Models of America's Cup yachts race in Columbia


November 30, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AT THE sound of a loud gong, four skippers aimed their sailboats through the starting gates.

Driven by an uncertain breeze, the boats sped toward yellow buoys marking a windward turn. Skill and fortune kept the racers within inches of each other as they battled for position across the course.

Saturday's race, held by the Maryland Model Yacht Club, was the first Thanksgiving Six Pack Regatta on Lake Kittamaqundi. The boats -- called "East Coast 12s" -- are radio-controlled scale models of sailboats that competed in the 1962 America's Cup.

"The boats are all exactly the same," said competitor Alan Sellers of Long Reach. "So it is the skill of the skipper, not the boat, that wins the races."

"Six pack" refers to the combined voltage of batteries bundled together inside each boat that operate the sails and rudder. The boats are 58 3/4 inches long and weigh about 25 pounds.

The four captains standing on the shore watched flags flapping on the pier and ripples on the water to guess at the direction of the wind. On the lake, sails were not always filled.

One skipper leading the race was unexpectedly becalmed. A plucky boat propelled ahead by a sudden swirling blast of wind turned at a red buoy. Others on his stern were catching the same breeze.

"Go for it, Green Apple," yelled Nino Sylvia, 13, of Kings Contrivance. Nino and his friend Tyler Watkins, 13 -- also from Kings Contrivance -- came to the lakefront for in-line skating and paused to watch the race.

"Wow, this is intense," Tyler said.

Not knowing the names of the colorful boats, the boys assigned the name of a fruit to each craft. The pair stood on the deck above the boathouse yelling encouragement to "Banana," "Red Apple" and "Watermelon" (a two-toned boat.)

"I've seen speedboats," Tyler said. "But this is cool because it's all natural." He was impressed by the wind-powered boats.

Sellers, 48, has been racing model yachts for four years. He has been sailing for about 40 years. He said he started sailing smaller boats as an extension of his interest in big ones.

Each of the races at Kittamaqundi began with a two-minute countdown as the skippers angled their boats for position behind the two yellow buoys -- the starting gate. The object is to be able to cross the imaginary line under full sail when the gong sounds.

Skippers standing side by side on the shore listened to the cadence of a metronome played over a boom box. A voice signaled one minute, then 30 seconds to start. At 10 seconds, boats were steered toward the buoys in a flurry of activity.

With sails full, the boats moved briskly along the course. Turns were marked by a second pair of yellow buoys on one end and a single red buoy at the other.

Missing a turn meant coming back to try again, a loss of time and position. When the race is tight, jockeying at the red buoy makes all the difference. The four skippers joked about their problems.

"They take my air and, they keep it as they go by," said Dr. Jarl Wathne, 43, a physician from Williamsport. His boat was dead in the water near the red buoy.

"They didn't even throw you a sandwich," said fellow sailor Dave Brawner of Mount Laurel, N.J., as if tiny sailors aboard the boats might be causing the problem.

Brawner, 38, watched his boat overtake the others, making a tight turn around the red buoy to take the lead on the way to the finish line.

"It's like a chess game," said Fred Maurer, 53, a spectator. "The skipper's ability to read the wind and make the right guess is what matters."

Maurer, a pilot for U.S. Air Express, once crewed on 39-foot boats of similar design. He has become a fan of model yachting and said he is thinking about becoming involved but hasn't bought a boat.

"It's interesting because of the boats' geometry and the interaction of the boats with the wind," Maurer said. "No two races are the same, no two winds are the same -- but the boats are all exactly alike."

He said he first saw the model yachts being raced on a lake in Sun City Center, near Tampa, Fla. He was intrigued, so he looked up model yachting clubs on the Internet. In the course of his research, Maurer formed a friendship with Brawner, who invited him to Saturday's regatta.

Brawner came to the lake to compete against Sellers, Wathne and Mark Rinehart of Middletown, Del.

The group identified Rinehart as the Delaware state champion -- "because I'm the only one in the state doing it," Rinehart said.

Sellers, a member of the Maryland Model Yachting Club along with Rinehart and Wathne, said his group meets regularly at Lake Kittamaqundi. The club travels around the country competing with other clubs. But the competitions aren't all as much fun as Saturday's race.

"Some skippers get downright nasty when they lose," Sellers said.

Rinehart came in first in the 15-heat event. Sellers was second, and Wathne third.

The Maryland club is sponsored by Clyde's Restaurant. On Saturday, general manager Tony Moynagh delivered chili, burgers and sodas to the group during a break between races.

Moynagh races a 30-foot boat named "Elvis" out of Galesville.

"It's the early Elvis -- skinny and fast," he said.


Trees for sale

Woodsmen at a tree farm in West Virginia are felling blue spruce and Fraser firs today.

They will be delivered to the Hammond High School parking lot by Friday for the school's fourth Christmas tree sale.

Athletic Director Bob Maxey said proceeds from the weekend sale will help support the baseball team.

About 250 trees will be for sale for $35 to $45.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday.

"It's a sellout every year," Maxey said. "A good bargain for a good cause."

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