photo above by Joel Rogers

Most Washingtonians recognize that February is a winter month, and that the weather can go from calm to gale-force and back again in a matter of minutes. But every February for three decades, our community of sailors, carpenters, shipbuilders, riggers, and let’s not leave out the newbies, has aimed to let loose and have a good time racing sailboats on Port Townsend Bay. If fun is any measure, the 30th Annual Shipwrights’ Regatta, held on February 27, was a success.

Racing starts even before leaving marina. (Karen Sullivan photo)

This year there was a pent-up demand for a good time. Covid rules required masks, social distancing, and short-handed or family unit crews only. In order to facilitate the reduced crew size, using un-hanked “flying” headsails such as spinnakers, which require more crew to handle, was not permitted except on the smallest sailing dinghies. The race was organized by the Port Townsend Sailing Association. (https://ptsail.org

Local shipwright Ben Feldman trimming sails aboard his liveaboard cruiser Windbird. (Carl Berger photo)

Over the years, each Shipwrights’ Regatta has provided competition, camaraderie, comedy, and minor calamities that make great stories. This race rose magnificently to meet that high standard. In fact, you might say it blew away all previous records. It used to be that a dozen boats meant it was a good race, and twenty made it outstanding, but this year, 58 boats signed up, along with a few more who sneaked in at the last minute. There were big boats, small boats, cruising boats and racing boats. There was sailing and bailing and waving and laughing.  

Waves from a T-bird. (Carl Berger photo)

On the night before the race, winds howled at 40 knots with thunder-hail that dropped little ice eggs. Saturday dawned chilly and calm, with winds forecast at ten knots, perfect. I sailed aboard Kuma San, one of the Thunderbird fleet, and was puzzled by an unusual conversation at the dock between my husband, Jim Heumann, and his friend John Lynes, with whom he co-owns the boat.

“I got us some new telltales, look!” said Jim, showing John the newfangled twisty wire gizmos that would replace the cheap fluttery things they’d been taping to the rigging to indicate wind direction.

“Very nice,” said John, “So we don’t need Sonny and Cher anymore?”

“No, and we can probably take down the BeeGees, too,” replied Jim.

“What on earth are you talking about?” I asked.

“The old telltales,” said Jim, pointing, “They’re pieces of cassette tapes.”

“The BeeGees? Really?” I laughed.

John said, “Let’s leave Sonny and Cher on the backstay until we’re sure the new ones work.”

This unfortunately gave me an earworm, and throughout the race whenever John would say, “Ready about,” I was gripping the jib-sheet all set for action and wanting to sing, “AH GOT YOU, BABE” to the ocarina tooting in my head.

Starting line excitement didn’t disappoint as boats crowded in for the best spots next to Carl Berger’s 1944 wooden troller, Sockeye, which was acting as the Committee Boat. With fifty-plus boats racing, there were four separate starts in order to allow them to spread out along the course and to prevent a start line demolition derby. Thanks to Race Committee Boss Dave Burrows, the starts went off as smooth as you could wish for, considering it was bunches of jostling sailboats all trying not to hit each other.

If you’re not a sailor and you watch a race from shore, you might be forgiven for thinking how serene it looks, how like a bunch of lovely butterflies they are, so languid and sure as they slide in the same general direction, sipping chilled Riesling beneath tranquil billows of white canvas, to the Bach-like strains of seagull cries. You would also be wrong, it’s more like, “Where’s the mark?”

“I dunno, I’m just following the boat in front of us.”

I heard only one cry of “STARBOARRRD!” to claim right-of-way, and am still waiting for someone to try answering that with, “Port tack overlap!” or “Continental beam reach!” Neither retort actually exists, but in such a jolly race with no protests allowed, it might be fun.

“STARBOARRRD!” (Carl Berger photo)

Another wonderful thing about the Shipwright’s Regatta is the awards. Of course there are the usual line honors, but there are other awards too, such as my favorite, the Whak ‘O’ Matic.

Whak ‘O’ Matic. (Karen Sullivan photo)

Awarded for the best use of misspent energy, this year’s Whak ‘O’ Matic was shared by two boats (Andiamo Again and Ceridwen) that were racing neck-and-neck for a yellow inflatable leeward mark that seemed to be getting further and further away (a common feeling among sailors when pounding toward a destination). But this mark was in fact doing exactly that, having been accidentally set free from its anchor by a boat named Flapdoodle, future winner of the Twisted Belaying Pin award (for a boat that had problems on the course).

When Flapdoodle ran over the mark and came to a stop, they realized they might be in the way of other boats, so they kindly started their engine to get out of the way, which turned their prop into a high-speed winch that rolled up the mark’s anchor line. The prop cut the mark loose and the chase was on. Flapdoodle was rescued by the future winners of the Perpetual Award, given for exceptional seamanship or sportsmanship.

The Perpetual award, made of a piece of timber from a 150 year-old wreck found in Discovery Bay. (Karen Sullivan photo)

The rescuers happened to be driving the mark boat and had gone looking for the escaped mark, which was by now way, way downwind. The Whak ‘O’ Matics broke off the chase when they realized that rounding the mark would require getting out and walking, so Kuma San went after it. We pulled it aboard, and Jim had the pleasure of laying on it like a giant yellow beanbag chair as it deflated.

Jim deflates the mark on the foredeck. (Karen Sullivan photo)

There’s no photo for the Twisted Belaying Pin award because it “grew legs” several years ago and disappeared. But there are several other wonderful Shipwrights’ Regatta awards, such as the Taku, for the biggest boat to try the hardest and go the slowest, the Peg Leg, for the boat with the oldest average age of crew,

The Peg Leg award, made from the boom of a friendship sloop. (Karen Sullivan photo)

…the Directional Helmet, for a boat that gets lost or misses a buoy;

The Directional Helmet award is self explanatory.
(Karen Sullivan Photo)

…the Golden Trident, for the saltiest boat and crew;

The Golden Trident award. Neptune stepped briefly out
of the photo. (Karen Sullivan photo)

…the Captain Hook, for the last boat across the finish line;

The Captain Hook award. Pete Langley at the Port Townsend Foundry made all the brass pieces in these awards. (Karen Sullivan photo)

…and the Van Hope award for the most young people, or the youngest person on a boat. These awards, each a unique piece of shipwright craftsmanship, will be on display at the Northwest Maritime Center.

For a detailed writeup of who won and who got what award, go to the Port Townsend Sailing Association’s website. (https://ptsail.org

We are blessed with so many talented people in our maritime trades and traditions, who have made Port Townsend a center of maritime excellence, not to mention fun, that it boggles the mind. That’s why there’s no such thing as a shipwrong; there are only shipwrights.

Noddy, an 11-foot Scamp, won the Captain Hook award and then went for another sail around the bay. (Carl Berger photo)


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