Racing Snipes: What I Learned From the Old Man

A love for sailing Snipes

Gonzalo Diaz, Sr., who never stopped loving sailing Snipes, passed away on March 3, 2023, having spent almost 93 years living life to the fullest. Gonzalo—affectionately called “Viejo” or “Old Man” by sailors around the world—was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1930. Seeking a better life, he brought his young family to the United States in 1964. His father had bought him a Snipe when Gonzalo was just 15, and Old Man simply never stopped sailing Snipes or sharing his love for sailing Snipes with others. 

Racing Snipes
Old Man was part of the inaugural class of inductees to the Snipe Hall of Fame. Photo from the 2006 Snipe DonQ Regatta by Fried Elliott

Old Man was an outstanding sailor. Twice, he finished second at the Snipe World Championship: once as skipper with his brother Saul as crew; another time as crew for his son Augie. He was part of the inaugural class of inductees to the Snipe Hall of Fame. For many years running, he won the Masters’ Endurance Trophy at the U.S. Snipe Nationals for being the oldest skipper in the regatta. 

Good sailing results are nice, but what really makes a life is how you live it.

Here are some lessons I have learned from his life well lived on things that are really important: 

  1. Respect for others and awareness that we’re all here together. A simple thing, but an example of helping each other out. The docks at Coconut Grove Sailing Center in Miami, FL, where many Snipe regattas are held, are fantastic but not super big. We need to work together to get so many boats in the water for racing. It’s not possible for everyone to put their boat in the water, leave their boats to go finish getting dressed, and then go sailing. So, we chide those who don’t follow the Old Man Rule: “Don’t put your boat in the water unless you are ready to go sailing.”
  2. Sportsmanship and doing the right thing. Old Man enjoyed talking about his dear friend Dr. Inclan. One story was from back in the days where there were no penalty turns—if you fouled, you were simply out of the race. One day, Dr. Inclan was racing, rounded a mark, and then headed into shore. Asked why he had come in, Dr. Inclan explained that he had hit the mark, and the penalty was to withdraw from the race. “Did anyone see you?” he was asked. No, but it was the right thing to do, so that’s what Dr. Inclan had done. Old Man lived and sailed this way, too.
  3. Giving back to the sport you love. In addition to his time on the international Snipe Board and as Commodore of the Snipe Class International Racing Association, Old Man served as fleet captain, regatta chair, party host, provider of space for boats between regattas, cheerleader for young sailors, and ultimate champion for Snipe sailing. 
  4. Supporting new sailors. Old Man, in collaboration with his family and more recently other members of the Miami Snipe Fleet, has been so very generous with enabling new sailors to try the Snipe for regattas. The concept of the “fleet loaner boat” likely originated with him. I can only imagine that at least several hundred sailors (literally) first stepped into a Snipe thanks to his efforts. For most of these people, sailing—whether in Snipes or other boats—“stuck.” They are now sailors for life. Talk about growing our sport!
  5. Cherishing history, celebrating traditions. For many years, the highlight of the Comodoro Rosco Regatta (which honors the longtime commodore of Havana’s Miramar Yacht Club) was Saturday evening dinner at Old Man and his wife Carmen’s home. After stuffing ourselves with way too much lasagna and fantastic Cuban desserts, sailors were treated to old family videos of sailing Snipes in Cuba, narrated by the Old Man. These gatherings were extra special because often there were multiple generations of Snipe families together in the same room, celebrating and learning about the history that underpins the Snipe class. Celebrating the regatta winners the next day through a communal singing adventure (and a bit of punch drinking) is another part of Snipe class heritage. And that’s only one weekend of Old Man-established traditions—there are many more!
  6. Valuing family. Yes, Snipe sailing was a huge part of his life. But far and away, tops, above it all, no questions asked—his family was everything. He and Carmen were together for almost 80 years (and as you might imagine, Carmen is an absolutely wonderful, kind, and lovely woman). Their dynamic family grew to include three children and eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. 
  7. Living (and sailing) with joy. No real words for this one, just check out this great photo by Fried Elliott from the 2006 Snipe DonQ Regatta and try not to smile. I’ll bet you can’t do it. Old Man and crew Greg Saldana are kicking butt downwind (as you can see from the bunch of boats trying to catch up with them). As you can tell from the expression on Old Man’s face, it’s a fantastic day for sailing on Biscayne Bay!

By Kim Couranz

About the Author: SpinSheet Small Boat Scene columnist for more than a dozen years, Kim Couranz has earned several national and world titles in Laser Radials (ILCA 6) and Snipes. She has also raced J/22s, J/24s, and Ynglings on an international level.

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