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Larry Marks - A Golden sailor from a Golden era

by Dougal Henshall 14 Dec 2023 04:00 PST
Larry Marks in the 505 © Marks family

A personal reflection on one of our best sailors of the 60s and 70s.

The world of sailing today is a quieter and poorer place with the news that one of the UK's very best helms from the golden era of our sport has passed following a battle with illness. And what a fight it would have been, because first and foremost Larry Marks was a fierce competitor who would never give up on a race.

A hard driver of boat, crew, but most of all himself, in later years Larry would almost downplay his many achievements, not through false modesty but because his successes were 'what he did', through hard work, preparation, plus a huge chunk of self-taught talent, for his family background was far from the conventional next generation of sailors approach.

Instead, Larry's family were builders, but the ethos of putting things together must have been strong in his DNA as he built his first boat, a Fleetwind, before progressing on to a Daring dinghy.

Sadly, as a class the Daring is no more (this was a racy over-canvassed double hander that was popular around the Solent - to get an idea for the boat think along the lines of a Scorpion on steroids) but mastering their tricky boat handling characteristics would stand Larry in good stead later on.

Now in a bizarre coincidence, at around this time another young sailor, multi-class champion Keith Paul would see the Coronet prototype racing, thinking, "I want to do that," which is pretty much exactly Larry's thoughts when he saw a very early 5o5 sailing at his home club of Weston. The two men would both end up sailing Darings, with Larry being crewed by his wife Judy, which would be the start of a lifelong friendship, built on healthy competition afloat and a belief in having fun ashore.

Indeed, Keith would be at the head of the queue for those wanting their memories added to this retrospective, with a focus on their long association and that shared will to win.

The 5o5 would then be adopted as a main class at their home club of Weston, on the eastern shore of Southampton Water, which surely can enjoy the claim of being one of the founder FiveO clubs. A syndicate was formed with the intention of building a dozen boats, but Larry was to miss out in this as he was doing his National Service.

Once home his first intention was to complete a Chippendale hull for a N12, but the lure of the 5o5 was too strong so this was traded in for a bare, undecked hull from Fairey Marine, just a mile or so along the shore at Hamble. However, this project nearly ended up in an awkward situation as, to create a temporary workshop, Larry had covered over a space between two brick stacks and it was here that he was working on his boat.

A neighbour heard noise from the yard one evening and called the Police, saying that there was an intruder on site. When the local bobby arrived, Larry heard the noise and also thought that there was an intruder on site, which could have been tricky when the two ran in to each other; this was a favourite anecdote of Larry's, who would enjoy telling the story 60 years later!

In the wider context, nearly all the 5o5s built to date had been overweight, some quite markedly and the talk around the class was of an increase in the minimum hull weight, only for Larry's attention to detail resulting in a finished boat that was both strong and needing correctors. Even so, Larry still had a lot to learn about performance sailing and at the major Easter event at Burnham none other than Johnson Wooderson took him to task for his rig set up, pointing out that this was why he was slow upwind.

It might have been the boat, but Larry was super quick off wind, a trait that he would retain across all his boats, having that little bit of 'Marks Magic' for the runs and reaches. Sailing the 5o5 would be a hard apprenticeship but Larry was lucky as Weston became a hot bed for competition, with everyone having to up their game when in 1962 Keith Paul and Bill Moakes became the first British crew to take the World Title.

Keith would then go on, stepping up to the Olympic FD, whilst Larry would continue to make inroads into the 5o5.

With so many events being held around the country, having the right car was essential. A hotted up Mini-Cooper was the vehicle of choice, with some hair-raising experiences on the roads as sailors raced each other back home after sailing.

Not to be outdone, Larry had a special road trailer made, with the essential pre-requisite that it be stable at speeds up to and in excess of 100mph as by now Larry had a Triumph 2.5PI that could do that even with boat and all gear on the back. In these pre-speed camera days a trip back from an Open Meeting with Larry was an experience that was NOT for the more nervous of passengers.

Nor was it just Larry's questionable approach to the Highway Code that occasionally got him into trouble, for in these halcyon days the 5o5 scene ashore was almost a byword for some excessive behaviour. If there were high jinks to be had then you could be pretty sure that Larry would be in there, with him just managing to avoid some serious sanctions for what developed into a battle with the Gendarmes at a bar in La Baule.

