"A Sense of Participation"
Millions of us have sailed with Carleton Mitchell without ever stepping aboard one of his trend setting boats. From the 1930s through the 1980s, Mitchell documented many of his voyages and races in words and pictures, inviting us to join him in some of the notable sailing adventures on the mid-1900s. We are fortunate that several years ago he chose to donate his collection of more than 20,000 photographic images to Mystic Seaport to be preserved for the enjoyment and education of future generations.
Carleton Mitchell was born in New Orleans in 1910. An uncle sparked his fascinations with boats and the sea when he took the 10-year-old boy sailing on Lake Pontchartrain and in the Florida Keys. He has said that his writing career also began about this time. When a relative asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he replied that he wanted to sail and to write about it. These two interests have never changed, and his career direction was set.
After moving to Chicago with his mother, Mitchell began to demonstrate his independent nature. He balanced the regimentation of the Illinois Military School with summers in the woods and lakes of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. After graduation he took a year off to work as a surveyor on Canada's Lake of the Woods. later that year he returned to New Orleans and took flying lessons before heading off to college.
After attending Miami University in Ohio for two years his desire to sail got the better of him. In the fall of 1932 he answered an add in Yachting magazine for crew to sail the ketchTemptress from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the West Indies. Fifty years later he still recalled "lying hove-to off Cape Hatteras for 56 hours in a gale which began along the track of the Gulf Stream, then clocked into nor'east to blow against huge rollers plus the current." The aged yacht only made it as far as the Bahamas, but Mitchell was captivated by his brief experience in these undeveloped tropical islands.
Out of school in the middle of the Great Depression, Mitchell tried many jobs, including fishing, shipbuilding, and vegetable picking before finding that he was a natural salesman. He supported himself with a responsible job at Macy's in New York, but he spent his spare time writing.
Undeterred by the many rejection slips he received, Mitchell took his savings and headed for the Bahamas to write full-time. he soon took up photography when an editor rejected an article because he could not supply illustrations. During the next few years he worked as a publicity photographer for the Bahamas Development Board among other things and began selling articles and photographs to magazines, including Country Life, which published him in 1938. He also found plenty of time to sail, making a circuit of the islands from the Bahamas west to Jamaica and Cuba and back in 1936, and sailing in the Miami-Nassau Race in 1937.
Mitchell was in Norway when World War II began in 1939. he returned to enlist in the U.S. Navy, going on active duty in May 1941. After the U.S. entered the war, he was ordered to organize the U.S. Navy Combat Photography Units in 1942. This section of the navy's Office of Public relations was charged with documenting and publicizing the navy's wartime activities. The Combat Photography Section issued more than 1,000 photographs and motion pictures in 1943 alone. Despite his own photographic ability, Mitchell spent much of the war as an administrator. He did, however, make one voyage from Norfolk to North Africa on the aircraft carrier Ranger in March 1943 "to learn the problems confronting Combat Photography Units on fleet assignments. Also to check on the performance of men and equipment." The photographs from this assignment give a glimpse of life on board an aircraft carrier during World War II.
Mitchell was elected to the New York Yacht Club in 1944, and as he was being released from the navy in 1946 he purchased the 46-foot John Alden ketch Malabar XII, renaming her Carib. He immediately sailed south, cruising from the Bahamas to Jamaica, Cuba, and back. The next year he embarked on a seven-month cruise of discovery through the Caribbean islands. Many of these islands had had little contact with the rest of the world since the end of slavery and the sugar economy in the mid-1800s. ShippingCarib to Trinidad, he worked his way up the chain of islands, stopping to experience the native cultures and photograph the islanders and their surroundings. the resulting book,Islands to Windward, which he wrote in 1948 and published in 1949, introduced a generation of sailors and armchair travelers to the distinctive islands and encouraged the growth of tourism there.
Seeking a larger boat, Mitchell in 1949 purchased the 58-foot yawlAlondra, designed by Phil Rhodes and built by Nevins in 1937. Mitchell named his new boat Caribbee. After sailing to Florida and racing on the East Coast he shipped the boat to Norway and cruised the Baltic before shipping her back to Baltimore.
