Deceased , Modern

Carleton

Mitchell

Mitch

19112007

Carleton Mitchell, a well-traveled cruiser, racer, writer and photographer, won three straight Newport Bermuda Race victories in 1956, 1958, and 1960 aboard his yacht Finisterre.

 

When Mitch (as he was called) went to Olin Stephens in 1953 for a new boat, he did not ask for something like that day’s winners, which ranged from a blown-up Star boat to a typical Stephens narrow deep-keel sloop. He wanted a boat short, beamy and shallow enough to comfortably cruise shorthanded in shoal waters and still race offshore. With an overall length of 38’6” and a 27’6” waterline, Finisterre had a then outlandish 11’3” beam and substantial 22,000-pound-plus displacement. “The fat little monster,” as Mitch sometimes called her, had immense room for a boat her length, as well as the initial stability and inertia needed to carry sail in conditions when other boats are reefed down.

Though each of her three Bermuda Races had a unique range of weather, the 1960 race was especially wild. After drifting for three days, the 135-boat fleet was smashed right on the nose by an unpredicted blow in the high 50s. One 61-footer was knocked down so far her spreaders snagged seaweed, and other boats set storm canvas or hove-to. Finisterre, meanwhile, kept pushing toward St. David’s Head as her crew calmly rolled reefs in and out. Her damage totaled two broken battens. The second-place boat’s skipper, the legendary English ocean sailor Erroll Bruce, had no regrets: “To be a better man at the game than Mitch is a high standard. . . . To come within 25 minutes of Finisterre under such conditions was no failure.”

Finisterre changed yacht design. Her racing record and her owner’s many magazine articles and books spawned many near-sisterships in one of the biggest booms in American sailing history. Mitch would say that in 1956 there was one Finisterre, in 1958 there were many, “and by the third race, the ocean was full of Finisterres. But we still won.” Mitch also raced in other boats, serving as Arthur Knapp’s navigator in the 1958 America’s Cup trials in Weatherly.

There is much more to Carleton Mitchell than racing. For every mile Finisterre raced, he estimates that she cruised at least 10, making good on the promise of her name that she could thrive far beyond the end of land. This is the man who wrote, “To desire nothing beyond what you have is surely happiness. Aboard a boat, it is frequently possible to achieve just that: That is why sailing is a way of life, one of the finest of lives.”

n the 1940s and early 50s, Mitchell sailed to and cruised in the West Indies. His articles and books made that a popular cruising ground. After winning the 1956 Bermuda Race, Mitchell, on Finisterre, cruised to the Med and back. After winning in 1958, Finisterre did no racing at all until 1960 when, of course, she won again.

Soon she retired from racing so her owner could cruise full-time. After selling Finisterre, he took another bold step and in 1968 bought one of the first smaller trawler yachts. As he cruised in this floating home (called Sans Terre, “independent of land”), he again wrote articles for National Geographic and Sports Illustrated that brought this new approach to boating to the public’s attention. He was a prolific boating writer and photographer (his photographs are collected at Mystic Seaport) with seven books and hundreds of articles to his credit. As a writer, Mitchell took his readers to sea with him, introducing a generation to the islands of the Caribbean in Islands to Windward (1949), later updated as Isles of the Caribbees (1966, 1971). In Yachtsman’s Camera (1950), he demonstrated his views on maritime photography. In Passage East (1953), he took the reader on a Transatlantic sailing passage, and in Summer of the Twelves (1959), he gave a behind-the-scenes view of America’s Cup competition. And from the 1940s through the 1980s, he was a frequent contributor to The National Geographic, Yachting, Sports Illustrated, and Motor Boating & Sailing.

Here is what he wrote about what he called “the somewhat fantastic nature of ocean racing”: “Here we are, nine men, driving a fragile complex of wood, metal and cloth through driving rain and building sea, a thousand miles from the nearest harbor; no one to see or admire or applaud; no one to help if our temerity ends in disaster. . . .  Our attitude is not even wholly based on the competitive aspect of racing. It is that we all feel there is just one way to do things, one standard, one code, and we live up to it for our own satisfaction. 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. But in our own way, we are about as dedicated as it is possible for men to be.”

Accomplishments and Honors

  • 1956, 1958 and 1960 Won Bermuda race
  • Sports Illustrated sailing reporter
  • Prolific author and photographer – ambassador to the sport of sailing (see text above)
  • Cruising Club of America Blue Water Medal recipient

 

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