Recollections of the Maracaibo, Venezuela Star Fleet
By Oster RA Bayne
Jan 3, 2004
Bayne and Claugh with 1939 "State of Zulia" trophy
My father, Oster RA Bayne, was born in 1903 in Trinidad, then in the British West Indies. He was the eldest son of Samuel Howard Russell and Emily Leonora Bayne. The first Bayne had migrated to Barbados, another British Island Colony, from England in the 1790s to pursue a new life as a planter and then merchant. Subsequently, three generations were born there including Oster's father who arrived in Trinidad in 1880. In 1925 with the local economy in poor shape, my father decided to try his luck in nearby Venezuela, then experiencing an "oil rush". He arrived in Maracaibo in November 1925 and was employed on the gold payroll (paid in gold coins) working for an American oil company called Lago Petroleum. The company was later re-named Creole, a subsidiary of ESSO. He commenced work as a "Yields Clerk " in the oil field on the eastern shores of the lake under rather primitive conditions but was later transferred to the Marine Department in Maracaibo in 1929, where he worked for the rest of his career with the company. He married Olga Margarita Ortega Echeverria in 1932 and settled down to family life.
In 1934 when he took up Star Class sailing, life in Maracaibo was much changed from the early years in the fields, or indeed in Maracaibo, when he first arrived. Things were improving fast but his life was centred on work and the social clubs run for the families in the oil camps. There was always a great competitive spirit between the various companies, especially between Lago, Gulf and Shell and this spilled over into the sport of sailing as well. While "hacking out" his sailing career he held down a demanding job and also had to support a wife and five children, so both spare time and funds were precious. That he accomplished so much is amazing to us, his family.
Stars sailing on Lake Maracaibo in 1939
Venezuela and Trinidad were both discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1498. The following year Amerigo Vespucci further explored the coast of Venezuela as far as Lake Maracaibo and subsequently Spanish settlers arrived. Both remained Spanish Colonies until the British wrested Trinidad from them in 1797, later ceded to Britain by Spain in 1802. Venezuela, as part of "Gran Colombia", gained its independence from Spain in 1821 after a 10 year struggle. Venezuela separated from Colombia in 1830 and retained Spanish as the official language. Lake Maracaibo is at the north western edge of Venezuela, which is itself the northern most country in South America. Trinidad is an English-speaking island that lies some 7 miles off the eastern coast of Venezuela and was still a Colony in 1925. Trinidad has been an independent member of the British Commonwealth since 1963.
My Father's description of his Star Class sailing days with the Maracaibo Fleet follows:
Skippers and crew of the Maracaibo Star fleet
The Maracaibo Yacht Club was formed, as I recall, in the latter part of 1929. Subsequently an old residential home on a large piece of land along the shoreline at Bella Vista was rented and used as a clubhouse. All yachts were of the "Star Class" type, and all registered in the United States in the "International Star Class Yacht Racing Association". All races were run strictly in accordance with the I.S.C.Y.R.A., racing rules and regulations. Schedules for the year's racing were always prepared early in the year. In general, local commercial houses or representatives of manufacturers of oilfield equipment donated the prizes. All races, or each series, consisted of six to eight races, including the "Lake Maracaibo Championship Series" and prizes were awarded to yachts finishing first, second and third, in each series. When there were no scheduled races for any given period, we would sail for silver cocktail cups, donated by the Club.
Prizes were distributed yearly at either the Lago Petroleum (Creole/ESSO) or the Gulf Petroleum (Mene Grande) camp clubhouse, with club grounds appropriately decorated. These events were run under the excellent direction of Dave Porterfield, George Johnston and Charlie Schultz, with other members giving a helping hand. Arrangements were made to hold a dance after the prize giving function and all members were allowed to bring guests, making the necessary table reservations, etc. This dance was, without doubt, one of the best and most gala functions of the year and quite a number of persons both in the city and the oil camps looked forward, with keen interest, to this event. Naturally, we always had the best live music available and drinks were sold at quite moderate prices thus helping ensure the function's popularity.
In 1934 I became a member of the Yacht Club and was made official starter. Later I became Secretary/Treasurer, a position I held for many years. As Secretary I was also in charge of the clubhouse and grounds and during my administration we installed a new dance floor (concrete) which was an open air affair near the lake shore, sunshades under the palm trees, asphalt walks, as well as a bar and snack-bar. These improvements were made possible mainly through various generous corporate and or company donations. In particular, I recall Mr. Frank C. Laurie, of Lago Petroleum, who was Commodore of the Fleet, donating the materials (second-hand) from his company, to construct a new pier. The donation included the free use of a floating pile-driver. The pier was built of concrete slabs over driven piles and was approximately one hundred and twenty five feet long with a platform at the end, on which a proper flagpole, with yardarms was erected and used for starting and signalling during races. We were very proud of our new pier and that clubhouse site is now the location of one of the finest yacht clubs in Venezuela.