Mitchell published Yachtsman's Camera in 1950. This collection of photographs and explanatory text with the theme "sailing is many things" includes images of racing and cruising in the Bahamas, the Baltic, and the Gulf of Finland as well as Chesapeake Bay. The second part of the book, "Words About the Pictures," documents every shot with complete caption information. As he noted in his preface, "To me, pictures should be natural and easy, literally the unstudied record of a given instant in time; they should be direct and uncluttered, and have something to say; above all, they should convey a sense of participation."
His efforts to make his readers feel like participants were evident in his next book, Passage East, published in 1953. This log of the 1952 Transatlantic Race from Bermuda to Plymouth, England, on the Caribbee is told on a watch by watch basis with text and unposed photographs.
Having gotten accustomed to his new boat, Mitchell had decided to race her seriously. In 1950 he won the Chesapeake Bay championship, and that winter was second in the Southern ocean Racing Conference (SORC), winning the Miami-Nassau and St. Petersburg-Havana races. He won the SORC championship in 1952 and 1953, sailed in the 1952 Newport-Bermuda Race, and won the 1952 transatlantic race described in Passage East. This crossing, followed by racing and cruising in northern Europe, earned Mitchell the Transoceanic Pennant of the Cruising Club of America, an organization dedicated to encouraging and celebrating long-distance and high-latitude cruising.
After sailing in the 1954 Newport-to-Bermuda Race, Mitchell laid up his much-traveled Caribbee to oversee work on his new boat. For some time he had been working with yacht designer Olin J. Stephens II to develop a sailboat that combined seemingly mutually exclusive features. Mitchell knew that he would name the boatFinisterre. he wanted her to be a boat that he could day-sail alone and race with a full crew, a boat that could venture into shallow gunkholes in the Chesapeake or Bahamas and could sail across the Atlantic safely, a boat that would combine high performance racing and comfortable cruising, and a boat full of the features that he as a "gadgeteer" enjoyed using. "I like 'em wide, and I like 'em shoal," he said, and that is what he got: a beamy, shallow, short-ended centerboard yawl 38 feet long. She had so many "gadgets" that Stephens was concerned about her performance. But he did not have to worry. Highly engineered and meticulously built by Seth Persson at Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the boat turned out to be everything Mitchell proposed she would be when he described his concept in a 1954 Yachting article. Launched in September 1954, the boat was even better than he hoped, as he described in a 1955 Yachting article. Within a few years theFinisterre model was evident throughout the ocean-racing fleet.
With Finisterre, Mitchell got off to a slow start as SORC runner-up in 1955, but the next year won the SORC and Newport-Bermuda Race before sailing the Atlantic to cruise the Mediterranean. The Cruising Club of America presented Mitchell with its Blue Water Medal for his second transatlantic passage and the many offshore miles he had sailed. In 1958 he andFinisterre won the Newport-Bermuda Race again.
Despite his great success as an ocean racer, Mitchell claimed "I have always considered myself more a cruising type than a racing skipper." In both 1957 and 1958 he withdrew from the SORC series while leading in order to go cruising. Between sailing races and extended cruises on both sides of the Atlantic he continued writing and also acted as navigator for his friend Richard Bertram, whose sequence of racing powerboats named Moppie set standards in the World Offshore Powerboat circuit. Mitchell's Sports Illustrated article on the 1960 Miami-Nassau powerboat race resulted in the publicity Bertram needed to establish the Bertram Yacht Company.
Competition for the America's Cup had been interrupted by World War II and the reconstruction of Europe. In the mid-1950s, however, interest revived and the New York Yacht Club altered the America's Cup deed of gift to permit competition in smaller boats, allowing racing to resume in sloops of the 12-Meter class. At 44 feet on the waterline and about 70 feet overall, with 1,950 square feet of measured sail area, the 12 Meters were about half the size of the J class sloops of the 1930s America's Cup competitions, but they were still large, high-performance boats. In 1957 the Royal Yacht Squadron issued a challenge for 1958, and four U.S. syndicates built boats to compete for the right to defend the Cup. Mitchell was navigator for Arthur Knapp's Weatherly, a Rhodes design. In a competitive series, Weatherly was outperformed by Harry Sears's Columbia, skippered by Briggs Cunningham, which went on to defend the Cup againstSceptre.
