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Home >> About Wyliecat >> About Dave Wahle

By Shimon Van Collie. Originally published in Latitude 38 magazine

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A quick survey of some of the Bay Area's better sailors and it becomes apparent that Dave Wahle ranks as a seaman right up there with Commodore Tompkins and Skip Allan. That's not a bad neighborhood. It's also no coincidence that he has spent considerable time sailing with both of them. Dave will admit himself, though, that he is not particularly outstanding at any one skill such as steering or tactics, the kind of talents that have earned Tompkins and Allan celebrity status. He's more of an offensive lineman to their quarterback position, the guy you want there when the shit starts flying and you need to make the right move right now.

Harvey Kilpatrick, who crewed with Dave on Merlin when she smashed the elapsed time record from L. A. to Honolulu in the 1977 TransPac, recalls one scene that epitomizes Dave's abilities. Steering the rocket ship Merlin, which averaged just under 11 knots for eight-and-a-half days, was a challenging job. Most of the crew were complaining of sore shoulders from the effort. At night, when the squalls hit, things got even wilder. As they saw one of the blackies approaching, Harvey and the others would pound on the hatch over Dave's bunk and yell down for him to come steer. He'd emerge, like Goose Gossage from the bullpen, and handle the heat, enjoying every second of it. After the smoke cleared he'd retire once again.

The son of a Pan American pilot, Dave may have inherited some of his swashbuckling wanderlust. After moving from Seattle to San Mateo when he was 10, he went with his folks to Hong Kong at the age of 13. His mother was ill with cancer and they wanted to share and adventure with her. He loved Hong Kong and was also introduced to sailing at that time, cruising the port's waters on a Dragon.

Returning to Palo Alto, Dave and his father bought a kit for a 13-ft Blue Jay sloop, which they sailed together on the Small Boat Racing Association circuit. They had their troubles, including parent-child disharmony and the fact that at 15 Dave weighed almost 200 pounds. Two years later they sold the boat and his dad bought a kit for a 28-ft Triton. Again they put it together, but Dave decided to buy a 15-ft Olympic singlehanded Finn for himself. Named Co-motion, the cat rigged racer was popular in both Northern and Southern California at the time, drawing such sailors as Fred Miller, Henry Sprague, Bob Andre, Jim Hill, and Commodore Tompkins to its ranks.

Dave fell short of Olympic glory, but he met some people who shaped the upcoming years. One was Jack O'Neill, who sold Finns and also shared Dave's interest in surfing. Jack invited Dave to come to Santa Cruz and teach sailing at the new harbor. After six months, Dave realized he was a lousy instructor and that he wanted sailing to be his avocation in life, not his meal ticket.

A friend of Dave's said the local garbage company was looking for some part-time help. After two days of working from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., he recognized this as his calling. He had the rest of the day to surf, sail and fool around. It's an occupation with a high turnover, so if he went off to deliver a yacht he could always come back and be working full-time in less than a month. There's also no hierarchy in the job to contend with either. "There are seven of us," says Dave, " and we all get to drive the truck and pick up the cans."

The connection with Commodore was even more influential. In addition to sailing Finns against Tompkins, Dave sailed with and against him in local ocean and bay races on Chan Chrisman's Lapworth 36, Storm. They became friends and in 1963 Commodore invited him to deliver Tiare, a Bermuda 40, home from Hawaii after the TransPac. Dave credits Commodore for "about 80 percent of my sailing experiences. He really pushed me hard."

The early sea ventures with Commodore offered a wide range of experiences. In 1969, they brought Kialoa III back from Kiel, Germany, to Miami, Florida. Dave especially recalls the stopover in the Azores; the climate reminded him of Santa Cruz and he was fascinated by the remains of the whaling industry. Shortly after arriving home, Dave got a phone call from Commodore asking him to deliver the Flyway, a Derecktor 40, from New York to Miami. It was a trip he would never forget.

After chopping their way out of the ice in New York harbor. Commodore, Dave and another crewmember headed south. The trip was uneventful until they were about 100 miles off Jacksonville, running under reefed main and #3 jib in 30 knots of breeze with 8 to 10 foot seas. Dave was alone at the helm, doing what he called "coasters". Like a surfer, he would charge down the face of a wave, then steer up towards the lip and shoot back down again. It was great fun until one wave broke at the wrong time and washed over the shallow cockpit. Dave tried to grab the dodger and then caught the lifeline with his heels. When he felt them give way, he knew he was in deep trouble.

Flyway sailed on for two more waves before she rounded up and the other two sailors came up on deck. Commodore told Peter to keep an eye on Dave while he got the boat under control. Meanwhile, Dave was having trouble staying afloat with all his clothes on. He needed buoyancy and he thought of using his sea boots. He always put a grommet in the back of his boots and a short piece of line with which to tie the ends of the boots together and sling them over his shoulder. If he could tie the boats together and get the water out, he could use them like water wings.

In order to tie the boots, Dave let himself slip under the surface. For a fleeting moment he thought how serene it was down there and how easy is would be to just give up. The survival instinct prevailed however, and he fashioned his crude life preserver. Commodore sailed the boat back and Dave was hauled aboard. His adrenalin was so high that his first reaction was to get the jib back up and start sailing. "Then I went below and got terribly sick," he says.

There was time ashore to work and, in 1970, buy a three acre site in Soquel with a partner. Living down at the harbor in a $25 a month shack, he poured his money into the land payments and started building a garage. The main house, a salt box with an airy A-frame on top, came later, mostly the product of Dave's ideas combined with input from Tom Wylie on the mechanics and structural design.

Dave's sailing took a more competitive turn in the early 1970's, including an Olympic Soling campaign with Commodore. Using an outdated boat, they took seventh in the trials behind winner Buddy Melges and second place Lowell North. Dave was also involved with Dave Allen's Improbable effort at the time, an ocean racing program that took him to SORC and England.

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