My One And Only Flight Of The Snowbirds

My One And Only Flight Of The Snowbirds


The year was 1948. I was eleven years old. Summer was upon us. That meant that Newport Harbor was gearing up for the Flight of the Snowbirds. The sailboat race pitted 125 to 150 twelve foot Snowbirds (sailboats with one sail called catboats and usually built with a plywood hull) against each other. The race began at the Balboa Pavilion area and would proceed westerly to the end of the harbor, then return going past the Pavilion to the east end of the harbor, finally ending up at the finishing line at the Pavilion.

I had only learned how to sail the year before. Since I did not own a boat, the only way for me to participate was to borrow one of my uncle’s boats from his company, Vallely Boat Rental. To say I was reluctant would be an understatement. Scared would be the better description of my feelings. Eventually, I summoned up the nerve to ask my uncle, Roland Vallely. Roney, as he was called, gave me permission to borrow one of his heavy rental snowbirds, built out of Philippine mahogany. Of course, I would never be able to compete with the lighter plywood snowbirds of most of the racing fleet. My only chance for success was the special trophy given for the first rental boat to finish.

On race day, someone thought I should have a coffee can in the sailboat. That turned out to be a wonderful and essential suggestion. I started out with all the others in front of the Pavilion. Everything went well with the westerly wind, but when I started downwind, my troubles began.

The wind had picked up and the bow began to plow, bringing gallons of water into the boat. I quickly grabbed the coffee can and began bailing with one hand. The other hand was busy controlling the tiller and rudder. I had wrapped the sheet (the line regulating the sail) around the tiller so the boat could be managed one-handed. Even with all that effort, I was losing ground. The water was coming in faster than I was bailing.

The east end of the race course suddenly appeared and I was able to finally tack and stop the water from coming in. With lots of water in the boat, I passed the finish line. Did I win anything? No, I was lucky to make it back to the dock upright. This rocky start, however, did lead to a lifetime of enjoyable sailing.

By Howard Hall