Van Collie. Originally published in Latitude
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There are many tales of the Improbable era, whose cast of characters
included again Commodore, Steve Taft, Ron Holland, Tom Wylie, Skip
Allen and others. The latter two and Dave were long haired hippies
to the East Coast and European sailors. Taft recalls one incident
in particular. Dressed in his usual sailing attire of a tie-dye
tank top, cut off jeans, bandana around his pony-tailed head and
motorcycle boots, Dave was sitting on the dock in Florida. A pair
of New York preppies — in their usual dress of Top Siders,
faded red shorts and Oxford shirts — were trying to cut a
line on their craft and asked Dave if he had a Kaybar. "What
the hell is that?" he replied. When they told him it was a
knife, he nodded in acknowledgement, pulled out his switchblade
and flicked open the blade. Hippies 1, Preppies 0.
During the '70's, there were several boats in Dave's life. In addition
to Improbable, he raced the Big Boat Series on Bill Clute's Chiquita,
Tom Wylie's second design, Hawkeye, Bill Lee's 40-ft ultralight
Panache, and Moonshadow, another Wylie creation. The later was perhaps
Dave's favorite, indicated by the fact that it is the only yacht
along with Merlin to have earned a picture on the wall in his house.
Originally intended for Dick Heckman, the 31-footer ended up being
owned by Dave, Tom and Caroline Groen. They sailed her successfully
for a season and then sold, figuring their net earnings per hour
was a whopping $.254.
Merlin also belongs on the '70's list. Dave was building keels
for Bill Lee at the time, and he worked on Merlin's as well. The
long, thin speedster created quite a stir in Santa Cruz before she
was even launched, with the TransPac record on everyone's mind.
While most considered Windward Passage's mark the one to beat, Dave
kept bringing up the trimaran Pen Duick's mark of 8 days, 13 hours.
He even started writing it on the walls of the shop, like graffiti
intending to inspire and provoke.
There was a lot of talk about Merlin's "cosmic thrill",
but Dave recalls a more graphic image of the 1977 TransPac. During
one hairy midnight ride, Phil Vandenberg carefully went forward
to lower the blooper.
Dave was driving and he could barely make out the figure on the
foredeck who opened the forward hatch and was about to gather in
the sail. As Merlin does under such circumstances, the bow buried
in a wave and a solid wall of water poured over the foredeck. Vandenberg
was picked up and dropped down the hatch. Tons of water poured in
as well. When they popped free, all Dave could see through the hatch
in the cabin was his shipmate hanging in midair from his harness
line. Thrilling it may have been, but forever after that incident
has been know as the "cosmic flush".
Not only did the big white sloop break Pen Duick's record, but
Dave was able to set a personal record of his own. Back in the days
of sailing Storm with Chan Chrisman, who spurned the bar scene,
the big challenge after the race was to see how quickly they could
get off the boat and go home. Chan used to boast that he owned the
round trip record to Hawaii and back, which he had set in 1969,
sailing over on Blackfin and going immediately to the airport and
flying to San Francisco.
When Merlin hit the docks in Honolulu after only spending 8 days
and 11 hours at sea in 1977, Dave was eager to get home to not one
but three girlfriends. The last plane out that night was leaving
in an hour, and he managed to hook up with a helicopter pilot who
gave him a lift from Waikiki to the airport. His total time in Hawaii:
1.5 hours. He was back home in Santa Cruz only nine days after leaving,
and he made sure to call Chan up and inform him that the old record
no longer stood.
The next TransPac Dave sailed was in 1981 on Randy Parker's Santa
Cruz 50, Chasch Mer. The race didn't go well, but on the trip Dave
and Randy, who was then the commodore of the Santa Cruz Yacht Club,
got into a conversation about why he had never become a club member.
Dave recalled that he had applied in 1969, but when the membership
committee saw his occupation and remembered his mode of dress, he
was rebuffed. Since then the initiation fee had risen dramatically
and Dave had been pumping his cash into his house and land.
When Randy got home, he confirmed Dave's story about the 1969 incident.
Sheepishly he called to apologize and offered to waive the initiation
fee if Dave would join now. Wahle agreed and became active not only
in Laser sailing, but also in helping with the club's junior program.
He still didn't want to teach, but he did see where having the kids
sailing high performance dinghies would help them as they moved
on to the bigger ultralights. The club accepted his proposal of
buying a Laser II dinghy and trailer. Dave drove the rig around
and shepherded the kids to race sites, providing them with an otherwise
Dave was sailing dinghies himself, especially 505's with Paul Tara.
The West Coast campaign was mixed in with a stint on Randy Short's
first Sidewinder, on which Dave took care of the halyards (a job
also called, coincidently, "the sewer"). Dave enjoyed
the trip to SORC and the Admiral's Cup trials in Newport, RI in
1985. When they qualified to go to England, however, it spoiled
his plans to sail the 505 North Americans. Skip Allan was part of
the Sidewinder group for a while too, and both Dave and Skip lost
their zest for such racing that season.
Life goes on, however, and Dave is now concentrating on adding
a bathing facility, complete with a large tub for exercising and
water storage, next to his house. He's also got his apple orchard
to look after. He enjoys sailing in some fun races like the Big
Boat Series on Mongoose, various Monterey Bay contests and a recent
Wabbit Wiver Wun with his buddy Joe Hulse. "A Wabbit is as
much fun as a 505," he says, "but you get to bring a cooler
and have tunes, too!"
He's also the principal race officer for Santa Cruz YC, a position
which offers both a challenge and some income. He saw the need for
professional management of series such as the Moore 24 Nationals
and asked the fleets if they would pay him to run these events.
Now he handles major regattas and the club's monthly one design
The transformation of Dave Wahle from unwanted hippie to yacht
club race manager is, in itself, worthy of contemplation. Although
he has taken and continues to adopt a countercultural stance, his
concerns and passions run deeper than the clothes he wears or the
occupation he has chosen.
Commodore Tompkins recalls sailing with Dave a few years back on
a Hinckley 38 called White Heather. She belonged to John Weese,
an architect with a prestigious San Francisco firm. Weese joined
the boat in San Diego, where final preparations were being made
for the race to Acapulco. Weese sized up Dave, "who looked
like a Santa Cruz denizen" as Commodore puts it. Presumably
the temptation was too much and Weese got into a discussion about
"I remember hearing Weese asking Dave what he believed in,"
says Tompkins. "Dave just didn't have an answer." Weese
went to the store for supplies and came back 20 minutes later with
a pack of styroform cups. He thought they would be lighter and faster
than plastic. Dave took one look at them and started arguing that
there was no way he was going sailing with those cups, that they
would never decompose when thrown overboard, that the ocean wasn't
a place to dump non-biodegradable garbage. Weese was naturally taken
aback and Commodore couldn't resist commenting; "John, I think
you just heard a belief." For Dave Wahle, sea-ing is believing,
and sailing is the way he most likes to be at sea.
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