Although he did not sail in the Cup races, Mitchell put his photographic and journalistic skills to good use in documenting the 1958 America's Cup campaign. To give his readers a sense of participation, he recorded the series from preseason preparation through the elimination trials and the Cup races. The personalities, from owners and skippers to deckhands, are included as well as sail handling techniques of the day, and races viewed from aboard the vessel racing or its tender. Many photographs were taken aboard Columbia and other candidates to defend as well as the British challenger Sceptre during early trials in England, when Mitchell was invited to sail on board. This intimate view of America's Cup sailing was published in 1959 asSummer of the Twelves.
Mitchell shared much of his sailing knowledge in "how-to" articles in Yachting, but he could not share the instincts that won him an unprecedented third-straight Bermuda Race victory in 1960. In a race blasted by near hurricane-force winds shortly after the start, Finisterre stood up and charged to Bermuda, winning first in class and first in fleet on corrected time. Part of his ability was based on his long experience and great enjoyment of being at sea, which gave him a feel for the helm and intuition about sailing conditions. Part of his racing expertise was in surrounding himself with excellent sailors as crew members, who could handle his boat nearly as well as he could. And, as represented by Finisterre, a good part of his success was in knowing what made a good boat, and how to get the most out of it.
"With my secondary enthusiasms for music, nineteenth-century French painting, good food, hunting and sports cars, I am probably the busiest playboy on record," Mitchell wrote in 1958. Indeed, his photography includes images of gunning in the Chesapeake marshes and relaxing on the Mediterranean coast and islands in addition to his racing and cruising pictures. As he cut back on his ocean racing in the 1960s he increased this activity, frequently contributing travel articles to The National Geographicand repeating his Caribbean passage in print in 1966 and 1971.
Believing in the importance of changing boats to match changing interests, in 1968 Mitchell began the transition from sail to power. He ordered a 42-foot Grand Banks trawler yacht, which he named Sans Terre. Taking delivery in Hong Kong, he made a short cruise there before shipping the boat to California. Then, he began a three-year, 16,000-mile cruise from Los Angeles to Miami by way of the Panama Canal, with many detours, all extensively documented through his photography. Since then he has owned a variety of power vessels, from long-range types - including the 62-foot Land's End and the 48-foot Hatteras Long Range Cruiser Coyaba - to small cruising boats and outboards.
Though best known for his books, Mitchell wrote and illustrated uncounted articles for various magazines. For six years in the 1950s he was on the staff of Yachting. later he was a contributing editor for Sports Illustrated. The articles ranged from cruising guides that described cruises he took around the world to suggestions for safe sailing, mechanical advice, and even thoughts on how to eat well while cruising. Also of particular interest to him were articles about yacht design and construction. He had a large hand in designing the various boats that he had built for his use.
In 1996 Carleton Mitchell donated his collection of photographic negatives and prints, and his logbooks and other writings, to Mystic Seaport, generously providing funding for the cataloging and preservation of the collection. Now 90 years old, he remains in close touch by E-mail, offering information about photographs in the collection. His total recall of events that happened decades ago has been invaluable in completing the collection's records. As of March 2000, the collection was almost completely cataloged and this unique record of some of the most significant sailing activity of the 1900s is available to researchers. The Museum has created an e-mail address - firstname.lastname@example.org - for inquiries concerning the collection.
Marveling at the amount of time Mitchell spent at sea, people often asked him "Don't you find the sea monotonous?" his answer to that question made it clear that he did not sail to get somewhere; he sailed for the pure enjoyment of it. "To a sailor nothing on this globe is lass so. Every ripple and cloud has meaning, each mood beauty. As a farmer can love land, so can a seaman love water and take endless pleasure from the contemplation of it." In both living this philosophy and trying to convey it to readers, Carleton Mitchell has led a notable maritime life.
For further information, please contact:
Mystic Seaport Carleton Mitchell Collection
75 Greenmanville Ave.
P. O. Box 6000
Mystic, CT 06355
Web site:Carleton Mitchell Collection Home Page