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A Yacht Has Changed Since They Won Gold

Olympics: Surviving members of the 1932 sailing team were 'purely amateurs' who didn't train year-round as many do today. UCLA students at the time, the two Newport Beach men say the medal was nice, but it wasn't the end-all.

July 24, 1996|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — So what's the difference between Olympic yachting athletes today and 60 years ago?

"Well, look . . . !" says John Biby, 84, removing his sunglasses. He and fellow Newport Beach resident Richard Moore, 85, smile, revealing laugh lines, not age lines; faces etched with wisdom, not worry.

Biby's response is typical of the uncommon grace and wit that mark the two surviving members of the gold medal-winning 1932 U.S. Olympic sail team.

"I was around before the Dead Sea became ill," Moore adds. "So any similarity is purely coincidental."

He may have a point.

The erstwhile crew mates are chatting on the top deck of the stern-wheeler moored alongside Pacific Coast Highway that houses the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum. In a cabinet on a deck below are an Olympic gold medal, a team photo and sweatshirt and a model of the Angelita, the winning vessel in the 8-meter class. It's all part of "Tributes to Yachting Triumphs," an exhibit marking the 100th anniversary of Southern California sailing.

The 8-meter class was discontinued after the 1936 Berlin Games.

"Mr. Biby and I were purely amateurs," Moore continues in a more serious vein. "We didn't train all the year 'round. My lovely wife and I were recently invited to Colorado Springs, where the Olympic training is, and there are athletes who train 12 months out of the year. We were fortunate if we got weekends. When we had a vacation, maybe we'd get in a couple of weeks."

The sport of yachting and public perception of it as a pursuit only for the wealthy remains essentially unchanged since 1840, when the first yacht club was formed in New York. So who were these guys, rich kids or salty dawgs?

Biby and Moore won their gold in the midst of the Great Depression. They were fraternity brothers at UCLA at the time; the games took place in Los Angeles. (It was the same year that a typist, Mildred "Babe" Didriksen, won a pair of gold medals in the 80-meter hurdles and javelin before going on to become one of the greatest female golfers in history.)

Biby says there's no getting around the fact that yachting is "an expensive procedure" and that "most people are envious of those who have boats and use them."

Yet Moore was blissfully unaware of how jarring the idea of yachting must have been during the Dust Bowl years.

Recalls Moore: "I'm so dumb, I just enjoyed it immensely . . . because I go on the premise that we all put our trousers on the same way, one leg at a time. I felt that Mr. Biby and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"I had no concept of how fortunate we were to be invited to crew. Being affluent enough to own a boat is a big factor. But for crew members, that's an altogether different deal. We were crew, and that's still today [a matter of] getting off your rump."

Getting off one's rump remained key to both men's work ethic. Both made it a matter of course to get to work an hour earlier than everybody else, to run errands during lunch and to leave two hours after quitting time.

Biby rose from a position as time puncher at McDonnell Douglas--the company, then known as Douglas Aircraft, hired him the week it flew its first DC3--to controller of its Long Beach plant, where he remained until he retired a few years ago. He never stopped yachting.

Moore doubled his salary at Cal Ship shipyards in six months, rising to chief progress engineer. He served on a Navy destroyer during World War II, then tried his hand at banking and investments before starting an industrial real estate business in Los Angeles.

Moore stopped yachting when his wife contracted polio. But his hard work had paid off; to take the place of yachting, the couple bought an island in the Caribbean.

Moore may be the elder of the two men--"I flunked first grade," Moore explains, "my wife says I'm a late, late bloomer"--but he treats Biby not only with great respect but with a certain deference.

There's a reason.

Owen Churchill was skipper and owner of the Angelita, Moore says, "and he had a hand on the tiller the whole time. But Mr. Biby was the premiere sailor. John was always executive officer in my mind."

Biby, Moore and their wives moved to this area about 10 years ago; interest in yachting had exploded since the Angelita's heyday.

"When Mr. Biby and I got out of the university in 1933, there was 27% unemployment," Moore notes. "Between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border there were about 150 yachts altogether."

Adds Biby: "Now there must be 10 times that in the bay here."

Sally Somers, a member of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club since 1947 and a board member at the Nautical Museum, says it's more like 150 boats at any one mooring. She has her own observations about changes in the sport, but, she says, "I hate to say what they are."

She touched on a couple.

"You used to have a boat, you used to sail it," Somers says. "The sport is lots more complicated now. The boats are fine-tuned machines; the smaller racing boats are never left in the water overnight.

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