Remembering Tom Blackaller
By David Bolles and Skip Allan
From fast cars to fast boats, one-design helmsman Tom Blackaller (1937-1989) had his greatest success in the 6-Meter and Star classes including two national, three world, and four Western Hemisphere titles. Blackaller’s America’s Cup candidates were Defender (1983), and USA (1987), the latter a very fast, experimental design with fore-and-aft rudders and a ballast pod known as "the geek."
A sailmaker who ran North’s San Francisco loft, Blackaller was one of Lowell North’s most visible and audible "Tigers."
Memories from David Bolles:
I knew Tom Blackaller’s family even before I was born. Tom’s aunt Dr. Brock was my mother’s obstetrician and my “deliverer”. My parents formed a friendship with Dr. Brock and her husband Dr. Watson and for the next 25 years I would be part of various Morris-Blackaller family functions both in Berkeley and at Inverness on Tamales Bay in Marin County, California where they had a summer place. Tom was one of a brood of children who roamed around at these events so I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of the crowd, and I am sure I was much the same for him. However, in 1957 we both bought Stars and that brought us together on a more personal basis.
Tom’s first boat was an old clunker, Star # 2482, “Spirit”. It was a round pumpkin of a boat and it wouldn’t surprise me if the waterline was at least a foot shorter than other Stars of the time. Somehow Tom got the boat to go to windward pretty well, but once he rounded the weather mark “whoa Nelly”, the boat would put on the breaks!
“Plumb” bow boats were being built by Skip Etchells and Carl Eichenlaub, and Tom figured this would make his boat faster. While I was off somewhere for a couple of weeks Tom did major surgery to his boat. When I got back there in the yard of St. Francis Y.C. was this strange looking Starboat. John Rumsey, one of the guys who worked for local yacht maintenance wizard Eugene Vigno, explained to me what happened. Tom took two planks of red cedar and glued them to the bow of Spirit. Then he took an ax and chopped away at the planks until he got the desired effect. His bow turned out to be even more vertical than the O.G.’s and Eichenlaubs of the time. Needless to say, this didn't make Spirit any faster, but Tom thought that it looked cool and up-to-date.
After a summer of sailing around in “Spirit” Tom ordered up a new boat from Carl Eichenlaub, # 3938, which he named “Good Grief!” He took delivery of this boat at about Christmas time and sailed his first races in Southern California. It was with this first “Good Grief!” that Tom began his serious racing career in the Star Class which culminated in two Gold Stars, won in 1974 and 1980.
At about this time there was a flurry of new faces in the Stars in San Francisco. Ralph DeLuca and Snipe national champion Don Trask were amongst them. During the holiday season we used to have “Star Parties” at various homes. One of the constant topics of conversation was how we as a group should try to improve ourselves so that we could keep up with the boys from Southern California. It seemed like whenever we sailed with them they would collectively do a horizon job on us.
One of the ideas, strongly pushed by Don Trask, was to have tune-up races every Wednesday night in front of St. Francis Y.C. For these tune-up races we were able to get 5 or 6 boats out. Those of us who could get out of work early, which usually included Tom and me, would get the boats in the water and ready to go. Then the rest of the guys would roll down out of the hills and jump into their boats. By this time of the day usually the wind had calmed down again to conditions more like Southern California. Off we would go, all lined up to work to windward. One boat would be designated as the pace boat in which no changes were made. The rest would try to see if they could make their boats go faster. When someone finally showed that he had clearly gotten his boat going faster then we would round up and coast downwind to in front of the club. On the way down we would talk about what happened and then try some of the tips we heard from the others on the next time up.
The major beneficiaries of all this work were Tom Blackaller and Don Trask, but we all benefited from all this work as the results of the 1962 5th District Championship, held off Alameda to the south of Treasure Island, show. Chick Rollins won the series and Lowell North came in second, but Tom Blackaller came in third and I came in fourth. In the one race which counted for him Don Trask got a second. Clearly we had managed to close the gap on the Southern California boys.
From time to time these Star Parties were held at my parents’ house in San Francisco. For some reason, which now that I look back on it I find rather weird, we always showed up to these parties dressed in coats and ties. (Really weird the more I think of it!) From the third-floor balcony of our home hung a climbing rope on which I would climb to get some upper-body exercise. At one of these parties somehow Tom, who was forever boastful about life in general, got egged on to climb the rope. He started up, coat and tie and all, but began to run out of steam. However the cheers and jeers of the onlookers spurred him on and with redoubled effort he made it all the way up.
John Rumsey was hired by Lowell North and moved his “operation” to San Diego, boat and all. John was pretty good at taking out the mast by himself, and was my teacher in this technique. At a Mid-Winter’s Regatta at Los Angeles Y.C. John was demonstrating this technique. For some reason Tom, a.k.a Charlie Brown, was standing directly behind the boat. As John walked the mast back and got near the balancing point Tom got distracted and looked away. Just then the mast butt popped out of the mast partner and John lost control of the mast. The tip fell on top of Tom’s head. Fortunately there wasn’t much force in the blow. All of the onlookers found this very amusing and began to laugh.
