New Orleans’ Culture of Sailboat Racing

Published – Gambit Weekly
©2013  – Troy Gilbert

New Orleans has a rich history of sailboat racing and is proven training ground for champions in the sport

Carter Christopher walked down a pier at West End’s Orleans Marina, anticipating the evening’s wind and water conditions before he stepped aboard a 34-foot sailboat. As the sun dipped toward the boathouses and oaks lining the marina, he fell in among a crew he’d met less than a year before. Together they readied the sails, lines and gear for the weekly race on Lake Pontchartrain, his crew preparing to match skills and wits against the crews of nearly 30 other boats, some still showing hurricane scars, as the Wednesday Night Racing season got underway a few weeks ago.

Christopher, who moved to the city from Virginia in 2003, had always wanted to participate in sailboat racing, but had no connections with it. He discovered the lake races last year and went online to offer himself as a crew member.

“Almost immediately, people started contacting me, asking me my skill level, which really was next to nothing,” he says. “Within less than a week, I was crewing on a boat. I was incredibly surprised at how accommodating and eager the community was to bring new people in. Even though I had no experience, people still wanted to show me the ropes. The atmosphere was so laid back, even though it was competitive. I know now that I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.”

And he’ll have plenty of chances. The tight-knit New Orleans sailing community launches onto the lake on Wednesday nights and nearly every weekend to compete against each other. And, like Christopher, you don’t have to bring vast experience or equipment to the table.

Dave Erwin, a regular on the water, says, “The majority of people who race don’t even own a boat. They crew for someone who does. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Our club is always looking for people who are committed and passionate about the sport. Really, it’s like a softball league on the water, and generally anybody who races with us gets hooked. It’s all about having fun, but it is a serious sport. It also doesn’t hurt that the post regatta parties are legendary.”

Although images of competitive sailing generally feature the crystal blue waters of Key West or oceans off Charleston or San Diego, the Gulf Coast and brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain produce some of this country’s best sailors. If gauged only by Olympic medals won for competitive sailing, New Orleans easily rises into the upper tiers of sailing areas in the United States with four medals, including the country’s first ever in 1932. At the 2008 Olympic games in China, two native New Orleanians have a chance to bring home medals for the United States, while at the same time solidifying this area’s reputation as one of the most unheralded training grounds in the nation.

John Dane III, 56, and teammate Austin Sperry currently are the top-ranked sailors to represent America in the Star Class at the 2008 Olympic Games. “Growing up sailing on Lake Pontchartrain offered the ideal conditions to excel at this sport,” says Dane, one of the older athletes to potentially compete in the games. “The winds out on the lake are shifty and because the lake is so shallow, the water conditions can range from flat to rough and choppy, which all forces one to be adaptive. Tack onto this the fact that I was always being mentored by world champions in New Orleans, and Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf Coast become ideal training grounds.”

With most coastal sailing areas providing mostly standard onshore or offshore winds almost across the board, local sailors agree the variable nature of the lake’s weather patterns is a primary reason for the sport’s success in New Orleans.

“I think the lake is one of the most challenging places to sail in the U.S.,” says New Orleanian Johnny Lovell, who brought home a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic games in Athens and appears to be a favorite to represent the United States in the Tornado Class at the games in China next year. “You never know what conditions you will encounter on any given day.”

Another globally recognized sailor who cut his teeth on the choppy waters of Lake Pontchartrain is Ryan Finn, who was named one of Gambit Weekly’s 40 Under 40 honorees in 2007. Finn is building his sailing career in a highly difficult segment of sailboat racing: single- or double-handed long-distance ocean races, which require intense training and stamina as well as self-reliance. In 2006, Finn double-handed the Jacques Vabre Transat, a regatta with a course that runs 4,500 nautical miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

A Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, Finn originally used his racing as a tool to generate awareness for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, but Katrina changed all that. Today he works to raise awareness about the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands by joining forces with the America’s Wetland campaign. In June, Finn will race his small 21-foot sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean to Bermuda under the America’s Wetland banner. He hopes to do the same when he competes in other high-profile regattas and plans eventually to race around the world alone.

