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RIP: Dr. Stuart Walker, 1923-2018


SAN FRANCISCO (#1132) – Word has reached your Ed. that Dr Stuart Walker (USA, Annapolis) passed away yesterday age 95. Dr Walker was an esteemed American Olympic yachtsman, writer and a professor of pediatrics. He won many national and international championships in different classes, was a co-founder of the Severn Sailing Association in Annapolis, raced a 5.5 Metre for the USA in the 1968 Olympic Yachting regatta, wrote ten books on yacht racing, and was inducted into the USA's National Sailing Hall of Fame in 2013.

Those of us of a certain age who were keen young racing sailors in the 60s grew up reading Dr. Walker's usually illuminating, though at times perplexingly complex, "how to" articles in the popular American yacht racing magazine One-Design Yachtsman (later One-Design and Offshore Yachtsman, then Yacht Racing magazine, and today Sailing World – did I miss any iterations? Update 14 Nov 2018: Yes, for awhile in the 80s it was Yachting Racing & Cruising.)

Indeed, he continued to pen such articles until a year or so ago. As recently as November 2017 Dr Walker wrote, "Stuck between two winds" for Sailing World. That was the last such article of which your Ed. is aware by the prolific writer, who also wrote extensively about pediatrics.

Dr. Walker raced until 2016, when he retired after eight decades due to failing eyesight. Read Bill Wagner's endearing article in the Capital Gazette from June 11, 2016 entitled, "Decreasing vision forces Annapolis sailing legend to retire from racing."

In March, 1970 Dr Walker was featured in Sports Illustrated in an article entitled, "When the wind comes up, the doctor is absent." Not the most flattering headline, but there was probably some truth to it. Nor did the article paint an entirely pleasant picture of one of that era's super sailors. Those of us who knew him can affirm that a lot of it was true, but that he was also one of the most interesting and kindest people to ever populate our sport. To wit, the first nine paragraphs....

Observe the gray-haired man in the picture below. His name is Stuart Walker and he is sailing a cockleshell in a snowstorm. He is sailing on the Severn River near Annapolis. The water is very cold. The wind is very cold. Stuart Walker is very cold. He has his feet hooked under a toe strap so that he can sit outside the boat. The boat is wet. Stuart Walker's seat is wet. His stomach muscles hurt. His face is freezing. His fingers are stiff. Stuart Walker is very happy. The crewmen are not happy. They would like to go ashore and have a nice warm jolt of rum. The skipper will not let them go ashore. He will sail until he has extracted all the day can give in wind and wave, for he is the dilly-down-daffiest small-boat skipper in all the world.

Although in middle age and not much bigger than a bollard, Walker is also one of the world's best sailors. Many sailing people find this surprising, since Walker has more theories about sailing than a belfry has bats, and at times appears to be applying all of them simultaneously. As one dazzled rival has remarked, "I've heard him say things like the weather pattern over Baltimore today should interact with the pattern over Annapolis and, with an incoming tide and the birds on Greenbury Point singing one note off-key, the wind should favor the other shore."

Then there is this thing Walker has about gadgets. He is the Hammacher-Schlemmer of the seven seas. Gadgets sprout from his boats like toadstools from a soggy lawn. "I have seen him put five new gadgets on a boat," says a friend, "win a race and then go crazy trying to figure out which one did it."

Walker is an M.D. who teaches pediatrics at the University of Maryland and is head of the department of pediatrics at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, but he has long since given up private practice in order to have more time for sailing, thinking about sailing, writing books and articles about sailing, lecturing on the subject of sailing and propagandizing heathen landlubbers on its myriad virtues. Occasionally he has time to ponder his own personality, and this has led him down curious byways. "I see myself as Charlie Brown pitching a baseball game in pouring rain," he says. "The field is flooded and nearly everyone has gone home except Charlie, who is up to his knees in water. Lucy says, 'He's an idiot, but you've got to admire him for it.' "

Men who have crewed for Walker would perhaps be reminded of Captain Bligh more poignantly than Charlie Brown, but there is truth in the up-to-his-knees-in-water image all right. Let's face it: when a winter northwester blows in, only mad gobs go sailing for fun on the Severn. Walker does it all the time. It was my dubious pleasure to be in his crew in a Soling sloop not long ago. As we gathered on the dock of the Annapolis Yacht Club, Walker was hatless. He wore a blue track suit with red, white and blue "U.S.A." lettering—a souvenir of Mexico's Olympics, in which he served as navigator and tactician aboard the 5.5-meter yacht Cadenza.

"A chicken, look," someone shouted derisively as a battered sloop, wearing only a scrap of mainsail in deference to the gale, came into view. Walker's response was to toss two more sail bags aboard the Soling. They were not conventional sail bags. They were "turtles," which contain spinnakers, sails meant for balmy days and silken breezes. One could picture the mast catapulting overboard, the decks awash, the boat foundering, then a swim in 40° water.

Anyway, up went the jib and main, and the Soling leaped away from the dock. She flew through water smoothed by the Naval Academy's great gray lee, then from the outer rim of sheltered water into the angry Severn, where whitecaps curled and foamed. As a bitter spray flayed our faces Walker steered and smiled and smiled and smiled.

Walker relinquished the helm momentarily to set up the spinnaker. It filled with a crack and almost instantly launched the sloop on a run that chiseled destroyer-sized waves at her bow and required Walker to steer magnificently against the boat's inclination to broach. (Afterward, a shorebound spectator said the sight of Walker surfing down the Severn was one of the wildest damned things he had ever witnessed.)

"Well," said Walker, when finally he steered for shore, "I guess we stayed on that last tack too long. My face is frozen. But that was fun, wasn't it?"

Enjoy the full Sports Illustrated feature here. Remember that it was written in 1970 – fully 48 years ago. The concluding paragraph probably describes what Dr Walker is already up to in the afterlife....

By the way, if you should see a small, gray-haired man giving every evidence of trying to sail a small boat [on the lawn of a comfortable house overlooking Luce Creek at Annapolis], do not call the nearest funny farm. That is just good old Stuart Walker tuning up one of his craft.

Thanks, Dr Walker, for all the advice, motivation and memories. May you rest in peace.