March 27, 2024

Perhaps this was a similar barroom scene. From the El Toro class Shovel Bulletin 1971.

The Origins of the El Toro Bullship Race Across the Golden Gate

by Tom Burden

It started in one of San Francisco’s trendiest nightclubs, involved an exotic dancer named Tempest Storm, the club’s owner, a real bullfighter named Barnaby Conrad, Jr., and a wager between him and Charles O’Gara, an El Toro sailor.

On April 6th a fleet of racers in tiny eight-foot El Toro prams will sail the 70th Bullship Race, crossing the Golden Gate from Sausalito to San Francisco. This iconic sailboat race has been running annually since 1954. Historical research guru John Dukat and I have traveled back in time to learn how this crazy spectacle began. You can believe us, or this all might just be … bullship.

Tempest Storm

Back to 1954, and we’re inside the El Matador Nightclub, on the southeast corner of Broadway and Kearney. It’s owned by Barnaby Conrad, who during his long life (1927 to 2013) was a renaissance man—an Ernest Hemingway disciple, diplomat, bullfighter, million-selling author of 35 books, artist, bon-vivant, nightclub owner and friend to Herb Caen and a who’s-who of A-List celebrities. 

He believed that “only bullfighting, mountain climbing and auto racing are sports, the rest are merely games.” Posted to Spain at age 20 as a suave diplomat, “fueled on youth and tequila, he jumped into the bullring one afternoon and  caped the bull with his Brooks Brothers raincoat,” according to his son. 

"I was an amateur," he was fond of saying, "but the bulls were professionals." Conrad had published his bestselling bullfighting novel, Matador, two years earlier, and had used the proceeds to purchase his club. An article from Sports Illustrated (5/04/59) describes the scene inside his bar: 

“Besides innumerable bullfighting photographs and a full-length portrait of the late Manolete, there are on display all the traditional and beautiful regalia of the bull ring. Hung against the white walls among Spanish wineskins are swords, brilliant capes, the odd-shaped black hats and the glistening trajes de luces, or “suits of lights,” in which matadors fight. Finally, there are two stuffed bulls’ heads which rivet attention. One of these is real; it belonged to a bull that died for the Tyrone Power film The Sun Also Rises.”

Barnaby Conrad (left) and Herb Caen bowling with booze bottles on the sidewalk in front of El Matador, late 1950’s. 

Photo, Maximinimus Blogspot. 

Here we find a couple of El Toro sailors, Lynn Pera and Charles O’Gara, knocking back a few drinks, sitting at the bar talking with Conrad. They’re trying to convince their uber-macho host that sailing is a legitimate pastime– a real sport–and that El Toros are seaworthy vessels. 

Conrad, who killed 35 bulls in 47 bullfights and was gored multiple times in Spanish bull rings, was known there as “El Niño de California.” He perhaps required a bit of convincing. Legend has it that an alcohol and machismo fueled bet was made that night, resulting in a crazy, death-defying stunt, the “El Toro Transpac”, the Bullship Race.

The race that followed started off the Trident Restaurant in Sausalito. That historical landmark, built as the first clubhouse for the San Francisco Yacht Club in 1898, has an interesting history all its own. After SFYC moved to their current location in 1927 the restaurant went through a number of names and owners. In 1960 in was bought by the folk group, the Kingston Trio, where it became a magnet for rock stars of the era, according to The Trident’s website:

“Janis Joplin (a regular with her own table), Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez, Clint Eastwood, Bill Cosby and the Smothers Brothers were often on the scene, and Bill Graham was a frequent patron – most notably hosting parties at the restaurant for The Rolling Stones during their two Bay Area concerts in the 1970s. And In 1971, The Trident was immortalized in film (where you can see the original Trident decor in its entirety) when Woody Allen filmed a scene here for Play It Again Sam." 

El Toro history shows that Piedmont’s Pete Newell won that first Bullship Race, and that Charles O’Gara was the final finisher. He placed last, but safely transited the Golden Gate, and won his bet with the famed bullfighter. As a trophy he received the Tail End Charlie Award, the tail from a real bull. Here’s an excerpt from Herb Caen’s “Three-Dot Journalism” column. Caen gets the story wrong, thinking O'Gara the winner of the race, instead of coming in last but winning the bet:

PRESENTATION party. ... Medal of honor for winning the El Toro boat race across the Bay last spring awarded to Charles O'Gara at a party Thursday evening at El Matador. ... On hand to present the emblem, shapely dancer Tempest Storm, who was honorary chairman of the race. ... Before the ceremony, a group gathered during the cocktail hour to see movies taken by Gardner Main of the start and finish of the race. ... Enjoying the colored films were Nancy O'Gara, wife of the winner, the Roger Townes, the Barnaby Conrads Jr. and Wendy Howell, on whose barge the victory party was held. ... The O'Garas, the Townes and the Conrads joining forces for dinner.

The start next to the Trident Restaurant. Photo by Susan Burden

Finally, we’ll bust one more important myth—this was not the original Bullship. The Hawaiians did it first, two years earlier in 1952. Kaneohe Yacht Club members raced around Coconut Island, and have continued this tradition up to the present, including both adults and junior sailors. And if you’re in Amityville, New York on New Year’s Day, you can race in the BullShot Regatta.

They did it first. El Toros round Coconut Island in the Hawaii Bullship Race in 2019. Ken Case photo