop off New Orleans. He kept a scrapbook in which he pasted pictures of boats, and when he was 12 he answered an inquiry about his plans for a career by announcing, “I want to sail and write about it.” That dream survived college in Ohio and mundane jobs in the Depression (for a while he sold women’s underwear at Macy’s). It even survived a wretched experience in a leaky old ketch that almost sank in the Gulf Stream. When the ketch staggering into Nassau, he began his lifelong love affair with the Bahamas, where he later worked as a writer and photographer. (Photo Credit: John T. Hopf, 1958, copyright Mystic Seaport Carleton Mitchell Collection.)
After wartime service in the U. S. Navy’s photography department, he bought one of John Alden’s old Malabars and, renaming her Carib, sailed to the West Indies, which then were barely known by American sailors. Out of this cruise came the first of his seven books, Islands to Windward (1948), which introduced the charms of Caribbean sailing to Americans and fueled the enthusiasm that produced the first charter fleets. Moving on to a 58-foot Rhodes yawl he named Caribbee, he won a transatlantic race to England and wrote a book about it, Passage East (1953), that was illustrated with some of his best photographs and infused by his affection for the sea. “To desire nothing beyond what you have is surely happiness,” he mused. “Aboard a boat, it is frequently possible to achieve just that. That is why sailing is a way of life, one of the finest of lives.”
All the while Mitch was thinking about the ideal boat. She had to be small enough for a couple to handle easily, beamy enough to be comfortable, shallow enough to cruise in the Bahamas, strong enough to cross an ocean, and fast enough to have a chance at winning some silver. With the concept of a beamy little centerboard yawl in his head, he went to Olin Stephens for the design. The vessel that came out of this collaboration he named Finisterre because he intended to survive happily in her, far beyond the end of land.
Though designed without attention to the rating rules, Finisterre ended up winning three straight Bermuda Races, a record nobody has come close to matching. In the vast firmament of sailing records, the polestar is the one set by this tubby yawl. It is hard enough to win one Bermuda Race. A favorable rating can help, and, Finisterre had one in the first race, but not the other two. Quoting John Nicholas Brown, Bolero’s owner, to the effect that the Bermuda Race is “the great Atlantic lottery,” Mitch sometimes credited blind luck for his successes. But it was not luck that made Finisterre one of the few boats in 1958 to avoid chaos on the starting line and press on to victory through 50-knot squalls. He credited his crew: “On Finisterre we have a basic tenet to keep moving at maximum speed in the wind of the moment. There must be either a trim or a shift in sails every time there is a variation. . . . In no other race in my memory have so many strings been pulled or so many bits of cloth gone up and down the mast. Crew work and helmsmanship have never been more important.” (Photo Credit: Mystic Seaport Rosenfeld Collection)
His crew, meanwhile, credited their skipper. Bunny Rigg put it all down to Mitchell’s “good admiralship” – meaning his powers of forehandedness, organization, and leadership. Two-time Bermuda Race winner Dick Nye explained Finisterre’s success this way: “For one thing, she’s got everything. And he sails the hell out of her.” Mitchell said as much. “My theory was that the time to get everything right is before you leave the dock. And then, once you leave the dock, to be able to drive the hell out of the boat and never have to worry about something carrying away. And if anything did let go on you, the spares were on board with the know-how to put it back together.”
Consider his approach to navigation in that era before long-range electronic position finders. He himself was a bold and skilled celestial navigator. He told me that Finisterre once got lost near Bermuda. “We didn't know where the hell we were. Then with Bunny Rigg holding me, I took a moon sight and we came out right at Northeast Breaker. It was an easy sight.” It may have been easy for him, but sighting the fast-moving moon from a pitching little boat can be like grabbing a firefly. Still, Mitch was careful to sign on at least one more sailor of equal navigational ability so each watch was prepared for an opportunity to take a sight when the overcast momentarily cleared.
