One of the greatest benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest is the summer. Summer means ale at Fremont Brewery, bonfires at Golden Gardens beach, long weekends to the San Juan Islands, and, of course, weeknight keelboat racing. You don’t have to try too hard or wait too long before you find yourself sailing four nights a week while your coworkers wonder where you go every day at 1630 hours. Topping any new racer’s to-do list is to get in with a one design fleet, where lanes are tight, sails are flat, roundings are fast, and the race isn’t over until the start.
For most Seattle racers, one design means one thing–Tuesday night with J/24s on Lake Washington. Now several decades and counting, the race with a stacked fleet of world championship contenders and dialed-in club racers puts nearly 30 boats on the course every week. The fleet owes its dominance to a combination of evenly matched boats and a close-knit community that is always happy to help new racers get up to speed. The top boats know that you are only as fast as your competition and one wrong move by a leader spells disaster at a busy mark rounding as the bulk of the fleet converges. The bonus of racing in shorts and T-shirts is the icing on the cake. It is not uncommon to see groups of racers escaping work early to jump into Lake Washington and give the boat a quick wipe down for some added speed.
This summer, the results are tight with Scott Milne and the crew of Tremendous Slouch setting the bar high by winning the Spring and Interim series, but Mark Laura and crew onboard Baba Louie are coming back swinging with six podium finishes in the first nine races of the summer series. With several weeks left in the series, and 30 boats all aiming for that top spot, only time will tell who is going to take the overall points win.
On Lake Washington, Wednesdays are still going strong with one design mojo as three more fleets take to the fresh water. The whimsical homegrown Thunderbird fleet is not down for the count and regularly attracts a handful of curated classics. Originally designed as kit boats for the DIY boat owner, the plywood hulls are still pushing themselves.
Trading out the plywood for fiberglass, the San Juan 24s continue to enjoy a strong turnout every week with nine boats on the water. The fleet hosted the North American Championships in Oak Harbor with 15 boats going around the cans in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island, Washington. Setting the bar for the evening is the always strong, seldom recognized Thistle fleet. This fleet is dear to my heart as it was the boat I grew up sailing with my dad, although the Thistle has always been a love-hate relationship for sailors. Droop hiking over a two by four is far from an ideal way to spend an evening for most, though it is hard to beat the excitement and nail-biting moments that a fully powered three-person dinghy brings to the table. With the fleet steadily consisting of over 15 boats, Thistles’ popularity doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.
Out on Puget Sound, the one design vibes are strong with both Wednesday night keelboat racing and Thursday night dinghy racing. The J boats are taking center stage again with two fantastic one design fleets in the medium and extra medium keel boat slots. This summer has the J/80 ranks pushing close to double digits with nine boats regularly on the line and constant shake- ups on the podium as the fleet is always pushing one another to sail harder and smarter.
The J/80’s big sister, the J/105 fleet, is continuing to tip the scales by putting ten boats on the water nearly every week. The level of competition is hardly slowing down as newcomers to the fleet sometimes join the top finishers. Thursday plays host to no less than six dinghy fleets. Everything from the traditional Laser and the Olympic heritage of the Star fleets to the carbon fiber speed of the 5O5 group and a packed RS Aero fleet, there is a bit of everything for those brave enough to don a wetsuit and head out into the Sound.
As the world becomes more complicated with seemingly endless options, from time to time it is important to get back to what made this sport fun to begin with: racing. This fundamental appeal is the reason that one design racing is alive and well, with our area continuing to turn out Olympic hopefuls and world champion contenders. While the big boats often get the glory, it is one design racing, no matter the size of the boat, that makes the sailor.
Photos: Jan Anderson