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By Glen Dickson
40 E-Scows made their way to the New Jersey beach town of Seaside Park for the 2014 Eastern Class E-Scow Association (ECESA) Championship, hosted by Seaside Park Yacht Club from July 31st through Aug. 2nd. This Easterns promised to be one of the most competitive in recent memory, with a collection of graying former champions including Dick Wight, Erik Johnson, Russ Lucas, Dave Magno and Rick Turner squaring off against young contenders such as Jeff Bonanni, Chad Hillyer and John Brown (well, the crew is sort of young). To spice up the mix, the incoming fleet also boasted long-distance travelers like Augie Barkow from Pewaukee and Robby Wilkins from Charleston and Melges 20 hotshots Michael Kiss and Travis Weisleder. Even former E national champion and world-famous photographer Peter Hurley was scheduled to make a cameo appearance.
There was electricity in the air on Wednesday as teams arrived and set up. And then the electricity came crashing down—quite literally—as an unlucky visiting yacht snagged its rigging in the power lines of SPYC’s primary hoist and ripped them apart. Fortunately, a few resourceful SPYC members rushed to the rescue, installing new cables that returned the hoist to operation by Wednesday night and let regatta chairman Ed Vienckowski get a little sleep.
Thursday morning dawned warm, overcast and windier than predicted, with a steady SW breeze of 10 knots already churning at 9:30 as the fleet began the long trek to the rarely-used Cedar Creek race course. Cedar Creek is a wide-open area of Barnegat Bay situated four miles south of SPYC and separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the narrow expanse of Island Beach State Park. The channel of the Intercoastal Waterway borders the course to the west, but motorboat traffic on the course itself is minimal. However, the relatively deep water (for the Bay) and a healthy fetch to the south can generate sizable waves, something Cedar Creek neophytes would soon learn.
So just how hard would it blow? That was a tough question to answer in summer 2014. While Barnegat Bay is famous for its consistent southerly seabreezes, unseasonably cool air temperatures and unusually warm ocean waters had resulted in only a couple of Saturdays racing in the typical 15-knot-plus thermal. But the weather gods decided to cooperate for the Easterns, as the skies cleared, the familiar cumulus “suction” clouds formed over the mainland and the wind quickly backed 40 degrees and increased to 12 knots.
When that sequence occurs before noon, locals know to expect a steady build throughout the day, a lot of hiking and some great rides downwind. The skipper of our three-man, 570-lb. team put it bluntly: “This is going to take a lot of work.”
The pin end was slightly favored for the first start, and a small lefty with about a minute to go favored it even more. Erik Johnson on T-18 pulled off the high-risk, high-reward start right at the pin and launched into an early lead, as many boats quickly bailed out onto the long port tack to the weather mark. Johnson held starboard and didn’t tack until he was past the port layline, but with flatter water and better pressure on the left the extra distance didn’t hurt much. T-18 rounded with a lead of several boatlengths over John Brown in T-37, with Augie Barkow in V-37 and ECESA Commodore Russ Lucas in BH-8 in hot pursuit.
Johnson and Brown held to the east on the run, while boats that jibed out early to the west sailed out of the pressure and slipped back. By the gate Johnson had extended on Brown, with Jeff Bonanni in T-73 moving up to third. T-18 repeated its strategy on the next two legs and took the gun. Bonanni overtook Brown upwind for second, while Barkow finished fourth and Lucas fifth.
By the start of Race 2 the breeze had veered about 10 degrees to 180 and built to 13-16 knots, which prompted PRO Jim Walsh and his RC team to lengthen the course to 1.5 miles. Johnson got another hot start in the middle of the line, with Lucas, Chad Hillyer in T-17 and Peter Koar in BH-21 also punching out. A drag race to the left ensued, and at the top mark Johnson held a slim lead over Hillyer and Lucas.
T-18 was chased closely by T-17 throughout the run. Johnson rounded the right-hand mark and headed back upwind to the flat water on the left, while Hillyer and Lucas took the other gate to work the right. Their split paid off and both Hillyer and Lucas passed Johnson upwind, with Hillyer extending to a large lead by the finish. Lucas, Johnson and Koar followed, with Robby Wilkins in SC-55 moving up to fifth.