While most of the country’s sailing attention is focused on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and the Great Lakes, there is no denying that area sailors are bringing home national and class championships. “If they’re not paying attention, they should,” Dane says. “The proof is in the regatta results.”

The attention may finally be coming. There were rumors that the U.S. Olympic Sailing Committee was heavily leaning toward selecting New Orleans and several other Gulf Coast cities for this year’s U.S. Olympic Sailing trials before the bid was pulled shortly after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, several national and class championships have been held on Lake Pontchartrain with great success, including a national regatta held here in March. This June, U.S. Sailing’s Youth Championships will be hosted by Southern Yacht Club at West End, bringing with it hundreds of young sailors, their families, corporate sponsors and lots of attention to the city.

Jay Cicero, president of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, has started taking notice. “The lake is definitely a great asset, although, unfortunately, it’s an under-appreciated asset,” he says. “We have to generate notoriety for these events, find out what the needs are and use the natural resources we have — and the strong sailing community — in order to bring down more of these events. This city needs all the economic boosters we can get.”

Some of the difficulty in achieving a wider acceptance of the sport and garnering more resources from most municipalities in this country is a false sense of elitism that surrounds sailboat racing — a claim discounted by almost anyone who gets involved in it.

It’s not just an adult sport either. Nearly all of the five yacht clubs and two sailing associations on both sides of Lake Pontchartrain offer racing and sailing programs aimed at youths as young as 8 years old. Nearly all members of the current U.S. Olympic sailing team got their start racing Optimists, a small child-oriented sailboat, and interestingly enough, have competed on Lake Pontchartrain. Southern Yacht Club‘s Junior Sailing Program is one of the best in the country and boasts a youth fleet of more than 40 boats.

“Optimist dinghies are a tremendous way to introduce kids to sailing,” says Shan Kirk, Southern’s Optimist Fleet coordinator. “Our juniors are constantly participating in regional and national regattas. Some even travel internationally to compete. Many of our juniors go on into college programs under scholarship. The reality is that over 60 percent of Olympic medal winners, no matter their nationality, started in Junior Optimist programs.”

Silver medalist Lovell agrees. “I doubt I could get to where I am today without starting on the Optimists. It was my foundation.”

“These clubs have taken a lot of pride in bringing these programs back,” says Barton Jahncke, who sailed in the 1968 Olympics and won a gold medal with Buddy Freidrichs and Click Schreck. “Everything’s a mess, the clubs were destroyed, yet we had these kids out there racing. Incredible.”

Olympic hopeful John Dane adds, “Even with all the destruction to the facilities from New Orleans to Biloxi, it was critical for the clubs to restart these junior programs. They all made it a priority.”

While many of the clubs require membership or sponsorship by an existing member to participate in the youth programs, the Coast Guard Auxiliary holds youth and adult sailing classes that are open to the public. There are also some private courses offered at West End by businesses including Murray Yacht Sales.

UNO and Tulane also have active collegiate sailing programs and compete against other programs throughout the nation. A few high schools, including Jesuit and Sacred Heart Academy, have initiated sailing programs as well.

While the sport appears to be heavily dominated by men, this too is undergoing a sea change. Women across the country are taking positions next to men and showcasing their skills. The Lake Pontchartrain Women’s Sailing Association was formed in 2004, and several female-only skippered and crewed regattas have been established.

Mamsie Maynard, who co-founded the LPWSA with Louise Bienvenu says, “There was such a huge desire for more female-oriented sailing activities, and some women felt a little bit intimidated by the sport, that we knew we had to organize. Today we host two regattas on the lake and we have a very talented group of women who travel the Gulf Coast and the country and successfully race.”

Competitive sailing has an incredible fan following globally, especially in Europe and Australia. Benz Faget, a local sailmaker and successful racer, went to the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to race in the Zoo Regatta in 2006. He won the regatta while sailing against high-caliber international teams and was blown away by the intensity of the fans. “It was a whole different world down there,” he says. “It was like a sailboat NASCAR race. There were hundreds of people lining the beach watching us compete.”