If Finisterre had everything, it was the best of everything, as demanded by her owner. Examples of Mitch’s obsessive, painstaking approach fill his correspondence, which is collected at Mystic Seaport. On the day after Christmas, 1953, he wrote a four-page letter to the sailmakers at Ratsey & Lapthorn laying out his high expectations. “I realize all these wants of mine add up to a lot of trouble for you and your people,” he wrote, no doubt correctly, “but I want Finisterre to be a very special little craft, and to me – as I know to you – perfect sails are necessary for performance and pleasure.” Good admirals can be demanding clients.
With her 22,000-pound displacement and 11’3” beam on a waterline of just 27’6” – “the fat little monster,” Mitchell cheerfully called her – Finisterre had the inertia and initial stability that add up to sail-carrying ability. In her first race, as she was beating fast into a hard blow in the company of 50-footers, one of Mitchell’s crew, an amiable Bahamian Star sailor named Bobby Symonette, mused, “I wonder how the little boats are doing tonight.” Something about Finisterre’s performance in this rough stuff had made him forget that she was, in fact, the littlest boat in the fleet. Finisterre did have a problem in light going, but as Olin Stephens has admiringly commented, “her skipper and her crew maintained an almost magical degree of concentration to keep her moving in light airs.” In the long, calm run that made up the early going in the 1960 Bermuda Race, Finisterre tacked downwind and kept up with the lighter boats.
As anybody who ever ate a meal or shared a bottle with Carleton Mitchell knows, the man thoroughly enjoyed his creature comforts. Finisterre may have been only 38 feet long, but her sailing crew of six were looked after by a full-time professional cook, and the off-watch was not merely advised but ordered to get their sleep. This paid off nicely in the final 100 miles of the 1958 race, when line squalls appeared. “Finisterre passed many of her competitors right there,” recalled Rigg, “rolling reefs in and out and changing headsails no less than 20 times with the fluctuations of the breeze simply because she had a well-rested crew.” Two reasons why they were well-rested were the eye shades and ear plugs provided by their skipper.
Few vessels have enjoyed the influence of Finisterre. From the mid-1950s until well into the 1970s, one of the most popular and successful boat models was universally called “the Finisterre-type yawl.” Many beamy, shoal-draft centerboarders in the 32- to 45-foot range were inspired by Finisterre’s racing prowess and by the loving tributes that Mitch paid to his pride and joy in his articles in Yachting and Sports Illustrated. When fiberglass construction came along, these boats cost much less than Finisterre, and sailing enjoyed one of the biggest booms in the sport’s history. Where the 1954 Bermuda Race had just 77 starters, all but a few over 40 feet, in 1966 there were 167 starters, and a whole division was dedicated to boats smaller than that length.
Part of the appeal was that there was much more to the Finisterre breed than racing. Mitchell made her an extremely comfortable floating home, even carrying a phonograph when cruising. He told me that for every mile she raced, she cruised at least ten. After winning the 1956 Bermuda Race, she sailed to the Mediterranean. “It has been a phenomenal trip,” Mitchell wrote home from Gibraltar. “I came, basically, because each time I had gone sailing in Finisterre we had run out of water too soon. So I figured if I pointed the bow east from Bermuda, there would be plenty of water and plenty of sailing. Now I am not sure there was enough of either.” Appropriately, a trophy that Mitch donated for the Bermuda Race has been rededicated as the first-place prize for the Cruising Division. With it goes a half model of Finisterre.
Back on the race course, even as her rating was increased substantially, the boat never finished below third in a major ocean race. In 1958, with only one new sail she won the Bermuda Race again. When she next raced seriously, it was to Bermuda in 1960, and she amazed even her skipper by winning a third time in some of the wildest weather in the race’s history. When the pioneer class for the new Bermuda Race Roll of Honour was selected in 2006, it included Carleton Mitchell. The inscription on his plaque reads as follows: “When he won the 1956, 1958, and 1960 Bermuda Races in his 38-foot yawl Finisterre, Carleton Mitchell tied John Alden’s record for most Bermuda Race overall victories while setting two new ones for consecutive wins and wins by one boat. All those records still stand. In addition to his astonishing on-the-water achievements, Mitch has made innumerable contributions to the race as a writer, photographer, donor of trophies, and friend and inspiration to all who sail offshore.”
