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SORC - The Early Years
By Keith Taylor

In the winter of 1941, with World War II already tearing Europe apart, a loose-knit coalition of Florida yacht clubs joined with the Nassau Yacht Club in the Bahamas in the founding of the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. It wasn't a sudden move; rather it was an inevitable formalization of an evolutionary process that had started 11 years earlier, when St Petersburg sailor Gidge Gandy proposed a race from his hometown to Havana, Cuba. There were 11 entries for the inaugural 284-mile race, down the western coast of Florida and across the Gulf Stream to Morro Castle, marking the entrance to Havana Harbor. Commodore Houston Wall of the St Petersburg Yacht Club was first to finish in his 44-foot schooner Haligonian.

The next building block for the SORC came in 1934 with the first running of the 176-mile Miami-Nassau Race, which attracted 12 boats. Only three boats survived a gear buster in the Gulf Stream. The others quit. Three years later the race saw the southern debuts of two famous racers, the 72-foot Herreshoff yawl Tioga, later renamed Ticonderoga, and the 53-foot Sparkman and Stephens yawl Stormy Weather.

The "Southern Circuit," was first raced in 1941. Later it would be more formally known as the Southern Ocean Racing Conference. The series of five races included the St Petersburg-Havana Race, the Lipton Cup, the Miami-Nassau Race, the Governor's Cup in Nassau, and a race from Havana to Key West. In that first SORC Stormy Weather, sailed by William Labrot, tied for first place with Dudley Sharp's 70-foot Sparkman and Stephens yawl Gulf Stream. Robert Johnson's 64-foot Sparkman and Stephens 64-foot yawl Good News finished third, just one point out of first place.

The war intervened and the next Southern Circuit race wasn't sailed until 1947. That year, a gale-force southerly slammed the 14-boat fleet in the Miami to Nassau Race, dismasting Ticonderoga and several other boats. Francisco Garcia, the professional aboard the cutter Windy was washed overboard and drowned. Altogether eight boats withdrew. The Miami-Nassau winner that year was Harvey Conover's 45-foot centerboard yawl Revenoc II, designed by Sparkman and Stephens, and numbering Rod Stephens and sailmaker Ed Raymond in her crew.

Over the years the SORC has been a condensed history of American ocean racing. Skippers and sailmakers, designers and builders, navigators and tacticians have built their reputations in the warm waters and the fresh breezes of the southern testing ground. In those days there were no entry fees, but to make the full circuit, skippers and their crews had to show up for six races spread out over four weeks.

In 1952 there were two revolutions. Batista's takeover in Cuba made for an interesting finish in the Havana Race. And Carleton Mitchell won the Miami-Nassau Race and then the Havana Race in his new Rhodes 57-foot centerboard yawl Caribbee. Among the notables in his crew were yacht designer Ray Hunt, boat builder Dick Bertram and Bunny Rigg, publisher of Skipper magazine. They dominated the record 20-boat fleet to win the SORC that year, and then repeated the performance the following year. Twelve months later Caribbee almost did it again but was outsailed by the radical 39-foot yawl Hoot Mon, campaigned by the unstoppable trio of boat builder Worth Brown, sailmaker Charlie Ulmer and Lockwood Pirie.

In 1958 Castro was establishing his authority in Cuba and the fleet avoided Havana, racing instead from St Petersburg to Miami. The victory for that race and the SORC went to Ca Va, another Sparkman and Stephens design. With Castro firmly in control, the final Havana Race on the circuit was sailed in '59 and saw the debut of two of the earliest production fiberglass yachts, Bounty IIs designed by Phil Rhodes. Jack Brown's Callooh won that year, with Bus Mosbacher behind the wheel.

A year later, in 1960, the SORC fleet raced just once, from Miami to St. Petersburg, but the following year the course was reversed, to become the St Pete to Ft. Lauderdale for the next two decades.

The 60s saw the arrival of new names, new concepts, and new enthusiasm. Sailmaker Charlie Morgan designed and built Jack Powell's new fiberglass 40-foot yawl Paper Tiger. Huey Long's aluminum 57-foot Tripp yawl Ondine was competing. Bill Lapworth introduced his radical Cal-40 light displacement production sloops with Conquistador the first of this class to win in 1964. Designer and builder Bob Derecktor was there with Grey Goose, while a young sailmaker named Ted Hood began campaigning a long series of Robins. Also on the scene was the Canadian design/build team of Cuthertson and Cassian, with Perry Connolly's fin-keel 40-foot sloop Red Jacket.

The SORC was well and truly launched. Its popularity would grow to a peak in 1973, before changes in offshore racing designs, and increasing demands on the leisure time of skippers and crews led to a waning interest in distance racing.

With the old circuit at an all-time low, the current popular format of an intense week of short circuit day-racing off Miami Beach made its debut in 1990 and the growth curve turned upwards again.