“Someday, when we talk about windy regattas in the Gorge, this may not be the windiest one ever but it will definitely be in the conversation.” That assessment alone makes the Lasers Masters US Championships one for the ages.
That’s saying a lot when it comes from Bill Symes, who has sailed and organized as many Columbia River Gorge Association (CGRA) events as anyone. Symes also said it was the windiest conditions he had ever sailed in. Kaighn Smith, who made the trip from Portland, Maine, explained that in his neck of the woods “in those winds it’s just survival. Here guys are racing.”
The event was the Laser Masters U.S. Championship, so it wasn’t a bunch of strapping kids out there. Masters events start at age 35 and end at, well, who knows. In this event there were a large number of Great Grand Masters (65-74) and a “Legend” (75+).
Fleets were divided into the Standard (aka full) rig and the smaller Radial rig. There were 18 full rigs and 28 Radials, with serious international contenders in both fleets.
If anyone was on the fence as to which fleet to sail in, the choice was obvious. The wind looked to be in the 20s already when registration closed. After the usual Gorge warnings (“there’s no shame in coming in if it’s too much” and “don’t get in the way of commercial traffic, you may die”) about three quarters of the boats headed to the starting line. Over the course of the day boats limped in, some with shell-shocked skippers, others with broken parts. Nick Pullen, for instance, came in with what he thought was a broken rudder. It turned out to be a broken gudgeon. When does that happen? By the end of the third race there were only 8 full rigs and 10 Radials on the course.
All photos by Christy Usher of Christine Robin Photography. You can see all of them here. Thanks, Christy!
The leaders at the end of the first day carnage were no surprises, Charlie Buckingham in the full rigs and Bill Symes in the Radials.
The second day started much more sedately, in the low teens, which allowed several sailors to get back their Laser mojo. Just as things started to look like a normal regatta with just about everybody finishing and a good mix of finish places, the Gorge started “nukin’” again. The fourth and final race of the day was on a par with the day before, and once again the DNSs and DNFs started mounting. Epic stories abound. Bill Symes, after having an up and down day, was enjoying a great race when he broke his aluminum top mast section just yards from the finish.
At this point the races at the top were clear. Ernesto Rodriguez was giving Buckingham everything he could handle in the full rig fleet, and Jorge Luis Yanez del Castillo of Vancouver, BC and Andrew Holdsworth of San Francisco were duking it out atop the Radials.
On Sunday the wind then decided two days weren’t enough. From the moment boats left the beach to that final push to the finish, the wind was the 20s and gusting into the 30s. It always seems windier in a Laser, but they were truly epic conditions, and it’s a testimony to the quality of the Lasers master sailors (and fitness) that they could compete in those conditions.
As in most masters regatta there were plenty of awards to go around. Rodriguez topped Buckingham by just a point for the full rig win. Del Castillo and Holdsworth traded firsts and seconds the entire second half of the regatta, but del Castillo had a clear victory in the end. There were awards for the various divisions in each fleet including apprentice (35-44), masters 45-54), grand masters (55-64) and great grandmasters (65-74) and the new category “Legend” (75+, won by Jay Winberg).
Upon being awarded the championship trophy, Rodrigeuz said “I came here hoping for a lot of wind, and I got more than I even really wanted!) It’s interesting that Rodriguez and del Castillo sailed together on the Cuban national team in years past.
Nick Pullen gave a moving speech about the origins of the Tony Dahlman Memorial Trophy (named after a most enthusiastic Laser sailor who passed away years ago doing what he loved – Laser sailing. For many of us, this sportsmanship award embodies what Laser sailing is about), after which it was awarded to mid-fleet finisher Simon Bell.
Any coverage of a Lasers Masters event would be incomplete without talking about the camaraderie. First of all, even in a national championship it’s an international event. With sailors from the Dominican Republic, Australia, England Canada and Israel, it felt a bit like a tiny Worlds. And from the moment one arrives at the site, through the racing and meals and while packing up the boats to leave, the mutual respect and support is superlative. Masters sailors know what skills and perseverance to sail the Laser. In conditions like there were for the 2017 Masters US Championships, that respect and fondness grow exponentially.
Ed. Note: You can read my more personal account of the event, and what I think I know about sailing on the Gorge, here. Whew.