Bill Barton: A legendary life aboard yachts

12/15/2011

Bill Barton stands at the edge of his Bolinas backyard, fittingly perched above an expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The dramatic view of the receding tide and the horizon line is as much a testament to Barton’s zeal for the sea as his home, which teems with nautical artifacts collected from a legendary and lifelong sailing career.

This month Barton, 65, laid claim to another item: the San Francisco Yacht Club’s Emmet L. Rixford Yachtsman of the Year Trophy, one of its highest honors. The wooden halyard block will remain in Belvedere for all members to see.    

“There are a lot of great sailors in that club,” said Barton, dressed in a black sailing jacket and brown Sperry Topsiders. “I’m still kind of on cloud nine.”

The award recognizes a long list of accomplishments: Barton has competed in 16 Etchells World Championships, clinched two Etchells North American Championships, taken first place in 10 Etchells fleet championships in San Francisco, won the celebrated Fastnet Race in the 1977 Admiral’s Cup, and ridden out the fiercest storm of modern sailing history. But his boundless passion for the sport might qualify as an eminent achievement in itself.  

His once sun bleached locks have faded into an orderly crop of parted grey, and his hazel eyes flicker with excitement as he describes his adventures on the water. “You got my adrenalin worked up here, it’s good,” he said on a recent afternoon, seated at a wooden table under half-model awards and burgees from competitions and clubs across the world.

Barton recently spent four years piecing together his self-published The Legend of Imp, a history of the titular vessel he crewed that has gained a small following in the international sailing 
community.  

Barton’s life on the water began at age three, when he slept in the bow of his father’s 30-foot International One Design boat, Aries, as it raced off the shores of Western Long Island Sound’s American Yacht Club in Rye, New York. 
By the time he was eight or nine, he stopped observing and began experimenting with small single-sail dinghies.

“I remember some of the most liberating senses of freedom as a young man just pushing off in a Sailfish or a Sunfish. What a great feeling of independence,” he said. Barton started sailing competitively on 13-foot Blue Jays by the time he was 10, and by 14 he had graduated to the 19-foot Lightings.

At Hamilton College in upstate New York he quickly distinguished himself as a sailor of intense focus and concentration, competing against teams at Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Navy and Vassar.  

After graduating with a psychology major, Barton enrolled at Columbia Business School and found work at the Hershey Company. Stifled by corporate culture and determined to make a positive difference in the world, he resolved to pursue mental health work and moved to California in 1972. The button-down and intolerant East Coast yachting milieu, along with endless light winds and polluted waters, had all but extinguished his hobby.

As Barton enrolled in a masters program and settled into his new professional field, his older brother, a sail maker, suggested he contact Ragnar Hakansson, a San Francisco sailor who was a regular hand on the Improbable crew, which sailed out of Belvedere. Owner David Allen soon invited him onto the boat and the first open ocean sailing experience he had with the vessel left him exhilarated. Rounding the Farallon Islands, the boat surged to over 20 knots along a wave. He was amazed at its velocity and the scenic surroundings.  

Barton became an official regular on the six-man crew, working as a tactician and sail trimmer and competing in the Danforth Ocean Racing Series, a regional competition out of San Francisco Bay. The Glen Waterhouse Race tasked boats, outfitted only with primitive radio direction devices, with navigating the unforgiving fog and wind of the 300-mile trip from St. Francis Yacht Club to a sea buoy in Monterey back to Duxbury-Lightship and under the Golden Gate.

When Improbable grew outmoded, Allen commissioned New Zealander Ron Holland to design what became San Francisco’s most successful yacht, the Imp. The drafts depicted a 40-foot vessel that would be the first of its size to utilize an internal space frame to accommodate the load of the keel and shrouds.

Hakansson traveled to Florida to build the eight-man yacht before the start of the 1977 Southern Ocean Racing Circuit. 
“We were really still screwing things in [as we went] out to the first race,” Barton said. “And we came right out of the gate, and won that race first in class, first in fleet, which is pretty cool. The boat ended up just dominating, like no other boat had.”   

The boat, nicknamed the “unbeatable boiler room,” was spartan. “It was completely stripped out,” Barton said. “There were no comforts in there at all. Our cooking stove was just a little Sterno thing on gimbles. We had a head, which was required, but it was not enclosed so there wasn’t one person who ever used it in all our days of racing. So people would pee or do what they had to do over the side.”

