White sails, blue skies

The Hooligan (foreground) skippered by Peter Nimb jockeys for position against John DeMeyer’s Palancar. - Ryan Schierling / Staff Photo
The Hooligan (foreground) skippered by Peter Nimb jockeys for position against John DeMeyer’s Palancar.
— image credit: Ryan Schierling / Staff Photo

The first of a two-part story about the weekly sailboat regatta from Eagle Harbor puts fun ahead of competition.

The race won’t start for another five minutes, but the competition, such as it is, is already under way.

“What are you doing up there?” a skipper calls out from a passing sailboat.

Norm Down, who has been standing at the bow of the 33-foot sloop Savage to scan for floating debris, sets himself up big-time:

“Looking for deadheads.”

“They’re on board!” the rival skipper laughs, breezing away on another course.

Such good-humored pre-race banter is the norm in a weekly regatta based in Eagle Harbor and run in the late afternoon every Wednesday.

Remarkably, the nearly six-year-old series has seen more than 250 races.

And when autumn winds come and the days turn short, it will simply shift to the noon hour – and foul weather will be no deterrent.

It is not Bainbridge Island’s only regatta; the Port Madison crowd has a weekly series on Thursdays, and many island sailors take part in regional weekend events.

Yet while sailboat racing often inspires a tangible intensity of competition – some Puget Sound overnighters have been described by former crew members as “an opportunity to be yelled at for two days” – the Eagle Harbor series is notable for its informality.

If it even has a name, nobody thinks to mention it over the course of three months of observation.

That laid-back spirit, participants say, is precisely the regatta’s appeal.

“They’re all very serious about sailing, but (winning) is not the be-all and end-all,” says Chandlery owner Bob Schoonmaker, who owns several sailboats of his own but jumps from vessel to vessel each week, depending on who needs a crew member.

“As long as we have a good time, that’s what’s important,” he says. “It’s about sportsmanship – it’s more in the Corinthian spirit, really.”

The series’ genesis was a random conversation between Down and Jim Laughlin, both longtime sailors looking for an excuse to take their boats out on a weekly basis.

A “lunchbox series” was proposed, with no real thought of actually putting one together. But word got around.

“That was it – idle talk,” Laughlin said. “Then I went to see (builder) Tad Fairbank, and he said, ‘When’s the first race?’”

Fortune and meteorologists smiled on that inaugural season, which began in October 1997 but saw not a drop of precipitation through its first year.

“Every Wednesday the skies would clear,” Laughlin said, “and if it wasn’t sunny, at least it wasn’t raining. It was bizarre.”

Since then, the regatta has developed a small but intensely loyal following.

Series regulars now include a handful of local developers and builders; the island’s aquatic center manager; a structural engineer; the husband of a city council member, and sometimes the councilor herself; a surveyor and a business consultant; a dental technician; and random hangers-on of varying degrees of sailing acumen, including, for the summer at least, the local newspaper editor.

Setting out from various Winslow and Eagledale marinas, from five to 10 vessels can be counted on to converge at the mouth of Eagle Harbor in the wake of the 4:45 ferry.

After a period of jockeying around the starting line – denoted at one end by a buoy flag emblazoned with a beer mug – a horn sounds and the event is under way.

For years, the object was circumnavigation of Blakely Rock, but that course ran afoul of new homeland security rules intended to keep recreational vessels away from ferries.

Now, depending on the wind, the course runs north to Murden Cove and back, or to a marker southeast of Restoration Point.

And while there has been a bit of one-upsmanship over the years – nearly every skipper has at some point moved up to a bigger, faster boat – it’s not really about who wins or loses, but about where the potluck and beer are after the race.

“At the end of the day, you’re all friends,” Schoonmaker said. “You have to hug each other before you leave.”

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