Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Legacy & Legends: A Tale of the US Snipe Masters Championship

In an idyllic little spot some three hours north of Indianapolis and miles from anywhere recognizable to this city girl, my father and I unhitched our trusty trailer, which had safely delivered it’s cargo, a 2006 Persson Snipe, all the way from Dallas. It was night and the shores of Lake Wawasee were dark, but in the morning we would be greeted by sunny skies, perhaps a little less wind than we had hoped for, and most importantly, the stories, people and sailing that I believe make the U.S. Masters one of the most unique and truly special Snipe regattas of the year.

To even qualify to sail in this regatta, the skipper has to be at least 45 years old and the combined age of skipper and crew must tally up to at least 80 years. A naysayer might scoff that that would mean easy competition, but what it really means is that some of the greatest legends and most seasoned sailors in the class are on hand, so you’d better bring your A game. Despite a 31-year history of sailing Snipes, and the fact that my favorite skipper, dear old dad and I had been in the qualifying age range for more than a few years, this was my first trip to the Masters. And at what sometimes feels like the ripe old age of 36, I was about the third youngest person competing that week. The total age range of the competitors impressively spanned seven decades. And the lineup included some well known Snipe sailors, like Buzz Levinson, Terry Timm and Regatta Chairman Dick Tillman, as well as the first competitors in the Great Grand Master Category, which is over the age of 75, the well-loved Ken and Mary Ann Rix.

The sailing was the purpose of the event, so it deserves to be well mentioned here, despite the fact that conditions were less than favorable throughout the three-day regatta. Day one was called after a few hours of drifting, thanks to Mother Nature’s lack of interest in mustering up even a modicum of wind to fill our sails. Day two, she gave in a little, and we got off three well-orchestrated races in the light wind on the pretty little lake. Which is when I realized that one of the beauties of sailing, or at least sailing Snipes, is that age truly has nothing to do with prowess, and even that with years, comes wisdom and a greater understanding of both the wind and the water. There was some great interplay out on the water that day, including a few course changes and more than one recalled start.

The final day of the regatta broke dark and stormy, and though a number of sailors decided the high winds and rainy conditions weren’t for them, the rest of us put on brave faces and foul weather gear, and the intrepid race committee managed to pull off two races with only one capsized boat in the rough waters. And to give credit where credit is due, when Lanny and Margie Coon went over in the high winds, they righted their boat and went on to race the next race, finishing it with a solid Fifth. Even for me, it was a hair-raising day on the water. Especially when the wind picked up even further and I had to adjust the staymasters on the shrouds under the explicit warning from my father that if I dropped the teeny, tiny clevis pin and ringding into the water, while I was precariously balanced on the side of the boat, and the wind was blowing water in my face, that we would be out of the races for the day. Lady luck was on my side, and though I came in with sore legs and bloody fingers, I also came in that day with unending admiration for those senior to me who were right out there beside me.

My father and I took Fourth Place overall and First in the Grand Master division, for skippers over the age of 65. Which is great, because if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m competitive as heck. But I was surprised to discover that the real reward wasn’t a high place finish, or a shiny trophy. It was the chance to sit at dinner and listen to seasoned sailors tell stories of Snipe sailing over the years. Tales of practical jokes, and the days of wooden boats and more than one story about some guy named Freddie Schenk, who was well remembered and apparently quite the character. It was about having a moment or two to pore over old newspaper clippings and photos from races dating back to the fifties and realize the history of a sailing class I’ve long been a part of, but never fully understood. The U.S. Snipe Masters is a more than a regatta, it’s a history lesson. And for me it was also a humbling experience that I would love to take part in again.