By now, the waves had grown substantially in size and the lower left-hand (west) side of the run, described by some as the “Bermuda Triangle”, had begun to claim its victims. Bonanni was heading to another top-ten when he stuffed his bow gybing for the finish and capsized, winding up 19th. Seven-time Easterns champ Dick Wight also managed to flip, but fortunately for him it was after the race! It was really blowing at this point, and everyone tightened up their rigs and a few teams scrambled back to their tow boats to switch to heavy-air jibs. This was a risky move, as PRO Walsh quickly went into sequence to try to get a third race in before conditions deteriorated further.
After one general recall, Race 3 got off in a solid 18 knots with shots to 20. The crews would sleep tonight! Johnson got a great boat-third start and his three-man team managed to leg it out with the heavyweights to the port layline and again round in first, chased by BH-21, T-73, V-37 and Dick Wight in MA-10.
Johnson had a strong run and opened up a healthy lead by the gates. He again rounded the right-hand mark and headed east, followed by MA-10, V-37 and T-37. Koar rounded the other gate and headed right, and Bonanni soon tacked to join him while T-18 kept making a beeline for the left corner. The result was a replay of Race 2, with the breeze veering ten degrees through the beat and Bonanni and Koar vaulting into first and second. Johnson managed to hold off Wight to finish third.
The tired and thirsty teams were greeted at the SPYC hoists with cold keg beer, courtesy of Colie Sailmakers and the high-minded organization known as The Bilgeboarders. Skippers gathered to rave about the venue—“Just like Little Egg!”—-while crews huddled to discuss their physical condition—“Couldn’t feel my feet at all!”. After showering, the hungry sailors were treated to a fine pork roast dinner from the “Galley Boys,” SPYC’s team of member chefs.
A look at the standings showed that consistency was hard to come by, with Johnson the only competitor with all top-fives and only four other teams with three top-10s. Johnson led with 7 points, followed by Peter Koar with 13 points and Hillyer with 14. Wight and Brown rounded out the top five with 16 and 19 points, respectively. With a 2-19-1, Bonanni obviously was looking forward to the drop. But he wasn’t alone: Barkow had a 21 in Race 2, Wilkins a 26 in Race 3 and Lucas a DNF in Race 3, when the clew grommet ripped out of his brand-new mainsail.
While some of the younger teams lingered on the porch and in the SPYC bar after dinner, the overall mood Thursday night was subdued, a reflection of the day’s physical toll. Friday’s forecast of light to medium breeze was eagerly anticipated by many crews.
Friday morning looked eerily similar to Thursday, however, with a healthy SW breeze of 10 knots blowing at 8 AM. But during the trip out to the course the clouds increased and the breeze started to die. The wind waned to almost nothing and the RC called a postponement at 10 am. After a short wait, the sun started to break through and a light seabreeze of 4 knots filled in from around 160 degrees. After one more postponement and one general recall, Race 4 got off shortly after 11 am.
With no side being obviously favored, the fleet spread evenly across the line. After a couple minutes, a small lefty prompted most to flop over and a long port-tack drag race ensued. Peter Hurley in MA-11 and John Maschal in LE-1 led the pack on the right, while Wilkins in SC-55 and Bobby Koar in BH-22 were in the front on the left. Johnson was alone in the middle right after a solid mid-line start and with good speed was able to hold to the starboard layline and lead Hurley back. With some late right-hand pressure, they both crossed the left-hand pack and set off down the east side of the run, followed by Wilkins and Koar. T-18 extended a bit on MA-11 by the gates and headed back to the left upwind. Johnson maintained his lead to the finish, while Koar passed Wilkins on the second beat to finish third, followed by Wilkins and Maschal.
Several contenders had trouble in the light air, as Peter Koar finished 17th, Bonanni 23rd and Wight 13th. Hillyer and Brown hung tough with a 7th and 8th, while Lucas finished 10th and Barkow 12th.
