Young sailors at the Bring-a-Friend Regatta in Ohio.
By Patty Lawrence
(I wrote this piece in response to an editorial on NPR. I have considerable respect for Frank Deford and always enjoy his commentary. But when it comes to sailing, America’s Cup is just one slice of a sport that comes in many shapes and budgets. But it gets all the press. Chances are good that most readers could get out on the water inexpensively by calling up the local sailing club or community sailing center.)
Dear Mr. Deford,
Please know that the America’s Cup is one tiny slice of sailing that receives nearly all the sailing press. An estimated three million people sail at least once a year in this country. A few hundred people sail or work on America’s Cup campaigns. They are the .001% and not representative of sailing.
In truth, there are as many ways to enjoy sailboat racing as there are sports played on grass. There is fleet racing, team racing, match racing, monohulls, multihull, and windsurfers. Modified boats accommodate disabled sailors. Boat costs range from a few hundred dollars to millions. There is something for every age and budget.
I live near Cincinnati, Ohio, and while that might be as land-locked as Switzerland, sailors found a 700 acre lake in a state park that is surrounded by corn fields. Every Sunday between 50 to 75 small boats gather on the starting line. My clubhouse is built of cinderblock and does not include heat, air conditioning or even carpet. We do enjoy showers, a simple kitchen, and a big cooler that keeps the beer cold. Weather permitting, we sail in our shorts and flip flops.
Most of us race with our families; spouses are popular crew. I race with my husband and two daughters who are 11 and 13. Sailboat racing is a sport that we enjoy together. Unlike soccer or baseball or football, no one sits on the sidelines and cheers; we all participate. When the girls were small all four of us raced our three-person boat. Now we sail in some combination, often with the girls sailing their own boats which were designed for children. The girls have learned about the weather, to steer a boat, team work, and equipment care. But what I like most is that they interact with adults and are expected to be poised, well-spoken, and considerate.
I find sailboat racing relaxing which might sound odd, but consider that one gets to play outside, be singularly focused and enjoy a mental and physical challenge. On our oversized pond, eagles nest and on lucky days we enjoy them too. After the competition, good friends hang out.
Our three-person boat, called a “Thistle” is 17 feet long and is considered “one-design” because the boats are identical. There are no technological advantages, so sailors compete by skill alone. Some 4000 Thistles are spread across the country.
This summer on the Lake Erie shore of Sandusky, Ohio, 109 Thistles gathered to see who would be our National Champion. Allan Terhune a sail maker from Maryland sailed well and good and proved to be the fastest. He sailed with his wife and was the winner the much sought-after Haupt Trophy which goes to the best husband-wife team.
Fifty–four boats had two or more family members and some had three generations of sailors on board. Over half the fleet camped at the sailing club, in part to cut cost and in part because the lure of a week-long party was too good to pass up. Nationals are huge family reunions for sailors, who often become lifelong friends. The entry fee for the event was a couple hundred dollars.
I am inviting you to try sailing where you live. Tell me what you might like. Weeknight “beer can” races are popular and a place that sailors are always willing to take a new person onboard. There are races around buoys, local landmarks, and offshore. You could opt for a sunset cruise with no racing at all. I would be delighted to find a boat that you might think fun. Sailors are passionate about the sport and always eager to share the experience.
I guarantee there will not be a blue blazer in sight.
With much regard,
US Sailing Board Secretary