Industry mourns famed Olympic sailor

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The sailing community in Bermuda is mourning the death of pioneer sailor Howard Lee, who died last week after a long bout with illness. He was 77.

During a distinguished career Lee set the benchmark for black sailors to strive for after representing Bermuda in the Finn dinghy at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, according to The (Bermuda) Royal Gazette.

“Representing your country is one of the greatest things a man can ever get involved in because first of all you have to fight to get there,” Lee told The Royal Gazette during an interview in 2006. “When I got to the Olympics and walked into that big arena it was a hell of an experience for me. Traveling overseas to compete in the Finn class enabled me to broaden my horizons and experience many wonderful things.”

At age 13 Lee started sailing competitively in Comets out of the West End Sailboat Club as crew for Gates Smith and Sparky Lightbourne before he eventually owned his own dinghy.

In 1956 and 1957 Lee won the Long Distance Comet Race in his boat, High Yella, to become only the fourth skipper to win back-to-back titles behind his idol, Ellsworth Lovell. He also sailed in the Sunfish and Laser classes.

Lee’s success inspired other black sailors, such as Glenn Astwood, to take up the sport.

“Howard was a huge inspiration for me because I used to watch him from a kid,” Astwood told the paper. “I used to always go down and follow High Yella in the Long Distance Race before I even started sailing. My father used to take us down to follow the race every year, and it was always High Yella, High Yella.”

Alan Burland, who also represented Bermuda at the Olympics in the Tornado, described Lee as a good sailor and a wonderful ambassador for Bermuda.

“I had an awful amount of respect for Howard Lee, who was a tremendous man,” Burland told the paper. “He was a hard worker in an era when things were not easy for blacks in the sailing world. He had a wonderful, outgoing spirit and was always so friendly and kind and a hugely competent sailor. His grandson, Rockal, is obviously a chip off the old block and is a great sailor.”

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