With more than 30 weekend regattas on Lake Pontchartrain, as well as many distance races in the Gulf of Mexico and inter-yacht club competitions from Texas to Florida, the opportunities for the local racing community to compete and gain fans are endless. In New Orleans, the highest weekly participation comes throughout daylight savings time on Wednesday nights when locals board nearly every type of sailboat imaginable for the weekly “beer can races.” Crew members walk the piers, board their respective boats and share po-boy dinners as they head to the racecourse for a few evening hours of competitive, though relaxing, racing. Many say it is a great way to break up the work week. Boats are assigned regular handicaps in order to focus the competition onto skipper and crew skills instead of technology and boat design. It is not unusual for old, heavy cruising boats to win over hundred-thousand-dollar racing “sleds” when using corrected finish times.

Before the storm, New Orleans averaged more than 50 boats racing on Wednesday nights alone, but because of the fleet’s losses from the storm, the number was nearly cut in half last year.

“We’re limited now by the number of boats in the area,” Erwin says, “but people are replacing them, many opting to go smaller and faster, and every week the fleet grows.

“The club is willing to work with anyone to help us rebuild the sport to our pre-Katrina levels. For anyone who owns a sailboat and wants to learn to race, we’ll either put seasoned crew on their boat or get their skipper out on a existing racer for a few weeks to learn.”

While Lake Pontchartrain historic ally has helped forge Olympic metal for the city, it is only a start for the claims and titles held by area sailors and clubs. Founded in 1849, Southern Yacht Club at West End is the second-oldest yacht club in the United States and one of the more prestigious. The club holds claim to the oldest continuously run point-to-point regatta in the Western Hemisphere, along with a treasure trove of victories and trophies from some of the most venerated sailing events of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Unfortunately, the majority of Southern’s trophies were lost when a fire destroyed the yacht club after Katrina, some valued at nearly a half-million dollars.

“Essentially every one was lost,” says club historian Arthur Wynn. Some of the Lipton trophies that were destroyed or melted down in the fire were historic and wonderfully ornate. They were sterling silver with hand-done engravings. The artistry that went into the crafting of some of these trophies is now a lost art. They are irreplaceable.”

Much has been lost in the storm, but area sailors refuse to pine for them, choosing instead to go back on the water and fight to repopulate their new trophy cases as well as hone their skills for competitions ahead.

“Learning how to sail was just an incredible challenge for me, but worth every minute of it,” says Macho Slavich, a successful local racer who got into the sport as an adult. He recommends sailing with as many different people as possible in order to learn.

“Realize that racing is one-third sheer boredom, one-third sheer ecstasy and one-third sheer terror. You cannot call a time out on the water or call the harbor to come out and get you. But whether you’re racing or not, remember that powerboats are all about going someplace. Sailing is about the journey. You are exactly where you want to be when you’re in a sailboat.”

This sentiment was wholeheartedly proven in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Within 60 days of the storm’s landfall, the first regatta was held on Lake Pontchartrain. The south shore yacht clubs joined together amid the destruction and waste to hold Southern Yacht Club’s 156th Closing Regatta. Thirty-six boats participated and another 300 people celebrated, almost defiantly, in the shadows of the club’s burned-out husk.

A regular Wednesday night racer, Curt Jarand, who raced in Seattle before moving to New Orleans several months before Hurricane Katrina, was amazed when he learned of the race. “I was dumbfounded when I got the call asking if I could crew. My house in Arabi was completely unlivable along with so many others, and here we were going out to race. Talk about a morale booster. It really taught me a lot about this town.”

Guy Brierre, a Southern Yacht Club board member says, “The water has a healing power. Whether you are out there racing or just out there, it is a time to forget your moldy walls, your fragile job situation, the six insurance claims and FEMA adjusters. We didn’t just want to go sailing, we really needed to go sailing.”

“We’re going to keep this tradition alive in New Orleans,” Jahncke adds. “We have too much of a long history down here in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Sailing creates such a great bond between people, a great sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. It’s a total welding experience and we’re blessed with one of the greatest sailing areas imaginable. We’re going to keep this going down here. No question about it.”

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