The crew’s performance secured them a berth in the world’s premiere ocean racing event at the time, England’s Admiral’s Cup. After a tightly timed delivery, which included a stopover in Bermuda to replace a broken rudder, the Imp arrived in late July at Cowes, Isle of Wight.

The team faced the three fastest boats from 19 other countries in a five-race series: three in-shore day races, a middle-distance race across the English Channel to France and back, and the renowned 608-mile Fastnet Race, from the Isle of Wight to Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland and concluding in Plymouth, England. The crew recorded a first place finish among 283 starters in the slowest Fastnet in history.

“It took us five and a half days,” Barton said. “There was not enough wind, so boats dropped out because they had no more supplies left. We ran out of food, yeah, so we were down to just a little bit of peanut butter and some crackers and some bullion.”

The Imp had defeated its arch nemesis, a British boat called Moonshine, to take the top score in the Admiral’s Cup. After learning this—and that the United States had finished second to Great Britain—crewmembers took several double shots each of a rare scotch and attended a boozy prize ceremony at the town hall.  

But nothing would match the revelry following the tumultuous 1979 Fastnet. 
In that race, only 87 of the 303 boats that set off from Isle of Wight would finish.

The conditions were placid for the first three days and the crew thought they were headed for their second consecutive win.

Then, just before rounding Fastnet, the vessel faced the most furious seas of modern sailing history.

“This incredible black wall of a storm came in,” Barton said. “By 11 o’clock [p.m.], we were pegged at 60 knots of wind. And then it kept building. It was survival. The sea was a mess. It was unbelievable.”

During that race, five boats sunk, 15 sailors perished, 45 boats did full somersaults in the sea and the largest search and rescue mission since World War II was launched. Small and sturdy, the Imp managed to stay upright. Six crewmembers huddled below deck while two men harnessed to the boat fought the storm in two-hour shifts.

“Anytime you unclipped even for those two seconds, you feared for your life of getting thrown off,” he said. “So you had to know where you were gonna clip in next and be very deliberate about it and pray…”

The storm continued into the next morning, when Barton and longtime friend Skip Allan were on watch. The pair witnessed the two biggest waves of their life, estimated at 60 feet.

“We just let out a scream. We couldn’t believe the size of those waves that fortunately were not breaking,” Barton said. 
As the storm began to recede, the crew raised the sails and managed to take fifth place among the Admiral’s Cup fleet, securing the third highest score in that year’s Admiral’s Cup and helping the US finish second to Australia.

Later, at a Greek restaurant, an inebriated Barton threw plates on the ground, not realizing there were special breakable ones for this activity. After the strays began hitting people’s legs, the staff brought out a pile of clay plates, which he brought back to his hotel room and proceeded to toss out the window for the remainder of his waking hours.

During the race, he and the crew had been so focused on keeping the boat afloat that they hadn’t been consumed with fear. Even after the race finished, no one knew the extent of the tragedy. But when he heard the New York Times had reported that the Imp had sunk and the crew had all been lost, Barton began vomiting and launched into a severe bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. It lasted for months.

The only thing that eased his anxiety was returning to the water.  

In 1980, Barton shifted to a smaller, more reactive 30-foot boat class called the Etchells. Since then, he has won two North American Etchells Championships and appeared in 16 Etchells World Championships, finishing in the top ten nine times.  

“You race hard and these boats are just going about the same speed so any little shift can have tremendous results,” he said.

“And you just get quiet and you concentrate; I love that. You can feel the boat when it’s really locked in.”

Hank Easom, who recently sailed with Barton after competing against him for 30 years, appreciated his fixation on the details. “He’s a goddamn good sailor,” Easom said. “[He keeps] his eyes open all the way around. Bill’s into the thing the whole time. His attention span is terrific.”

In all his Etchells sailing, though, Barton has yet to win worlds. He came close in Sydney’s 1984 competition, but the boat false started in the last race. In 1998, a general recall dashed his hopes while his boat was in position to finish first.     

Barton has not given up. He will compete this year in the Miami Etchells Midwinters and the North American Etchells Championship in Detroit. A business commitment of a fellow crewmember will prevent his team from competing in the 2012 Etchells World Championships in Sydney, but he is already eyeing the competition in Italy in 2013. And he’s considering his opportunities beyond. 
“There’s more, hopefully,” he said, knocking on the wooden table in front of him. “If I’m still able to hike out, I’ll still do [2014]. I definitely wanna win one.”