In 1968 Tom won his fist major events in Star # 5150, also named “Good Grief!” He won two Silver Stars, first at the Western Hemisphere Spring Championship and then at the North Americans. In 1971 and again in 1979 Tom won the 5th District Championship. After one of these wins somehow the 5th District Trophy just mysteriously disappeared. Bonnie, Tom's ex-wife, was cleaning up her house a few years ago and came across this original 5th District Trophy in a closet. She got a hold of the District officers and returned it. However, it was badly beat. The Trophy was recently restored with the help of Malin Burnham, Kim Fletcher, Barton Beek and Ed Sprague and is again emblematic of winning the 5th District Championship.
More memories of Tom Blackaller by Skip Allan
I first met Tom Blackaller at Newport Harbor YC in the fall of 1957. Tom was 16 and I was 12. Tom was a brash young kid living in his Starboat. He liked to brag that his beautiful all varnished Eichenlaub was built of all hand picked cedar and was the lightest Star ever built at 1340 pounds (no weight limit in those days.) Tom liked me for a crew because I only weighed 100 pounds, good for the light winds of Southern California. The competition in District 5 was intense, and Blackaller in the early days rarely finished higher than midfleet. But he talked a good race, and his friends knew him as “Charlie Brown.” He was known as “Charlie Brown” partly because he loved to clown around, and partly because his Star #3938 was named “Good Grief!” Tom's early sails were the red bags by Murphy and Nye.
Tom was very active in experimenting with equipment, and had one of the first home-built ratchet mainsheet blocks of his own design. He also had a self-bailing system for his Star which consisted of nothing more than a beveled aluminum tube that could be stuck out the bottom of the boat. I believe this predated the more sophisticated Bello and Elvstrom bailers.
Just after taking delivery of “Good Grief!” Tom participated in an early Christmas Regatta, 1957, held inside Newport Harbor. A cold front had just passed, and the wind was 30, gusting 40 inside the harbor. Only three Stars ventured out, all of them World Champs to be: Bill Ficker, Don Edler, and Tom Blackaller. Ficker took one tack and returned to the dock to sit it out. Edler, with son Kent as crew, and Blackaller, with Barton Beek as crew, managed to start and get to the windward mark, up by Lido Isle. They turned the mark and both were immediately dismasted in a mammoth puff. They then raced downwind with just their mast stumps.
Tom was a student of the game and on a steep learning curve. By the early 60's, he was one of the best downwind sailors in District 5, and soon climbed into the leading group of local sailors that included Ficker, Edler, Burnham, North, Rollins, Bennett, Buchan and others.
I raced two Transpacs with Tom. The first time was in 1971 on “Windward Passage” when we broke the elapsed time record and won overall on handicap. The second time was in 1985 on the ULDB “Saga”.
The history, creativeness, and controversy surrounding starboard tack ballasting in trans-Pacific racing is as old and colorful as the races themselves, and always elicits race time discussion and envy. Old photos show the 1939 Transpac winner with a hard dinghy stowed upright on the starboard side, presumably a repository for deck equipment and sails. Starboard tack bias has even extended into the construction of Pacific racers, as at least one maxi-sled had its permanent furniture arranged so the boat heeled several degrees to starboard with nothing aboard. In fact, the near ultimate in creativeness came in the 1998 Pacific Cup when “Pyewacket” set the course record, assisted by the then legal use of water ballast bags externally hung over the weather rail in kevlar slings.
But even this pales by the most humorous of scenes in the 1985 Transpac aboard the ULDB 70 “Saga”. When the wind came aft and the spinnaker was set on the third day, Tom Blackaller, inshore race, sailmaker, and raconteur par excellence, couldn't believe we were going to carry 300 pounds of wet jibs the remaining 1500 downwind miles to Honolulu. He reached into his duffel, wrote the owner a check for the headsail inventory, and ordered the crew to jettison all the jibs overboard.
Cooler heads soon prevailed and the check was not accepted, but Blackaller never let us forget for the rest of the race. I can still hear his cackling lament every time he came on watch: “Just think how much faster we'd be going if we weren't carrying all these damn sails.”
(Note: In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s Skip Allan was a Southern Californian teenage phenomenon. He first made an impression on the Star Class when he was 14 during the 1959 World’s held in his home waters off Newport Harbor. In Stan Ogilvy’s History of the Star Class there is the following comment:
“Durward Knowles remembers a deflating experience he had before 1959 World’s. The course off Newport Beach has predominantly light airs with a fair amount of Pacific ground swell, leftover waves from better winds to the northwest, and powerboat slop. The local sailors become proficient at handling these conditions, which are somewhat mystifying at first to the outsider. Newport Harbor had a 14 year-old named Skip Allan who was very good at it, so good that he beat a bunch of Gold and Silver Star skippers to win the tune-up race.
Durward, who had arrived a few days early to do some practice sailing, asked Skip late one afternoon if he would like to tune up with him. "I didn't mind so much that he kept passing us," said Durward. "But every time he wiped us off the kid would luff up and say, 'Had enough? I have to go home.'" Durward interpreted this to mean, "Now do you give up?" whereas actually it was too late for the youngster to be out on the ocean according to family rules and he didn't want to get into trouble.”
Skip’s high point in the Class came in 1962 when he won three silver chevrons by coming in second at the 1962 North American’s held in Seattle and then a couple of weeks later when he crewed for Skip Etchells and won three gold bars by coming in third at the 1962 World’s held at Cascais.)