Block Island Race Week: Bring on the Classic Plastic

For three Race Week teams, its not about the vintage of the raceboats or the size of their budget. It's about getting out to the Block with friends and family and having a good time.

block island
Chris Fesenmeyer, skipper of the San Juan 30 Air Express, a PHRF regular at Block Island Race Week, says the appeal of PHRF is that everyone has their day. "We don't worry about everyone else," he says. "Our biggest worry is ourselves and leaving no time on the racecourse."Allen & Daniela Clark/ www.photoboat.com

This one’s for you, Mr. Block Island Race Week. Yes, you, the one strolling barefoot down the dock at sunrise, headed for the communal shower, dank towel draped over your shoulder. While elsewhere on the island crews rouse to piping hot breakfasts in rented summer homes, your pre-race routine starts with walking off the cobwebs of another big closer at Yellow Kittens. Then it’s off to find a cup coffee and back to the boat for grub.

Yes, Mr. Block, this Mount Gay and tonic is for you, because the spirit of Race Week 1965 soldiers on in the slips of Champlain’s and Payne’s, and on moorings scattered about Great Salt Pond, where sailing’s unheralded classic plastics and their liveaboards awaken to another day’s races.

This one's for you, Chris Fesenmeyer, skipper of the bright-yellow San Juan 30 Air Express. And your crew, too.

"The boat is a bit old now, but it's competitive," you say. "It doesn't matter what kind of boat you have. It's the program you have in place, the people you're sailing with, and your mindset, that dictates how much fun you have."
Now that's the spirit.

Fesenmeyer and his team of tie-dyed bandits first came to Race Week in 1995, and while they once slept aboard and schlepped their gear around the cans, they now rent a house. Still, he lauds any of his fleet-mates for carrying on the Corinthian tradition.

“The impression with big regattas like these,” he laments, “is that you can’t compete in the fleets populated with pros and sailmakers, but in classes like ours, there’s no professionals at all. We can go out and compete and have fun.” For the most part, Fesenmeyer’s team will be as it was in 1995, albeit a bit longer in the tooth and less agile. He’ll have his brother by his side, a few college friends, and others that have raced on the boat for the last 10 years, including, The Commodore.

"We look at Race Week as our vacation," says Fesenmeyer. "It would be nice to win, but if we're not winning, we're still on vacation. That's why we're out and having a good time. That's why, after 20 years, everyone still wants to go." Now who is this Commodore of the Shore and Country Club from which Air Express hails?

Fesenmeyer provides a brief history: “The guy who gave out the awards our first year, [Storm Trysail Club’s late] Stanley Bell, used to call everyone up to the stage as captain so-and-so, or commodore so-and-so. We thought, ‘Hey, we don’t have a commodore, so we anointed one then and there.”

Any racing yacht with a Commodore amongst its ranks would be expected to be ship-shape, and Air Express is that, and more, says Fesenmeyer. He's owned it since 1993, and has redone everything except the hull, interior, and engine. The sail inventory is good, he says, the boat is solid, but they're always finding ways to get more out of the 'ol girl. As a pinched-stern IOR design, light winds are its sweet spot. Above 10 knots, it's unruly, especially downwind. "We always pray that the wind is not going to be too strong," says Fesenmeyer. "The thing with PHRF is that, when it's your conditions, you have to win the races. When it's windy, all we can do is hold on and point at the marks." And, yes, this one's for you, Incommunicado, jockeying with Air Express on the PHRF 3 starting line.

It’s an appropriate boat name for Ed Tracy and Tim Polk’s Omega 36. Never heard of an Omega 36? Yeah, well, neither had I.

Tracy bought it 20 years ago, which is why, he says, the team is “getting halfway decent with it.” This year will be the team’s fourth appearance at Race Week; their first was in 2005. It was a memorable one, dismasting during the Around The Island Race.

As one of the top PHRF boats on the Chesapeake Bay, however, Incommunicado thrives outside its comfort zone, traveling to distant regattas like Charleston Race Week and Block Island, using the back end to cruise home with the kids. They were initially drawn to Race Week for obvious reasons, says Tracy.

“It’s easy enough to get to, and once we went, we really loved it,” he says. “It’s hard to find an event with five days of racing, and we really like the format with the race around the island.”

Incommunicado’s crew has sailed together many years. Tracy and Polk—friends since the sixth grade some 30 years ago—form the core. Polk is the calming presence to Tracy’s ultra-competiveness. The crew includes three women and six men, ranging from the early twenties to mid-fifties. Yet their goal is to improve upon the inconsistencies of their 2011 finish.

“We placed some days and had bad days,” says Tracy. “We’re chomping at the bit to get up there and do better.”

One wrinkle this year, however, is how they’ll cope with the change from time-on-distance to time-on-time scoring.

“That’s new for us. We’ll need to get our heads around that,” says Tracy. “We’re so used to taking times at marks and understanding where we are with our competition, so that will be more interesting.”

And this one's especially for you Raymond Way, skipper of the lone Ranger 32, Team DR. Hailing from West Bay YC, in East Greenwich, R.I., Way's Block Island baptism is a distant memory of hanging out under the big tent as an impressionable six-week-old infant. This was back in 1977, when the family was racing its home built two-tonner Black Gold (winning the Around the Island Race).

At 38, he figures he and his brother are some of the youngest boat owners at Race Week.

“People always ask us what boat we’re on, and we’ll tell them we’re on our boat, and they say, ‘No kidding, good for you guys…I wish I were doing that at your age,’” he says. “We’re known for bringing out old boats with old sails, but with great tactics, great starts and good execution we make ‘em work.”

This year, they’re coming with a weapon, a Ranger 32, they recently picked up for four thousand dollars. “It was a product of a divorce; they’d put on a new mast, new boom, carbon laminate sails…new spinnakers, new jibs, and deck upgrades,” he says. “It sat there for years. We made a low ball offer and they took it.”

Way’s fondest memory of his first Race Week as a young adult, 2009, is one not of glory, but of sweet misery.

“It being our first year out there, we thought, ‘Oh…we’ll just sleep on the boat,’” he says. “That year it rained hard every single day—the sun never came out once. The boat smelled like a wet sock, but that’s what we’re about. We’re a young group, we have young families and not a ton of disposable money. We get the entry fee paid, everyone chips, get the boat together with some 5200 and electrical tape, get out there, race, and that’s it.”