Donald Tofias has an expression he’s quite fond of. So fond, In fact, he trademarked it and put it on the back of a crew shirt for his W-76 Wild Horses. “Yachting is the winner” it said.
“The reason we came up with the phrase is when we first started racing the W-76, we didn’t win a lot of races,” says Tofias, of Newport, R.I. “But when we did win, we’d say, ‘Yachting is the winner.’”
Racing opportunities this summer for Wild Horses, a 76-foot wooden yacht that combines a classic hull form with a modern underbody and construction methods, have been far and few between. It isn’t the sort of boat on which you can gather a few friends for a weeknight bash around some government marks. Sailing in a spinnaker division takes a crew of 20. Even racing in a non-spinnaker division, as Wild Horses did for the 166th Annual Regatta this weekend, requires a dozen more people on board.
“I’ve always loved the Annual Regatta,” says Tofias, who won the Non-Spinnaker Class this weekend with two firsts and a third. “I think I’ve done it most every year for the better part of 30 years. I didn’t want to miss it. We had the boat on the mooring all summer, and it was time to race. We hadn’t sailed much on the boat at all until the Sail For Hope on September 12. We did well in Sail For Hope, so we decided to do the Annual Regatta also.”
The Annual Regatta was first sailed on the Hudson River on July 16 and 18, 1846. A similar competition the previous year was called a Trial of Speed. With a few exceptions for world wars and other global crises, the event has been held every year since. For the majority of its existence, the New York Yacht Club held its Annual Regatta on waters close to New York City. Since 1988, however, the event has been sailed out of the Harbour Court clubhouse in Newport, R.I., and has settled into the current three-day format, which includes a race around Conanicut Island on Friday and two days of buoy racing or navigator-course racing on Saturday and Sunday. The 166th Annual Regatta, which is sponsored by Hammetts Hotel and Helly Hansen, also included the 2020 Melges IC37 National Championship.
The Annual Regatta is traditionally held in early June, at the start of the Newport sailing season. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pushed back first to late August before finally settling on the first weekend in October.
“We were committed to running this event,” says New York Yacht Club Commodore William P. Ketcham (Greenwich, Conn.). “Which is why we kept delaying the event rather than canceling it outright. It was challenge, but we finally got to a point where we could run it based on Rhode Island’s COVID guidelines and our own Club policies on safety. The enthusiasm on the water, both this weekend and at last weekend’s Race Week at Newport presented by Rolex, was tremendous. Our team on Maxine packed basically our entire sailing season into two weeks, and we couldn’t have had more fun.”
With 11 points in four races, Ketcham’s J/44 Maxine placed second in ORC 3. At the head of the class was Tom Sutton’s Leading Edge. While Sutton hails from Houston, Texas—where he lives and sails in the cooler months—Newport has become a second home.
With most multi-day sailing regattas in 2020 were canceled, the Leading Edge team cobbled together a summer of weeknight and one-day races in and around Narragansett Bay.
“We raced every race on Tuesday night and did the weekend regattas,” says Sutton. “We went to Block Island with the Twenty Hundred Club, we raced around Prudence Island two times, Conanicut Island four or five times. We’ve gotten in more sailboat racing than in most years. But we miss racing around the buoys. That’s what we really like.”
All that time on the water paid off this weekend with wins in Friday’s Around the Island Race as well as the weekend series around the buoys. Sutton was quick to share the credit, singling out his wife Diana for her work off the water and on the foredeck and the team’s tactical brain trust of Tom Meeh and Alex Crowell.
“My guys work as hard or harder than anybody,” says Tom Sutton. “We’ve sailed together since 2014 and everybody a great time this year. We’re all looking forward to coming back next summer.”
Due to the compressed sailing schedule for 2020, the second Melges IC37 National Championship was held concurrently with the Annual Regatta. The competition in the 13-boat one-design class was intense through each of the nine races. While consistency was elusive, Pacific Yankee, co-skippered by Drew Freides (Los Angeles, Calif.) and Bill Ruh (Newport Beach, Calif.), showed that it was without a doubt the fastest boat. The only wobbles in Pacific Yankee’s scoreline came today, in very light air, after they’d established an all-but-insurmountable lead through the first seven races. Pacific Yankee finished the championship 13 points ahead of Midnight Blue, skippered by Alexis Michas (New York, N.Y.), and Blazer II, skippered by New York Yacht Club Vice Commodore Christopher J. Culver (Newport, R.I.). Those two boats finished the regatta tied on points—and only 2 points ahead of fourth place—with Midnight Blue winning the tiebreaker.
“We’ve had almost the entire team together for the past year, and it takes a team to win on this boat,” says Freides. “We spent a lot of time trying to make the boat fast and we found a number of techniques to keep the boat flat. Like the Melges 20, you have to keep the boat flat and de-powered, especially in the waves, so that’s what we strived for.”
While the Annual Regatta has traditionally been restricted to larger boats, this year the Club opened the regatta up to two one-design classes that had never before competed in the event, Shields and Sonars. Over the course of three days, the two classes each completed nine races, with the Friday races being scored as a separate series. For the Shields class, which had its 2020 national championship canceled, this regatta was the next best thing.
“Our crew—Peter Schott, Rachel Balaban, Ted Hood and Matt Buechner, plus my co-skipper Reed Baer—have been sailing together for 20 years,” says class winner John Burnham (Middletown, R.I.) on Grace. “For the last 10, more often than not, the national champions have been either Aeolus or Maverick. The other boat that gives us fits is Ken Deyett’s Bit-O-Honey from Beverly Yacht Club in Marion, Mass. In this regatta, we were lucky to beat all three, so it felt almost like winning the Nationals we never had this year. On behalf of the class, I’d like to thank the New York Yacht Club for inviting us to race in the Annual Regatta this year
The 10-strong Sonar fleet consisted of boats chartered by New York Yacht Club members for the regatta. John Bainton (Norwalk, Conn.) won five of the nine races sailed and took the overall win in both the Friday and weekend series.
“It was just great to be able to do an actual event where we sailed for three days and had some good competition,” says Bainton. “Aside from missing the on-shore social part, it was a fantastic time on the water.
With a breeze that seemed to be always in flux, and the strong current generated by a moon tide running, Bainton said the key to success was his crew’s ability to keep their head out of the boat.
“The wind was very sporadic, so being able to see the wind up the course and read what the current was doing across the course was very important,” he says. “One of my crew members, Dale Harper, is actually a harbor pilot for Newport Harbor, so he as tremendous amount of knowledge of how the water moves through the harbor.”
In past years, the Annual Regatta would signal the start of the Newport sailing season, with competitors looking forward to Race Weeks in Newport or Block Island, or a long thrash to Bermuda. This year, however, it closes out the racing season. The summer of 2020 wasn’t what anyone expected, but those fortunate enough to participate in the 166th Annual Regatta will head into winter with fresh memories of competition and camaraderie.