Jousting in Castine

By John K. Hanson Jr. - Editor, Maine harbors & boats

Late last fall, I learned that the Windmill Class was going to hold its National Championship in Castine, and I knew, somehow, I was going to sail in it. After all, I had sailed in one of their National Championships before. (So what if Neil Armstrong had walked on the moon that same summer.) Still, if sailors were going to come from all over the country, someone from Maine should at least be on hand. And I couldn't think of anyone else in the state that had raced one of these little sloop-rigged rockets.

Charlotte and Mark Shaughnessy of the Sherborn Yacht Club in Massachusetts, this year's Class presidents, made the decision to come to Castine. What better place to combine beautiful scenery with championship racing. And think of the fun of all those warm-water sailors getting lost in the fog. They asked Maine Maritime Academy to help out and the event went smoothly - even the fog.

Windmills were born as floating soapbox derby racers. In the 50's the good fathers of Clearwater, Florida, had a problem. Their kids wanted to race soapbox derby cars. But they didn't have any decent hills and the racing was pretty dull. What they had, however, were excellent sailing grounds. So they approached local boatbuilder Clark Mills who came up with the waterborne equivalent: a plywood box called the Optimist pram - safe, responsive, forgiving and cheap. But though thousands of kids worldwide have learned to sail in them, they turned out to only be enough boat for kids up to about the age of 12. They lacked that special ingredient essential for keeping teenagers intrigued - raw speed.

So he stretched the design to 15 1/2 feet, widened it to four, kept it to 198 pounds with plywood and some spruce, left it wide open with broad side decks, and got it. It flew with the wind, was still inexpensive and could still be built at home.

It was a little too radical for the local yachting authorities. But its stability won them over when its sail trials were conducted in high winds. And in 1967 it won its class in the Yachting Heavy Air One-of-a-Kind Regatta on San Francisco Bay.

I was in my early teens then, and I followed all of this through the sailboat racing bible of its day, One Design Yachtsman. In those pages I followed the exploits of my heroes, Paul Elvstrom, the Dane who would win four consecutive Olympic gold medals racing single-handed dinghies, Lowell North, Peter Barrett and others. And I would also read the articles of Bob "Boat is a Boat" Smith.

What an enviable job he had, and what a great series he wrote, "A Boat is a Boat." Here was a guy who went around racing in different championships with his girlfriend taking pictures, hanging out with cool people, all while sailing other peoples' boats. And usually he won. And then he got to write about it. 1 devoured his pieces. I sailed my Blue Jay nearly every day, but every month I sailed on a new boat with Bob "Boat is a Boat" Smith. And it was with Bob in mind that I headed for Castine.

The Shaughnessys found me a boat to race. But all the while I kept thinking about this winning thing, knowing full well that my skills, even at their height were, at best, middle of the fleet. Local knowledge, I decided, was my only weapon. Castine is famous for its currents, and these flatlanders would be lucky if they didn't get swept out to sea.

I signed David Gelinas on for the regatta. He's strong, not too heavy, is a Penobscot Bay Pilot, and former captain of the Maine Maritime Academy sailing team. If he couldn't counteract my s1ows, nobody could. If we could get off the dock without capsizing, we would show them.

Professional mariners, however; don't schedule their vacations with any surety. Two days before the regatta, David called to say he had to take a barge up the river to Bangor. Panicked, I called the Castine Yacht Club.

A young voice answered. I introduced myself, explained my situation, and asked if he knew anyone that might like to crew. Without hesitation, he answered, "I will." I asked the voice how old he was "Twelve." I asked if he had sailed anything like a high performance centerboard dinghy. "Sure. My family has a JY 15." 1 asked him how much he weighed. He said 120. I said I'd be up that evening to meet him and his family. I mentioned that these boats can capsize and did that bother him. No, he said, he's flipped just about every boat he's sailed.

I had found my local talent.

Thirty-three boats from all over the country descended upon Castine which was celebrating its 200th birthday, though it had a lot of history before its incorporation what with Baron de Castin, the Indians, the English, the French and the Dutch fighting over this beautiful peninsula well over 400 years ago. One of the wonders of Castine is its incredible history and the signs placed all over town that told the story. For example where we launched our boats, a lovely lane between the Holiday house and the Catholic Church, is claimed to be the site of where 'The Second Miracle of God was Performed' back in l611. As we prepared our boat for launching I prayed for a third.

The miracle was that we got a regatta off at all. The fog came in and stayed. The first day's racing was canceled. Ben and I decided that practice was a good thing, and we went out and sorted strings and put up the whisker pole and jibed and tacked, and jibed and tacked. The agility of youth.

The second day didn't look much better, but we decided to sail on Smith's Cove, a beautiful protected circular cove that, when the fog lifted, proved to be a perfect place to race a National Championship.

The Nationals! I was pretty nervous. I used to throw up before club races. These guys were good, they knew their boats, they took their racing seriously. How had "Boat is a Boat" Smith done it?

We hit a boat during the first start, but there was a general recall. I felt better, just like the first hit of a football game, but I realized that tangling with these 33 dinghy jockeys was beyond me. We hit the next start a little late but were at the windward end with the ability to immediately tack and stay out of everyone's way.

We were in the top 10 going towards the first weather mark. The boat was fast, Ben was calling shifts and laylines and it was fun. And on the first reach we maybe even caught a boat. And maybe Armstrong was still on the moon, and rock and roll will never die, and I could still drive a racing dinghy.

But reality returned at the jibe mark - the whisker pole flying one way, hiking stick another, mainsheet around the ankles, and three boats going by us on the inside. When it comes to boathandling and mark rounding, memory only takes you so far. We ended up 13th, but we had a blast.

Throughout the regatta we saw the leaders on the first legs, and got to know a lot of folks in the middle of the fleet for the rest of the race. The racing was crisp, demanding, and aggressive, but with the patina of politeness. These guys were good. They were fast and competitive. What they weren't was nasty. I've been to local regattas where there has been more strutting, jiving and boat banging. This was good clean fun.

The sailors who came to Castine were some of the best dinghy sailors in the country. Rick Fontana and Diane Ahmann, who sailed an almost flawless series to win the championship, also race in other classes such as Snipe. Mark Shaughnessy who, with his wife Charlotte, finished second, once pursued an Olympic berth in the 470 class. The competition was first-rate throughout. I was proud to be in the middle of it.

Castine and the Maine Maritime Academy were wonderful hosts.

After the first days of fog, it was summertime beautiful. The festivities were gracious and of course featured lobster. It was wonderful to be with sailors experiencing the Maine coast for the first time. The combination of town, harbor and the school make a wonderful venue to sail a world-class championship. I hope more classes will make the trip to Penobscot Bay for their events.

And I'll be ready for them. I, too, can sail other people's boats and hang out with cool folk. Just like Bob "Boat is a Boat" Smith. Except my nickname might have to be "Mid-Fleet."

This article appeared in the Winter 1996 issue of Maine boats & harbors. It fairly captures the Windmill culture. The magazine deals with more than boats. It covers people and culture. You may subscribe by calling (800) 710-9368. Maine Boats & Harbors