Smith Mountain Lake, tucked away in the Appalachian mountains of southwest Virginia, boasts 500 miles of shoreline and opportunities aplenty for inland sailing. A power company built the lake 50 years ago, and to celebrate the anniversary the Blackwater Yacht Racing Association and Pelican Point Yacht Club teamed up with local businesses to sponsor a 50-kilometer “Around the Lake” Yacht Race in May 2016.
It wasn’t enough to hold a simple point-to-point competition, though. Organizers wanted to do some good for the community while celebrating the milestone. They set up a handicap system for the regatta based on fundraising: For every $1 raised, a team would have 30 seconds subtracted from their finish time. All proceeds were donated to the National Kidney Foundation, a close-to-home cause for many Smith Lake sailors: In 2015, while filming an interview about the anniversary events, a former station employee murdered two local journalists on-air. The director of the SML Chamber of Commerce was also shot and survived , but suffered several injuries including the loss of one kidney. “In addition, we preferred a national organization that would have a broad geographic appeal for donors,” says BYRA Fleet Captain Pete Phillips. Participants were each able to create a custom fundraising page and link to share with potential contributors.
Five weeks before the start, the team aboard Dark Horse, co-owned Dale Kovach and John Fourqueran, were going to have to get creative. They were eight hours behind the leading team, another J/24, skippered by Mike Maloney. Kovach lit a fire under his campaign by mobilizing friends, family and co-workers.
“I sent an email with a personalized link to our fundraising page,” says Kovach. “I included information explaining how we could theoretically win the race before it even started, and on how they could GPS-track us during the race.”
The strategy worked. “When the contribution window closed, we had collected $3,325 in five weeks for the NKF,” he says. When coffers were calculated, Team Dark Horse started the race with a 10-hour lead.
“I thought this race was going to be a real drifter,” says Kovach. Mother Nature had other plans. “It turned out to be an actual race, with heavy conditions and some real competition. Not everyone gets the chance to do these kind of longer-form races; it was a great way to involve them.”
Fifteen competing teams raised almost $13,000 for the National Kidney Foundation. Kovach says there are already plans in the works for a similar event in the future. “I think the handicap was too high — people raised so much money that it got a little out of hand,” he says. “Otherwise, it went off really well. It’s definitely a format that other clubs could use to do their own fundraisers and causes.”