West River sailors enjoy racing with the wind


July 30, 2006|By ANNIE LINSKEY

On a dark and stormy Friday, six hardy sailors gathered in Galesville to race tiny, one-sail dinghies called Lasers.

The skippers waited out a downpour and then, as the clouds parted around 6 p.m., rigged their boats and headed out.

Laser sailing isn't for the smart set. The coat-and-tie yacht club types buy bigger, more expensive boats. And it's not really for families - the tiny cockpit fits only one person.

"The Laser is a sailor's sailboat," said Carl Berninger, 72, the oldest member of the Galesville fleet. "They are high performance. The boat talks to you."

About 14 feet long, the boats are often used in junior sailing programs and on the college racing circuit. As sailors get older, they "graduate" to bigger boats.

Or they travel to major Laser regattas where more than 100 boats can be at the starting line. It's not easy to find a Laser sailing fleet for adults that isn't ultra-competitive.

Enter the West River Sailing Club. The low-key group started in 1930 as ODYC - or "Our Damn Yacht Club." The attitude hasn't changed much, said Teri Nilsen, the commodore of the club, which has 350 members who pay $450 a year for membership.

The Laser fleet - usually 12 strong when there isn't a storm - is so congenial that one sailor volunteered to let me sail his boat for one race. (I finished smack in the middle of the fleet).

Some fleet members have been sailing Lasers since the 1970s, but Barnes Johnson bought his two years ago.

He picked the Laser because it doesn't require a crew member. "My kids wouldn't go [sailing] with me."

Another sailor, Gabor Karafaith, 58, bought his boat last fall. He works at his office extra hours Monday through Thursday and leaves early on Friday so he can go for a long bike ride with his wife, then sail for a few hours.

"It's a wonderful way to spend a Friday afternoon," he said.

Although Karafaith has a hard time folding his tall frame into the cramped Laser cockpit, he says a few sore muscles are worth it: "When this boat is on a reach, it just takes off," he said. "It just jumps from wave to wave."

On this Friday night, the sailors put their boats in the water and headed out to the race course - a triangle of buoys set up in waters close to the club so spectators can watch.

The wind was light after the storm - there would be no wave jumping - but enough to get off a few races.

"Start your engines!" Roger McCarthy yelled from the committee boat. Club members take turns setting the course and running the race.

The wind shifted just before the start of the first race, so McCarthy sped around in his motorboat to reset the marks. When he was just about finished, the engine died, leaving the committee boat adrift.

The racers started getting antsy, and someone sailed by the committee boat to plead, "Give us a start anyway! Seriously! Give us a start!"

The sailors didn't care if the course had some imperfections; they just wanted to race.

In the end, McCarthy got the engine running and began the start sequence - a three-minute period when the sailors jockey for position on the line.

During the first race Dick White and Kelsey Averill - a teenager - competed for the No. 1 position. Eventually, Kelsey pulled ahead and stayed ahead. The teenager won all four races.

How do the old guys feel about being beaten by a kid? "I'm in my 70s. I'm successful if I leave the beach," Berninger said.

And how did Averill feel about beating his elders?

It wasn't possible to ask. While the rest of the fleet unrigged, his sail could be seen on the river. He had gone back out to practice.


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