By the time Race 5 started the breeze had freshened considerably, to around 14 knots at 180. Hillyer and Wight won the sprint to the upper left to round first and second, followed by Johnson, Dave Magno in LA-99 and Joe Thorpe in T-4. Hillyer showed off his upwind speed and won wire-to-wire, while Johnson moved right on the second beat to pass Wight. Bonanni and Wilkins worked their way up to finish fourth and fifth.
The sky had been growing cloudy through Race 5, and though the breeze had veered, it was dropping slightly. During a short lunch break, some light rain began to fall, a sign the breeze might die further. After multiple general recalls, the RC went to the Z flag and Race 6 got off in about 12 knots from 190 degrees. Bonanni had a great start and led at the first mark, chased by Richie Ryon in LE-2, Peter Wright in MA-6, Brown and Lucas.
By the second windward mark, Ryon had passed Bonanni and Brown was third. They were followed by Lucas and Johnson, who had moved up from around 10th at the first mark. There were big gains to be made on this downwind leg, as the pressure was getting spotty in the middle of the course. Brown sailed a beautiful run, with some timely gybes to connect the puffs, and cruised past Ryon and Bonanni to take the gun. Lucas held out far to the east and moved up to second, edging Bonanni, while Rick Turner hit the opposite west corner and passed a bunch of boats to finish fourth. Ryon took fifth and Johnson sixth.
While the Easterns fleet would usually head in after three races, Saturday’s forecast called for big breeze and heavy rain. The RC decided to go for one more in case racing wasn’t possible the next day, and Race 7 started in about 10 knots from 200 degrees. Easterns rookie Michael Kiss in MB-13 got a so-so start mid-line, cleared out to the right, and then tacked onto a nice starboard slant that lasted long enough for him to cross everyone on the left. He rounded first, followed by Wilkins, Lucas, Hillyer and Wight.
Kiss and Wilkins extended on the first run, and Kiss kept sailing smoothly to record his first E-Scow race win. Wilkins’ second moved him into third overall, while Lucas and Wight finished third and fourth to move into fourth and fifth overall. Hillyer’s fifth solidified his second-place regatta standing, while Brown and Bonanni stumbled to 18th and 20th, taking them out of overall contention. Regatta leader Johnson also struggled, never recovering from a second-row start and finishing 13th.
The sodden fleet slogged back to SPYC and hit the docks well past 5 pm, with many sailors postponing their banquet preparations for the immediate gratification of a few cold drafts. The scores showed that Johnson’s Race 7 hiccup had left the door open slightly for Hillyer, the only competitor who could mathematically catch him for the Easterns title. With 27 points compared to Johnson’s 16, Hillyer needed to win the eighth and final race and hope that Johnson finished twelfth or worse.
Despite the short turnaround, most sailors got cleaned up in time for dinner, a catered affair offering filet mignon and some tasty brownies. The post-dinner mood was more festive than the previous evening, as many competitors expected the weather gods to deliver a blowout and partied accordingly. Some frenzied dancing, powered by the great Thom White Band, ensued. Regatta chair Vienckowski was one of the more energetic participants, showing the kids how it’s done with the aid of his lovely wife Bev.
There were a few groggy faces on Saturday morning as sailors arrived to see what was on tap for the final day. From a weather perspective, it wasn’t good, with pouring rain and big breeze from the NE. But as the fleet gathered in the SPYC clubhouse for the annual ECESA meeting, Vienckowski announced the RC’s intention was to try to race, but not at Cedar Creek. Instead, the RC would set up on the Seaside Park course, close by the club, perhaps after a postponement to see if the breeze would abate.
At 9 am, an AP flag was raised, and the RC went out on a RIB to assess the mid-bay conditions. It was a brief trip, as they encountered steady breeze of 20-25, rain squalls and fog. “I should have known it was a bad sign when my hat blew off!” quipped PRO Walsh.
But the RC did not abandon at that point. So Hillyer and his crew, who already had their boat in the water, decided to go sailing to help convince the RC that conditions were feasible. This development provided some welcome entertaiment for the bored crews huddled on the SPYC porch, who cheered loudly when T-17’s sails were raised (also rather loudly).
