Windward Passage in Print

My wife dropped the 7-lb package on my desk, asking, “What the heck is this?” It turned out to be a book from WoodenBoat Publications called Windward Passage: A Maxi Yacht in Her Sixth Decade. I dove in.

As someone who has raced aboard Passage, raced against her, and admired her graceful aging for more than half a century, I can say that calling this coffee-table tome spectacular is like calling Niagara a waterfall.

Written by longtime waterman and talented wordmonger Randy Peffer, with a host of superb photos by Steve Jost, my old California friend, this is truly a tribute and something to be treasured by anyone who has ever heard the name Windward Passage.

Engrossed in the words and images spread across the 335 12” x 12 pages, my memory bell clanged at seeing old crewmates from old races, all aboard the legendary Passage. Intended to finish first and set course records for every race she entered, she was designed by Alan Gurney with nary a look at meeting any handicap rules. (For more on Gurney’s design career, see “Passage Maker” Professional BoatBuilder No. 151, page 24.)

The 73′ (22.2m) ketch Windward Passage, built for lumberman Robert Johnson, was a defining early step in the evolution of modern maxi yachts and the most renowned of the designs of naval architect Alan Gurney.

Robert Johnson, of Ticonderoga fame, wanted a no-holds-barred ocean racer, had admired Gurney’s Guinevere, and understood that the new Cal-40 was tearing up the offshore circuit with its shallow body, fin keel, and spade rudder. Gurney—an Englishman who apprenticed with Bill Tripp but was then on his own at just 30—and Johnson had agreed on lines Gurney sketched on a cocktail napkin. Alan then singlehandedly churned out the plans from his basement studio on New York’s East 54th Street. Johnson, a lumberman, sailor, and pilot, built her (out of wood, of course) on a Bahamas beach, and the rest is history.

Windward Passage set the stage for the newest of maxi yachts, but there’s that twist in the tale: she was wooden. No one had built a really powerful maxi racing yacht from wood in years: the Kialoas and Ondines were aluminum. Gurney’s big surfboard design was as much a surprise as her construction material—layers of cold-molded spruce veneers and aerospace epoxies, and way off the charts in every way. One look told you she was designed to be a surfin’ fool on long Pacific swells.

Windward Passage is a Bluewater Boat

I was a regular aboard Ragtime, also built of wood, which was sometimes a speed bump in the Passage road. We (Ragtime) beat Passage in the California Cup, where it was clear that Passage was designed for races where the finish line was thousands of miles, not three or four marks, away. She was a Peterbilt truck in the Indy 500.

Windward Passage’s cold-molded Sitka spruce hull was built on the beach near Freeport, Grand Bahama, in 1968.

I drove my wife crazy with each page turn, calling out, “Hey, here’s Don Vaughan, who I got ripped with at St. Francis Yacht Club on Ramos Fizzes. Look, that’s powerful Arnie Schmelling, who practically tore my arms off when I was opposite him on a Passage coffee-grinder winch in the Big Boat Series. Hey, there’s John Rumsey, who Vaughan towed on water skis as Passage reached past longtime rival Kialoa just to show who ‘owned’ the Big Boat Series.”

The entire book was a most delightful walk down memory lane. But this lavish hardcover is distinguished by more than just photos of old sailing buddies. It is a fine tribute to a fabled yacht, and Steve Jost photographed it as though he were shooting a Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry catalog. Genoa blocks sparkle like diamonds, the coffee-grinder winches (oh, my aching shoulders!) are like ubercool appliances in Williams-Sonoma, and even the lowly pulpit gleams as though sterling silver and not just steel. A teak table literally glows like the finest Scandinavian furniture.

The book includes photographs and detailed drawings of the yacht’s evolving keel designs.

The layout of the book, by Ronald Geisman, is impeccable, and each turned page brings another delight, another prize, another intake of breath. Carefully curated to match Peffer’s perfectly crafted text, the entire Windward Passage saga is laid out, heavy on anecdotes, people, and places from Bahamas beaches to victories in TransPac, from SORC to Sydney-Hobart. Windward Passage dominated every race with power, speed, grace, and, most of all, just sheer beauty. The pictures show her majesty, rolling down seas with main, huge spinnaker, mizzen, and oversized mizzen spinnaker—proud and unconquerable.

And this book is a fitting tribute to that beauty, with never-before-seen images and a level of resolution that make you want to cut them out to frame, if only the book itself wasn’t so gorgeous.

It has a lovely dust jacket, but if you remove it, you’ll find embossed the whale that was on the Windward Passage transom, now a sad memento of Lahaina Yacht Club, which is still smoldering from the Maui fires as I write.

Unlike Lahaina YC, Windward Passage soldiers on, perfectly maintained by new owners with grand adventures in mind. Modern rating rules do not take kindly to wide, shallow yachts designed to surf the Pacific swells, but ratings never mattered to Gurney or Johnson or any of the throngs who sailed aboard her in a relentless quest for first-to-finish and course records. The “Barn Door” trophy for first-to-finish TransPac is, of course, inscribed with the name Windward Passage.

This book is like the boat: built to the highest quality, outfitted with the best in words and photography, and filled with legends. Just owning this book tells the world that saltwater flows in your veins, and you accept no compromises. 

About the Author: A former editor of Sea Magazine and Yachting, Chris Caswell has written nine books on boating and has owned many power, sail, and rowboats.

Editor’s Note: Windward Passage: Maxi Yacht in Her Sixth Decade is published by Professional BoatBuilder’s parent company, WoodenBoat Publications Inc. Copies are available from The WoodenBoat Store.