Scarier still would be a night in a Torquay hotel when Larry was involved in seeing a certain FiveO sailor lashed to a chair that was balanced upon a tower of tables. It was okay as long as he kept perfectly still. It could have ended badly but he was recovered, and in more sober times it was agreed not to play this trick any longer!

Meanwhile, back out on the racecourse Larry was now front running, going on to win the Worlds in 1969 in Argentina and then again at his home event the following year at Plymouth.

With a brace of titles in the bag Larry would follow Keith Paul into the FD, where he would win the UK Nationals. The pressures of work would now play a part in Larry's sailing career, for although he still dipped in and out of the 5o5, increasingly he would be found out in one of the many keelboats that he would successfully campaign.

Yet another of Larry's strengths was in the way he would happily encourage new talent, for as a friend and mentor there was none better. He would advise another of the up-and-coming stars at Weston SC, helping set the young David Pitman on a path that would bring him three world and multiple National and European titles.

In the same way Larry loaned his latest 5o5, complete with crew [your author] to another young star of the future, Geoff Whitfield. In a way it is sad that Geoff didn't stick with the class (instead heading off to a couple of Contender World Championships) as nobody could make a boat go as quickly, but Larry was already moving on himself with his next project being a new boat made from a mould taken from the Championship winning 5o5 'Grace'.

This was now just fun for Larry as after racing a J/24 for a while, he again went for new talent, this time the 'new' designer Stephen Jones and his Hustler 32, which would be prepared for the upcoming Half Ton Cup. Again, that attention to detail and determination to win would take Smokey Bear almost to the top of the podium steps, only to be denied by the iconic Everitt-designed Waverider.

Larry's performance at this level would highlight him to others in search of the best, which would then see a move up to be one of the helms on Edward Heath's Morning Cloud V. Ted Heath's instructions to Larry were simple and straight forward, as he was told to "sail the boat higher and faster" than the rest - so no pressure there!

His reward would be not one but two incidents that could so easily have resulted in a tragedy for Larry, with the first being during a breezy Channel Race when the new, experimental carbon fibre rudder let go with dramatic results.

Next up would be the disastrous 1979 Fastnet Race, in which so many boats would come to grief with a major loss of life. Larry's name was nearly added to this list, for after rounding the Rock, Morning Cloud V would get rolled right over. It was a desperate moment, with the crew being saved by their lifelines but badly shaken up. That determination would kick in with them finally making the finish in Plymouth.

Following this much of Larry's sailing would be more for fun, with yet another 5o5 at Weston, where he could help bring his eldest daughter Lisa up to speed with her 470, whilst his youngest daughter Phillipa was much in demand as a Lark crew.

Yet another success would come in Larry's decision to open up a specialist chandlery that helped drive innovation across many classes. With Proctor Masts being no more than a few miles further east, it would come as no surprise when the shop that carried his own name became the leading agent for masts across the UK. Carrying stock spars for more than 30 classes, at the height of the business they were shipping out between one and two masts as day, every day!

Increasingly though, Larry was looking to the skies, first through gliding before moving on to powered flight, with old 5o5 sailors who had a field nearby getting what really were 'flying visits'. Although he was no longer active in a dinghy, Larry retained his lifelong association with Weston Sailing Club, plus he relished the friendship he shared with the 5o5 'old farts' who meet regularly for lunch, far too much to drink for people of their age, and the inevitable laughter that follows.

Just such a day was enjoyed at the start of this year as everyone gathered together at Hayling Island for the public launch of Simply The Best, the book telling the story of the 5o5. This would be Larry's last appearance at such an event, but for everybody present, the sight of Larry, with Derek Farrant and Keith Paul, who each won at least one world championship back in the 1960s, was an incredible reminder of just how much they had all achieved, as friends and competitors.

One of Larry's many famous quotes was that he believed more in determination than in any 'quick fix', with that strength of character that gave him the will to keep going evidenced by the efforts it took for him to make it to Hayling, where once again he was surrounded by so many he had crossed tacks with over the years.

Being old FiveO sailors, you'll not keep us away from a good meal and a bar for long, with one thing being for certain; the next time we meet, that traditional toast of 'absent friends' will have taken on a whole new meaning.

Larry Marks: 1 June 1935 - 10 December 2023

In the two days since Larry's death, word has come in from sailors around the globe, all asking that their thoughts be expressed and their deepest condolences passed on to Judy, Lisa, Phillipa and all the family.

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