Hillyer’s initial attempt was cut short due to navigational difficulties, which drew some delighted jeers from the assembled masses. But on his second attempt, he managed to exit the tight SPYC basin and spend a half-hour giving a very capable demonstration of upwind and downwind sailing in front of SPYC, including some crisp spinnaker sets, gybes and douses. The RC wasn’t convinced, however, as the wind and rain kept picking up and the fog grew worse.
At 11 am, the RC fired three guns and hoisted N over A to officially abandon racing for the day, securing the 2014 Easterns title for Erik Johnson and his “Showtime” crew of middleman Clay Johnson and jibman Glen Dickson. The win is Johnson’s seventh, tying him for the Easterns record with Wight and the late E-Scow legend Runnie Colie (Colie, who died in June at 98, was honored by many Eastern boats who placed MA-4 stickers on their mainsails).
Chad Hillyer’s second-place “Hunter” team, which won two races and never placed out of the top 10, included Ryan Bailey, Carl Horrocks and Molly Kempton. Robby Wilkins’ third-place team on “Vamoose” was Reese Wilkins and Emory and Sean Burke, followed by Russ Lucas’ fourth-place “Shimmer” crew of Mike Dutton, Charlie Smythe and Colleen Kelly. Fifth-place Dick Wight in “Rocinante” sailed with Henry O’Brien, Nathan Wight and Molly Lucas, while sixth-place John Brown in “Blind Squirrel” had Will and George Demand aboard. The seventh-place crew on Peter Koar’s “Twenty-One” included Tom Kosinski, Patrick Koar and Andrew Goetting, while Jeff Bonanni on “Limelight” rounded out the top eight with his crew of Mike O’Brien, Matthew Goetting and Maggie Condon.
And now for the special awards: first Easterns boat in the “10-plus years old” category and 11th overall was Peter Hurley on “Loco Mocoso,” sailing with Park Benjamin and Phil Barow, while top Rookie skipper and 13th overall was Michael Kiss on “Bacio,” with his crew of Michael Buckley, Ian Liberty and Morgan and Mitchell Kiss. First Master skipper and 16th overall was Peter Wright on “Gater”, with his crew of Mark Beaton, Gary Sayia and Kevin Fisher. Interestingly, no one in the ambitious Eastern fleet signed up to compete for the “Red Fleet” trophy, so Vienckowski decided it should go to the skipper finishing exactly midfleet. When 20th place went to a certain former national champion, those plans were modified and the prize instead went to Rookie skipper Daniel Kraus in 21st and his “Rush” crew of Leigh Kempton, Matthew Kraus and Andrew Kraus. Winning perhaps the most prestigious prize, the Sam Merrick Service Award, was former E-Scow crew and longtime fleet supporter Mary Jo Campbell.
Accepting the overall trophy, Johnson thanked his crew and said how gratifying it was to win Easterns after a six-year hiatus from the class, as he wasn’t sure he would again reach that level. As a member of the “Showtime” crew, this reporter can tell you that there weren’t any big secrets to our win (except perhaps my “stunt double” Billy Warner, who filled in during midweek practices. Thanks Billy!). We started with a proven fast boat and experienced crew and put in enough time on the water for the boathandling, gear-shifting and prerace tuning to become second-nature, allowing us to focus on racing well. At Easterns, we had some great starts, hiked really hard and sailed aggressively downwind. Our combined years of suffering in Lasers—which are many—also probably helped us hang in there on the first day.
Thanks again to Seaside Park YC, its members and the many other volunteers from around Barnegat Bay who made the 2014 Easterns such a special event. While SPYC had some of the first E-Scows on the Bay back in 1925, is possible that the 2014 Easterns was in fact the first ECESA Championship the club has hosted. Vienckowski said he asked Runnie Colie last winter if SPYC had ever hosted an Easterns, and Runnie replied in his inimitable style, “Well, I’d be surprised if they hadn’t!” Whether or not the 2014 Easterns was in fact a first for SPYC, I’m sure the sailors at this year’s event will be surprised if the club doesn’t host the Easterns again in the near future.