The true Corinthian

Herb and grandson Oliver sailing Beetle cat #551. Photo courtesy Michael L. Martel

December 2022

By Capt. Michael L. Martel

Herb Browne learned the true meaning of sportsmanship in sailing during the closing years of the Second World War, when, as a boy, he would watch the Herreshoff S-boat races at the Edgewood Yacht Club in Cranston, R.I., and observe the conduct of the S-boat captains as they approached the starting line. There were no shouts, taunts, or curses flying about; the only sounds, he recalls, were the luffing of sails, lines reeving through blocks, and the hiss as the bow of each boat cleft the water as they jockeyed for position in the attempt to get into a good position for the start, listening for the crack of the gun.

In those days, ordinary everyday sailors, non-professionals who raced in weekend regattas and such, were referred to as “Corinthians,” a term that has long been associated with amateur sports but also implied adherence to unwritten rules of gentlemanly behavior in competition, particularly amongst non-professional sportsmen and recreational sailing folk.

“Being a Corinthian meant absolutely that you couldn’t sail in the race if you were a professional. We didn’t allow professionals to race in our ranks at all,” Browne says. “That was a hard and fast rule. But what was notable about it was the true sportsmanship that was a major part of the way these S-boat sailors raced.”

Herb Browne, now a Past Commodore of the Bristol Yacht Club (R.I.), has been sailing and racing since he was 12. He began sailing a Beetle cat out of the Edgewood Yacht Club. Now in his 91st year, Herb has owned a total of 18 different boats in his lifetime. He currently owns and sails a Pilot 35 with his son, Rob. The Pilot 35, with a yawl rig, built by Hinckley, is a Sparkman & Stephens design, a racer-cruiser first built in 1962. Herb has spent a lifetime in boats and served as Commodore of the Bristol Yacht Club in 1977 and 1978. His favorite boat, however, of all that he has owned and sailed, was his Sea Sprite 23, Scot Free, which he sailed for years with Rob.

The Sea Sprite 23, a favorite sloop of many sailors, is known as a trim but durable daysailer/overnighter. Designed by legendary naval architect Carl Alberg, it has enjoyed a 25-year production run under several Rhode Island builders, most notably Clarke Ryder. It’s a typical Alberg design — narrow beam, full keel, conservative ballast-to-displacement ratio, and graceful lines. Herb sold the Sea Sprite a few years ago when he acquired the Pilot 35. Herb had also owned a Pearson Triton 28, and he took his wife, Chris, and their kids out sailing in the Triton prior to acquiring the Sea Sprite. The Triton, first built in 1958, was also designed by Carl Alberg as a racer-cruiser. It was introduced at the 1959 National Boat Show in New York City and was one of the first fiberglass boat designs built.

“In retrospect, my favorite boats, the ones that I enjoyed the most, were the Beetle cats that I sailed out of the Edgewood Yacht Club as a youngster and the Sea Sprite that I sailed out of the Bristol Yacht Club,” Herb recalls. “The racing was challenging, to be sure, but uppermost in my mind was the old Corinthian maxim of “playing by the rules.”

“When I was a kid,” Herb continues, “sailing and racing my Beetle, I would sit at the leeward end of the starting line and watch and listen to the S-boat start. All you heard was the sound of the boat slicing through the waves. There was no yelling; just sailing and looking for a decent start.”

“But when I had the most luck racing was in the Sea Sprite because I not only had a good boat, but I had an excellent crew with my son Rob; it was a great combination. It enabled me to concentrate on one thing, sailing that boat. I didn’t have to do anything else. Our whole strategy was to be very light-footed and do as much with the least amount of movement in the boat as possible, and it worked wonders for us. We had very good success.”

“But regarding the S-boats, before the start of their races, I would get out there in my Beetle and watch. I loved the S-boats, and they were the biggest fleet by far of all of the racing boats at the time. I would go out and sit to leeward of the starting line, you know, I shouldn’t have been there, but that’s where I’d go, and I’d sit there and just listen and watch these beautiful boats and these great sailors. It was during the war, so most of the men were in their forties. They were too old to be drafted, so they were home, and the way that they raced, in the Corinthian way, earned them a lot of respect for that type of sailing.”

“Watching them taught me how to sail to win and, at the same time, how to be a good sportsman with no yelling. I didn’t hear any yelling. Only occasionally, one guy in the fleet would raise his voice. The rest were always gentlemen, too busy focusing on getting a good start. I loved it.”

Herb recalls that his father, also Herb Browne (senior), had a little motorboat that he used to follow the boats around within the Beetle class races at Edgewood. On one occasion, young Herb junior was in a race and another boat cut in front of his Beetle at the last minute, frustrating his attempts to win the race. “We were racing in very light air, and we were finishing, and I was vying for the lead at the time. Suddenly, the guy who was next to me to windward got a puff of wind, and it brought him ahead, also stealing my wind at the same time, so I was not able to win the race. I finished second, which wasn’t bad at all, but I got upset and pounded my fist on the deck. After that, all I can remember is my father calling out to me. He rarely spoke up, but in this case, he was quite annoyed. He was not yelling but shouting my name, and by the tone of it, I knew that I was in trouble.

As soon as I stepped off that boat, he was there waiting for me and evidently not pleased. “We’ve got to talk,” he said, and we went into the junior room, and he said, quite firmly, “You’re out there to win, yes, but you are also out there to win like a gentleman, like a young man. And I don’t ever want to hear or see any more pounding of decks.” And with that, he walked away. That was it; the lesson, for me, was learned.”

Sailboat racing is a sport, an art, a competition whereby young people learn to be sportsmen, something that sometimes seems to be forgotten today. But Past Commodore Browne remembers how he and others of his generation learned, and back then, everyone played by the rules and treated one another with respect. “But isn’t that what life is really all about? Just doing your best without infringing on someone else’s pleasure?”

Capt. Mike Martel sails out of Bristol, R.I., holds a 100-ton master’s license and is a lifelong boating and marine industry enthusiast. He enjoys delivering boats to destinations along the U.S. east coast and in the Caribbean and writing about his experiences on the water and other marine topics.