In 1935, the yacht "Chuckle" No 284. was put up for sale and Fred Smith, Managing Director of Maracaibo Oxygen Plant and I decided to buy it and try our luck at sailing. Well, being what one would call "novices", we were almost always near the tail-end or actually bringing up the rear. Fred was usually the skipper and I the jibman. We sailed together for about a year, and in 1936, the Maracaibo Oxygen Plant opened their head-office in Caracas and Fred was transferred there leaving me as sole owner of Chuckle.
After Fred's departure I continued sailing recruiting jibmen from friends who worked at Lago Petroleum. Unfortunately, as with Fred, without much success and I almost always ended up in the tail end. I can still remember my sailing companions laughing at me for being such a dependable "tail end Charlie".
On Christmas morning 1938, Mr Frank C. Laurie, very generously gave me a new set of sails as a Christmas present. He must have noticed that my sails were in terrible condition being very baggy and out of shape. It took me a little while to break in the new sails, which had to be done slowly, otherwise, they too would have gotten out of shape. After having broken in the new sails, which were for heavy weather, being thicker material, I decided to cut my old lighter sails to try and take out or to reduce, as much as possible, the baggy parts and also to shorten its length, which had also stretched considerably. To achieve this I laid the sails flat, both main and jib on the tennis court, pinned them down as tight as I could and then went to work as best I could, not having had any previous experience.
When that was done, my wife Olga sewed it where it was marked or pinned together. As Ripley said "believe it or not" my sails fit perfectly and the difference was observed immediately. I was seldom bringing up the rear and more usually ended a race close up to the front. I never looked back from then onwards, winning many races and series, including the "Fleet Championship Series". I especially remember one set of special yacht races sponsored by the "Asociacion Atletica del Zulia" in both 1939 and 1940. This event was held annually on the 12th of October, the "Dia de la Raza" and for those years the President was Sr. Rafael Echeverria G. The prizes were donated by the "Executive of the State of Zulia", and presented by the President of the State.
Lake Maracaibo is very large inland but not quite land-locked lake. In the 1930s the lake, fed by many rivers, held mainly fresh water as the narrows connecting it to the Gulf of Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea were narrow and shallow with relatively little salt water entering. Since then the entrance has been dredged for ocean going vessels and the lake's ecology is changing. The lake's weather makes for variable sailing and is generally calm with moderate breezes, ranging from ten to twenty miles per hour. On occasions it can also be "dead calm" with hardly any breeze, if any, at all. However, during the "Chubasco" or stormy season, it gets very rough indeed with storms suddenly appearing and winds between fifty to sixty miles per hour or more. On such days when it was very rough many yachts broke their masts or tore their sails.
1941 Star Class Log
I remember, in particular, one race early in 1940 sponsored by Chester M Crebbs, then Manager of Gulf Oil Corporation's operations nation-wide based in Caracas. Mr Crebbs had once lived in Maracaibo and had been on many occasions, Maracaibo Fleet Champion. As a matter of fact, at that time, either Frank C. Laurie or Chester Crebbs normally won the prestigious Championship Series. In 1940 Mr Crebbs came to Maracaibo on a short business visit with Sr. Carlos Henry and while there arranged to have a special race.
On the day in question, soon after the race started, gale force winds suddenly began to blow, getting stronger and stronger, resulting in several boats breaking their masts and or tearing their sails. Sailing that day was particularly difficult and you might say "challenging", given the terrible conditions. Of the eight original starters, only four finished the race, with the yacht "Chuckle" crossing the finish line first and with Mr Crebbs in "Star Baby" in second berth, quite some distance behind, an unaccustomed position for him. I received from Sr. Henry a lovely wristwatch for having won the race and believe I am right in saying the event is registered in the Star Class Log Book for the year 1941.
End of my Father's sailing entry in his memoirs.
My Father ceased sailing abruptly in about 1942, sold his yacht Chuckle and never sailed again. Why, I do not know. However, he continued to maintain an interest in the sport and remained close friends with his ex-sailing chums for years. He was always proud of what he had accomplished with his boat and cherished his trophies for the rest of his life.
Oster worked for Lago/Creole for 27 years ending up in 1953 as Superintendent of the Marine Department, responsible for 13 shallow draft ocean going tankers and 1,000 staff. He took early retirement to return home and work in a family business in Trinidad with his three brothers. After a comparatively peaceful sojourn in the land of his birth, he died in 1973 leaving a wife and seven grateful children. For the last few years of his life he undertook to write his memoirs describing his eventful life in the "wild west" type environment that were the oil fields of Venezuela in the 1920s and 30s. The book was never published but is a treasured document for children scattered all over the world. It is from this source that I have taken the words describing his sailing with the Maracaibo Fleet from 1935 to 1942 in commemoration of his 100th birth year.
Oster J A Bayne
Civil Engineer, Retired,
31 December, 2003
For further information on Maracaibo and the Venezuela oil fields in the 1930s-1940s go to:
http://www.cclausen.com, click on Ursula Bayne's Journal and look at the shared photos.
http://www.randytrahan.com, click on "oil fields of Venezuela", Maracaibo, Gallery No 1 for views of the Creole club in the 1940s.