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Legends of 110s Meet Legends of Imp

by Kimball Livingston 6 Aug 12:00 PDT August 6, 2019
Under a fog blanket from the Pacific, 110s sail the narrow reach of Tomales Bay in their 2019 National Championship © Image courtesy of Kimball Livingston

Inverness, California is populated by sophisticated folk, which isn't why the best cappuccino in town is served at Toby's Feed Barn. It just is. Farther out the main road lie windswept cattle ranches, out toward Point Reyes. There's not much town to the town, and no reason to want that to change. The location on the shore of Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, has long made Inverness popular with getaway city dwellers and a hard core of permanent settlers. They like it as-is, and in 2019 the seabreeze on Tomales Bay made it, not for the first time, a destination for the 110 Class National Championship.

There are days when Tomales Bay has too much breeze, but most days it's just right.

Since we're not on the subject, I will assert that the character of Inverness and the character of the 110 Class are a perfect marriage. 110 sailors know that knocking out championships in their hard-chined, 1939 Raymond Hunt double-enders will not win big time glory. They're not expecting that, any more than Inverness natives expect or want an outpost of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But names you know have come through 110s. I won't run through the C.V. of the 2019 National Champion skipper, who sealed the deal in the race seven final, but aside from being Commodore of the Inverness Yacht Club, Bill Barton has won a couple of Etchells 22 North American titles, and among much more was a key member of the crew of Imp that represented Team USA in winning the 1977 Fastnet Race and surviving the storm-tortured 1979 Fastnet, the deadliest ocean race in the history of our sport. Bill later wrote a book, The Legend of Imp.

If you paid attention to those dates, it should come as no surprise to hear regular crew Chris Raney proudly announce that their 2019 win makes them "the oldest 110 champions ever."

The second-place 2019 skipper, New Englander Joe Berkeley, has history as champion in 1992 and 2018. (110class.com has not been fully updated, so I don't know what I might be missing.) Joe once declared that his secret is "treating your boat like crystal and your crew like gold." In 2019 that crew would be Linda Epstein. They tied on points for first but lost the tiebreaker.

This being the 80th year of the 110 Class, there are a few things you might as well know. You don't just buy a 110. You join a family. A long ago top competitor and stalwart, Rich Allen, returned this year, failed to threaten the leaders and informed this flatfoot reporter, "The competition at the back of the fleet is fierce." At one of the regular evening gatherings, Allen was declared an Honorary Member of the class (yes, with a tear in his eye). Tom Craig, out from Massachusetts to sail with his son Stewart, a third-generation 110 competitor, observed, "I was racing against Rich Allen when I was 12 and he was probably 22." That would have been, let's say, a few decades ago, and nobody's letting go easy. John Huff and Mark Vanderberg (sixth) have won the championship three times. What happened on Tomales Bay July 29-August 2 was as much reunion as contest. So what is a 110?

Hunt introduced the boat at Marblehead Race Week in 1939: 24 feet LOA with 4 feet of beam. The 110 was built of four 12-foot sheets of Harborite (think plywood) over laminated oak frames and carried a rated sail area of 110 square feet. The class lays claim to fielding the first trapeze system and the first outhaul. With 300 pounds of ballast on a displacement of 910 pounds—and a shallow bottom and separated keel/rudder—110s also have a case as the original sport boat. 110s are a club class at Inverness, though the waters around Inverness Yacht Club's long pier are so shallow that launches and retrievals are limited to high tide. The 2019 Nationals fleet overnighted on moorings for regatta week.

Considering that even young sailing classes develop their legends, it's only natural that this crowd has many, not the least of which is living legend Milly Biller, linchpin of the Tomales Bay fleet. Her story has been told and retold with delight, and in that spirit I present it here. She was all of 13, this Milly Biller, when she took her sailing future into her own hands. Dad was an early aerospace scientist who lived in the eastern haunts of the San Francisco Bay Area and kept a summer cabin at Inverness. Milly remembers living in the cabin and sailing at Inverness as a slice of heaven. Then one day in a fit of inspiration and audacity Milly slid a sheet of paper in front of the old man and asked for a signature, the way she always presented school permission slips. He signed it without a thought. Later Dad discovered that he had signed a deed of gift declaring her daughtership the owner of his 110 class racing yacht.

Now, this could have gone any of several ways, but…

We are talking about a father who had taken that same child sailing when she was only five, and then he dove overboard, leaving her alone in the boat. That too could have gone several ways, but this particular five-year-old found the moment transcendent. Suddenly she was large and in charge. So the rest of the story is right in character. Dad chose to go along with 13-year-old Milly's stunt "on the condition that I would maintain the boat myself," Milly says. "He got himself a new boat, and we raced against each other for the next 12 years." That was a half century ago, give or take. Add details worth knowing: Dad's boat, Solar Flare, was on the water in 2019 (Malcolm Fife, skippering) and so was Milly's Big Pink. In a light air moment, Big Pink looked like this:

Inverness Yacht Club runs full steam all summer, and if you go there, you'll probably find Milly working on a boat, or just coming back from a sail…

Or engaged in a project in that dear old barn of a clubhouse. There's party space and a kitchen upstairs and boat storage at ground level.

There's also a junior program where the kids aren’t allowed to play in the vast playground of mud that lies under the pier until the last day of camp. I hope I don't need to explain. IYC, by the way, had an experience with a Bic program a while back in which all participants were required to wear helmets, and after a bit of back and forth, the relevant adults said something like, "What the heck. It won't prevent every concussion but it will save a lot of cuts, so let's make helmets a full time requirement." By my observation, these kids were as happy with their situation as sailor kids anywhere.

And this little miss, tending to her special ride, was having her own transcendent moment.

It was like that "yesterday" and it will be like that "today."

Inverness Yacht Club looks like this if you just take a snapshot while the tribe is out sailing…

But the club you want to know is this one, when the tribe is in.

And this one…

Commodore's Report, August 2019 (Excerpt)

Our second youth fundraiser was held at Café Reyes, another great event and well attended. I sat across from nine-year-old Owen Gallagher who established a new Café Reyes record—sixteen slices of pizza. Owen told me he had been waiting for this all day. He then proceeded to eat two desserts. His mother Christa assures me that he did not end up in the hospital.

Fair winds to all.

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