Celebrity Sailor

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There was a time when sailboat racing was a national sport. Regattas received coverage in major newspapers, and skippers and their boats graced the covers of
popular magazines.

Carleton Mitchell was one of the yachtsmen people read about. For a time, Mitchell—who owned the 38-foot S&S yawl Finisterre—was kind of like the Babe Ruth of sailing, garnering three straight victories (begining in 1956) in the prestigious and challenging 635-mile race from Newport to Bermuda. Since then, no one else has won even two of those races in succession. More than just an accomplished sailor, Mitchell was a photographer and a writer who, with skill and insight, took his readers on board with him to experience the world of bluewater sailboat racing.

“No 20th-century man can really escape,” Mitchell wrote. “But a boat gives a man the opportunity to get away from the turmoil and into direct contact with nature.”

Few were better at it than the college dropout, failed novelist and ex-stevedore who carried a passion for sailing with him from his earliest years boating on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain. He was a successful bluewater sail racer (the image above was taken aboard the yacht Caribee in the Baltic Sea in 1949), yet took an avid interest in powerboats, too. In 1960, Mitchell found himself a passenger on Dick Bertram’s winning entry in the now-famous 1960 Miami-Nassau race that brought Ray Hunt’s deep-V hull to national attention.

Mitchell—who died in 2007 at the age of 96 at his home in Key Biscayne, Florida—was happiest when sailing mid-ocean. In his book Passage East, he wrote: “Here we are, nine men, driving a fragile complex of wood, metal and cloth through driving rain and building sea. We are driven by our own compulsions, each personal and secret, so nebulous we probably could not express them to our mates if we tried.”

Of Mitchell’s photographs, one reviewer called them “among the most moving ever made of that beautiful object, a vessel under sail.” 

This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.

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