The 1960 race was his last serious sailboat race as skipper. He went on to cruise in Finisterre and several powerboats, many of them heavy-displacement trawlers – a type that became popular thanks in part to his reports of his cruises to the Galapagos and elsewhere.
All along, whether racing or cruising, Mitch was writing gracefully and incisively about his and others’ boats and activities for Yachting, MotorBoating, Sports Illustrated, National Geographic, and other magazines, and in his books. Islands to Windward was followed by Yachtsman’s Camera (1951), a beautifully illustrated guide not only to sailing but to the methods of photography at sea. Fascinated by maritime history, he edited and annotated a collection of accounts of great voyages titled Beyond Horizons (1953). (When Leah and I visited him and Ruth, his wife, last Christmas, he and I spent a part of an afternoon marveling at the seamanship of Captain William Bligh in his longboat voyage after the Bounty mutiny.) Later came one of the best accounts of America’s Cup racing, Summer of the Twelves (1959), based in part on his experience as navigator of the Cup contender Weatherly. Mitch also wrote another book about the West Indies, Isles of the Caribbees (1966) published by the National Geographic Society, and a collection of his best articles, The Winds Call (1971).
These books have meant a lot to me and others. When I was a teenage sailor-reader, I so identified the name “Carleton Mitchell” with writing and photography that, on hearing that someone of that name had won the Bermuda Race, I asked my father if they were related. When he explained that they were one and the same man, I thought to myself, “This fellow can sail pretty well, too.” I first met this fellow several years later in Acapulco. He had raced down from San Diego in a Kialoa, and I, just 19 and speechless with awe, was helping his friend Hod Fuller deliver a 77-foot motorsailer to Greece. In the 1970s he would stop by the office of the old Yachting, where I was a young editor. We became acquaintances, he taking an avuncular interest in my career, and I becoming a little less speechless.
When I attempted to recruit him to give a talk at a symposium on yachting history, I was astonished when this seemingly confident man confessed outright that nothing frightened him more than the prospect of having to make a speech. Even prize ceremonies terrified him, he said, demonstrating that every success comes at a price, and every good man can admit vulnerability.
A hurricane made us friends. After Andrew blew the roof off his office, he solved the clean-up problem by donating his accumulated photographs and correspondence to Mystic Seaport. It was my pleasure to spend three days elbow to elbow with Carleton Mitchell – by day sorting and filing the photographs and papers to be shipped up to Mystic, by night sipping Champagne and enjoying Ruth’s magnificent cooking, and all the time talking of boats and sailors and their lot at sea. He knew and was not afraid to admit the mixed pleasure, awe, and fear that arise in a sailor’s heart, sometimes all at once. The photograph he chose for the jacket of the first edition of Passage East shows a sunrise on an ominously glassy sea over which a tense sailor keeps a close watch. The mood of wary challenge is expanded on it the text, where Mitch writes this about “the somewhat fantastic nature of ocean racing”:
“Here we are, nine men, driving a fragile complex of wood, metal, and cloth through driving rain and building sea, a thousand miles from the nearest harbor; no one to see or admire or applaud; no one to help if our temerity ends in disaster. . . . Our attitude is not even wholly based on the competitive aspect of racing. It is that we all feel there is just one way to do things, one standard, one code, and we live up to it for our own satisfaction. We are driven by our own compulsions, each personal and secret, so nebulous we probably could not express them to our mates if we tried. But in our own way, we are about as dedicated as it is possible for men to be.”
Carleton Mitchell was 42 when he wrote that paean to adventure. He was still pursuing his watery compulsions half a century later as he and Ruth cruised on the Mediterranean, and from his South Florida home to his beloved Islands. He celebrated his eighty-ninth birthday sailing on the Adriatic in Finisterre, now with a good owner in Venice. An accident and Parkinson’s called a halt to such pleasures, but when I telephoned in 2005 to wish him a happy ninety-fifth birthday, he told me he was looking for another new boat – a houseboat on which he could get around in his wheelchair. It was just like Mitch to want to get back on the water in something beamy and comfortable. He found that boat, and after he took delivery, his always strong voice, which had been a little weary, was sounding spry again.