Monday, October 15, 2007

Sailing with the Masters

Not to take anything away from the importance of youth regattas, masters events are thriving. Finn and Laser dinghies have active masters fleets, to start a short list. Right now, however, I'm thinking about special-event racing in keelboats.

Last weekend, at the Fremont Bank International Masters Regatta on San Francisco Bay, I re-encountered Tony Smythe of the Houston Yacht Club, a guy I first met last August in Newport, Rhode Island at the Hinman Team Racing Masters. No big deal, this meeting, but pleasant. Both of these events were hard-fought on the water, but what happened ashore was just as important, more so than in the everyday of let's-play-a-game-of-yacht-racing. The old line that "It's all about the people" glows a little brighter. At both events I ran into old friends plus a lot of new people, including some that I had known for years by name and reputation only—people such as By Baldridge, who also went to my alma mater, Tulane (he was on the sailing team, of course). and then sailed all over the world and navigated America³ in the 1992 Cup. Somehow we had never howdied up.

Masters competition puts the emphasis on Corinthian sailors, but that made it all the more interesting to sit down with someone from the Other Side, the owner of Doyle Ploch Sailmakers, Mark Ploch.

Mark came to San Francisco to sail in the Masters for his second time with John Jennings, the affable, low-key chiropractor from St. Petersburg, Florida, whose magic hands seem to work on the helm as well as the joints and spine. (Mark: "Once in Miami in Melges 32s I pulled my back out, and John put me back together right there on the dock and I was able to sail the next day."

The basics: St. Francis Yacht Club hosts the Fremont Bank International Masters, an invitational fleet regatta for skippers over 60 who bring their own crew to race in J/105s. Minimum age for crew is 45, and it sure can't hurt to have a sailing animal like Ploch on your side; Jennings won for the fourth time. But John has also won without him, and this time he barely beat the local talent, so winning is not as simple as bringing along a . . .

Pro. Rhymes with Ploch. To explain the scene, here's Mark:

"This is a gentleman's regatta. On Friday, instead of going out for the first day of racing, we stayed in because it was raining and everybody had a great day just sitting around and catching up. If the race committee had taken us out in the rain, man, I'd never come back.

"People come here without a big intent to win. They come because it's a social event as well as a sailing event, and for someone like me it's a chance to sail purely for fun. I've been catching up here with Glenn Darden and Stuart Johnstone, and there was another year when Ted Turner was here, and I've sailed against his clan for years. It's all very relaxing, and I get to play the game and then hit the dock and not have to talk to people about the bubble in their main. This is not about the sailmaking business. This is for me."

Those who give

I'm always impressed by the way that local fleets contribute to national and international racing by loaning out their boats. In this case, it's J/105 Fleet One, San Francisco Bay that produced 12 race boats plus backup. The payoff: An owner's rep gets to ride along as a contributing player, and every now and then a local has a brush with fame. Gary Sadamori, known as a good man on the bow, was recruited four years ago for the 25th Masters to handle the front of the boat for Paul Elvstrom, who brought along Hans Fogh as tactician. Gary's take: "When those guys say 'tack' or 'gybe,' it's not a plan, it's a fact."

This year, one would-be owner's rep was sidelined by a newly-broken finger suffered in a volleyball game. That would be Kelsey Deisinger, 14, and we missed her. She belonged on Natural Blonde, the more so because the winner, Jennings, drew that boat for the final day of racing. The way father Dennis explains Kelsey, "I knew I had a sailor on my hands when she was 10 years old. We were out one day and I death-rolled the thing [boatquake, noise, flying spray, fear] and then I got the boat back and got the boat on its feet and looked up front to see if I still had a daughter, and there was my 10-year-old and she looked at me and said, "Dad, you let the main out too far."

Sailing. The greatest game going—Kimball