A Life-Changing Adventure

“The South Tower”

By Lance Purdy
January 2000

Every new year my hopes would rise. As the spring racing series unfolded, my father would begin to talk more and more about “The South Tower.” Even though I was only 10 or 11, he would talk to me about the tides, boat preparation and tactics.

As the Sunday Series wore on, I would begin to believe that maybe this was the year I would get to go. However, each June, “The South Tower” fleet would leave without me, my dreams dashed, by a justifiably overprotective mother. At age 11, I had no realistic concept of “The South Tower.”

In my mind’s eye, the event unfolded like a combination adventure/war novel. Something like the following: On the day of battle, the brave fleet unfurled their white sails and set a dogged course toward fate. Through the long night, they grappled with wind, spray and fatigue to stay true to their path. On the morrow, attrition had taken its toll, but a stalwart few emerged from the fog and headed home. That evening, their ships in stark repose against the setting sun, the gallant sailors returned. Obviously, I was not much concerned with actually racing. What I was looking for was a life-changing adventure.

To me, “The South Tower” was a rite of-passage. As adults we have sarcastically labeled it 140 miles of pure joy. At age 13, when I finally got to go, it was 140 miles of pure exhilaration. That particular year, as we passed through Carquinez Straits, it blew a constant 35 knots with gusts over 50. I have never felt more alive in my life.

Even today, “The South Tower” is much more than a race to me. I, like many perennial veterans, don’t even attach the word race to its description. It is simply “The South Tower.” To me those two words signify a yearly challenge of mental and physical endurance that can reach truly epic proportions.

Often when I am tired of the daily grind, I let my mind drift toward sailing to take me away. On these occasions, the most exciting parts from all of the South Towers of my past seem to run together to almost encompass the elements of that surreal quest I desired as a child. I’m powerfully drawn to the event. It effects me so deeply, that when other responsibilities keep me from participating, I often feel depressed for weeks. Each year I do get to go, it’s like dipping into the past and reliving that same exhilaration and overwhelming sense of achievement that I felt when I was 13.

I realize that “The South Tower” probably means more to me than most. However, I am sure that many of the sailors who participated through the 1970’s and 1980’s felt the call of the event on a similar level. It was not a race as much as an undeniable challenge, an almost ritual test of perseverance and character. Each year I would hear more than one survivor’s claim that they would never go again. The following June, 99% of these same sailors would pull out their foul weather gear and prepare for another round. It was brutal, but it was fantastic. We loved it. It helped shape our lives.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the late 80’s and early 90’s we quit going on “The South Tower” for the adventure. Some strove for speed, bringing increasingly faster boats to break the elapsed time record. Others wanted to win, carefully studying the currents to determine what size boat would reach the weather mark on the slack before flood. During this period, those that went on “The South Tower” solely to test their mettle against the elements decided they did not want to compete against the ultra serious racers. With their exit, what was truly great about “The South Tower” began to ebb away.

What was lost, can be found! The adventure can be regained! More importantly, the legacy must be passed on to the 21st century and 2000 is the year to do it!

Those of you who have not gone on “The South Tower” in years, go with someone who has never gone before. Take their boat, not yours. You’ve lived the dream, now give it to someone else. For those of you who have never gone, you don’t need a Santa Cruz 52. Go on your Catalina, Columbia, Cal or Coronado, Don’t worry if your sails aren’t new. Speed is not what matters.

As to the hard core racers, I know you can’t give up your desire to win. I can’t either. However, try to remember the encouragement and advice you received prior to your first South Tower. Next spring, take some time out of your race preparations to talk to those whose boats don’t rate less than 100. Pass on your passion!

Lance Purdy

Lance Purdy is the son of long-time club members Frank and Linda Purdy. He has participated in 13 South Towers since 1980. Lance is the Bay Area and Central California representative for Banks Sails. He attributes most of his sailing success to hard-learned skills that he claims only a South Tower can teach.

Background: The above article was originally published in the January 2000 DockTalk.

The South Tower is a 140 nautical mile race that starts adjacent to the Stockton Sailing Club on the San Joaquin River, makes its way to Y.R.A. Mark 16 (Blackaller buoy), near the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge, and back to the finish line at the Stockton Sailing Club.

Nineteen boats entered the 2000 South Tower. It was a fast one. John and Debbie Walker’s Choate 40, Bottom Line, rounded the weather mark first, at 12:19AM, and went on to finish at 09:39:13 Saturday morning, with an elapsed time of 22:39:13. Bottom line won their division and first overall on corrected time that year.

After writing this article, Lance sailed the 2000 South Tower with his parents on his mother’s Merit 25, Ditch Witch. It was a windy year, and Lance’s competitive drive pushed the crew to set the spinnaker in the blustery conditions after rounding the weather mark. Unfortunately, they did not finish as a strong gust launched the rig off of the Ditch Witch as they were ripping towards home, putting yet another South Tower memory in the books.

The elapsed time record for the South Tower stands at 21:17:29 – set in 1992 by the custom Schumaker 44, Eclipse, entered by Eddie Marez of Santa Cruz.