By Ellen Frankman
Step aboard any one of the number of 34 foot J105 sailboats waiting in Sag Harbor’s Waterfront Marina and you might mistakenly think you are in for a leisurely sunset cruise. After all, there is likely a case of beer nestled somewhere beneath the deck and the crew is in no short supply of jokes and small talk.
But leave the harbor behind, watch the wind build in dark rippling masses across the water, hear the voice levels rise above the slap of the sails, and you will find that the comment you heard earlier about competition amongst the boats was no laughing matter.
Sag Harbor’s Breakwater Yacht Club has been holding Wednesday night races for over 20 years, and Bruce Tait and his boat the Buckaroo have been racing in them since then.
“I’ve probably missed a few, maybe a handful,” Tait laughed.
The evening typically consists of one rather long race, with the course shape primarily dependent on the wind. Approximately 15 to 25 boats turn out every week to race, a number that has actually dropped as racing has grown more competitive.
While the evening is still social before and after the races, Tait recognized, “It has grown more competitive over the years, particularly the actual sailing at the top end of the fleet.”
Perhaps partially drawn by the promise of a post-race barbeque, anyone can put their name on the bulletin board of the Breakwater Yacht Club around 5 p.m. on a Wednesday evening in hopes of getting on board. Though the boat owners are mostly members of Breakwater, sailors signing up need not have experience.
Blade Hovekamp, originally from Manhattan, became involved in the Wednesday night races after his father befriended the locals and Tait invited the then 12 year-old along to race. For Hovekamp, now 24, the level of competition has grown noticeably.
“There have been rivalries between the boats, and especially in the last five years people have begun to take it a little more seriously,” he said.
“There is definitely some yelling on board. It gets pretty intense when it’s windy,” admitted Tait, whose own salty grizzled voice has certainly carried over the fray a time or two in the heat of a spinnaker set or an upwind finish.
Nevertheless, there is still a role for the amateur to play. For Robert Kohr, who sometimes sails on Tait’s Buckaroo, the real draw is just getting out on the water.
“I have been on boats my whole life, but the race thing is new to me. When there is an opportunity to go out, it is more about just being a part of the race and boating from that perspective,” said Kohr.
Though Kohr finds what he calls the “friendly competition” to be exciting, he also appreciates being able to learn a thing or two, even if he isn’t the one skippering the boat.
“Just watching the technique from these guys, as fast as it is at times, I get the idea of setting sails, and when to tack, and winds and just strategy. I’ve picked up some things from that,” remarked Kohr. “Bruce has a wealth of knowledge. Just to watch those guys is pretty impressive.”
Though the winning spirit might appear daunting to a sailing rookie, the seasoned veterans all ensure that the competition stays on the water.
“Try not to take it too seriously even though there is a lot of screaming and shouting involved,” Hovekamp offered as final words of encouragement for the less experienced sailors. “Everyone hangs out at the end of the day to talk about it. It’s all in good fun.”
Sailing back to harbor the jib is lowered, the jokes begin to fly, and everyone lets out a deep breath and takes another sip of their Heineken