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DICK CARTER ISN'T DEAD YET: And He's Written a Book to Prove It

Dick Carter

This was a rumor that may have started on a Dick Carter fanboy thread on Sailing Anarchy a few years back: that Carter, one of the leading designers during the IOR era back in the 1970s, had sadly passed away. Even people active in the thread who’d once been close to Carter--like Bob Perry and Yves-Marie Tanton, who both designed boats with him back in the day--were in no position to deny this and so accepted it as fact. You can imagine then how surprised Tanton was when he ran into Dick Carter in Newport, at a memorial service for Ted Hood, in 2013.

Truly this must have been what I call a Snake Plissken (“I thought you were dead”) moment.

Carter rose to prominence within international yacht racing quite suddenly in the 1960s and certainly has a story to tell. He was an industrial engineer with a creative bent who went from being the marketing gadfly behind the meteoric rise of Hood Sails to a successful racing skipper and amateur yacht designer to a successful professional designer, all within the proverbial blink of an eye. Tanton, upon re-encountering him, urged Carter to share his tale, and now his new book, Dick Carter: Yacht Designer In the Golden Age of Offshore Racing, is scheduled to be released next month.

It is a fascinating document. I followed offshore racing vicariously through the pages of Yachting and SAIL magazines back when I was in high school and I well remember how influential Dick Carter and his boats were when the IOR regime was at its peak. What I’ve found most surprising in reading his book is how very slapdash his rise to that position was.

Carter’s offshore racing career started in a 33-foot LeComte Medalist he bought new in 1962. He named the boat Rabbit, after a series of dinghies with the same name he’d raced when he was younger. He had some moderate success racing his new boat on the old Southern Ocean Racing Circuit down in Florida and the Bahamas. He then scored a real coup when he took a creative route through Fisher Island Sound to win the 1962 Block Island Race. In spite of sailing the second smallest boat in the fleet, his winning margin on corrected time was an hour and a half ahead of the biggest boats.

LeComte 33

Carter’s LeComte 33 Rabbit under sail off Marblehead. This was a Bill Tripp design, built in Holland primarily for the American market. I’ve always thought these were exceptionally beautiful boats

Carter steering

Dick Carter, on the tiller, racing his LeComte 33

SORC delivery

Heading south down the U.S. East Coast in late December to race in the SORC

Soon after this Carter began corresponding with another LeComte owner in France, Bertrand Imbert, on various technical issues. He was very surpised when Imbert asked him to skipper his boat, named Astrolabe, in the 1963 Fastnet Race. How could he possibly refuse? Carter made one big tactical error on the ride out to Fastnet Rock, but redeemed himself when he ordered a spinnaker flown in storm conditions during the return trip to Plymouth, the only skipper in the fleet to do so. Astrolabe finished sixth overall out of a fleet of 125 boats, and soon after the race her owner suggested to Carter that they should work together to design and build a new boat to campaign in the 1965 Fastnet Race.

Carter, who had never before given any thought to designing any sort of a boat, was intrigued. Even after Imbert chickened out and abandoned the project, Carter forged ahead on his own and the result was yet another Rabbit, this one built in steel at the Frans Maas yard in Holland.

It is truly remarkable how bold Carter was in creating this boat. Armed only with a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, first published in 1902, and an appreciation of his LeComte Medalist, he conceived a new design with several cutting-edge features. Instead of a cutaway full keel with an attached rudder, then the norm in ocean racing, the new Rabbit carried a separate rudder aft of a long shoal-draft fin keel that had a trim tab on the back of it. Carter also got creative with the boat’s rig. He streamlined the mast as much as possible, made the then unusual decision to run all halyards internally, and also engineered a new through-the-mast roller-reefing system for the main boom that was considerably more efficient than the systems then in use.

Rabbit comparison

Comparison of the new Carter-designed Rabbit (top) with the old Medalist (bottom)

Rabbit sailing

Rabbit under sail

The new Rabbit was immediately successful. She was launched just a few days before her first event, the 220-mile North Sea Race, and though she wasn’t technically completed and had several unresolved problems, she was first around all the marks on the course, in spite of being one of the smaller boats in the fleet, and finished third overall. She was unfortunately ejected from her podium spot by a grumpy race committee, who were offended by the unusual bow pulpit Carter had designed--or perhaps, Carter suggests, by his habit of serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to his crews while racing--but it was very clear she was competitive. She did less well in her next event, the three-race One Ton Cup series in France, but still was impressive enough that Carter afterward received his first professional commission as a yacht designer. From here Rabbit went on to win the Channel Race in Britain and soon afterward the vaunted Fastnet Race.

It was a spectacular debut. Dick Carter, without ever really intending to, had almost instantaneously established himself as a top yacht designer and soon was hobnobbing with the likes of Olin Stephens. More commissions rolled in and soon more intriguing designs and innovations started rolling out of the office Carter hastily established in an old WWII observation tower next to his house in Nahant outside of Boston.

The Tower

The Tower, as Carter called it, where he assembled the team of more technically oriented designers who helped him realize his visions and create his boats. Among these were Bob Perry and Chuck Paine, who went on to become two of the most successful designers of their generation, and also Yves-Marie Tanton, one of the most creative

Vendredi sailing

Just one of several ground-breaking boats Carter created as his career matured. The 128-foot Vendredi Treize, the largest boat ever sailed by a solo sailor, came second in the 1972 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race. (Much of the design work, I believe, was done by Yves-Marie Tanton)

Red Rooster

The famous Red Rooster, a swing-keel yacht that enjoyed great success in the 1969 Admiral’s Cup series

Rooster drawing

Drawing of Red Rooster showing her swing keel

Crocodile sailing

Crocodile, owned by Carter’s brother John, was a Carter 33 fitted with a radical adjustable keel that was mounted on and pivoted around a solid shaft. Angling the keel a few degrees off centerline did improve windward performance, but unfortunately the adjusting mechanism proved unreliable

Dick in his new book documents his exceptional accidental career with a good eye for dramatic detail, and with grace and good humor, and also includes a charming account of his earliest sailing adventures as a young boy and student. What’s missing is a coherent explanation of why he finally gave it up and what he gave it up for. Carter folded his design office in the early 1980s and disappeared from the scene, so completely that when rumors of his death started rolling around the sport, there were none who could contradict them.

Restored Rabbit

Dick Carter (left) with the current owners of the newly restored Rabbit

The likeliest explanation, as John Rousmaniere notes in his forward to the book, is found in the explanation Carter does offer for why he suddenly gave up dinghy sailing as a young man after becoming quite good at it: “Once a challenge is met, or met successfully, that is enough for me.”

Nowadays, so I’m told by his publisher, Carter, still going strong in his 90s, is renovating an old castle in England. I think we can assume he’s doing a proper job of it.

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