Where the Figawi?

It's not a Massachusetts casino run by displaced Native Americans, but rather an annual New England season opener where boat racing, laughter, and parties reign supreme-and not necessarily in that order. A feature from our October 2007 issue

August 26, 2009

ted kennedy 368

Andrew Sims

The big, white-haired dude behind the wheel looked remarkably familiar, of that there was little doubt. And in the clarity of hindsight, it couldn’t possibly have been anyone else. But at that very instant, perhaps due to the heat of the moment, or the unfamiliar context in which the encounter took place, it took a long second to register that the man at the helm of the classic, beautiful blue schooner whose bow we were now crossing by a not-at-all considerable distance-and in a chartered bareboat no less, a vessel for which we harbored no true sense of attachment or sentiment-was in fact the senior senator for the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Yup. Ted Kennedy.

We were closing in on the finish line of the 36th annual Figawi Race from Hyannis-site of the long-time Kennedy family encampment on Cape Cod-to the outlying isle of Nantucket, on a glorious Saturday over Memorial Day weekend. The 22-mile contest across Nantucket Sound, to be honest, had been more of a cruise-in-company with a few thousand other kindred spirits in the 240-boat fleet: After a short beat upwind, we’d rounded the sole weather mark and cracked off to a tight reach for the finish just off the entrance to Great Harbor, where all sorts of nonsense and festivities awaited.

There was a definite Sailing World bias to our crew: I was trimming main and playing connect-the-dots with the chartplotter, editor Dave Reed was on the jib and calling tactics, and senior editor and Figawi skipper Stu Streuli was on the helm. Stu’s wife, Leslie, and our buddies Bryan Cooney and Paul Faerber rounded out the team. We were sailing an immaculate, brand-spanking-new Beneteau 423 called Summer Breeze that we’d chartered back home in Newport from Brian Blank’s Bareboat Sailing Charters.


We weren’t alone. There were four other identical Beneteaus in our 14-boat, non-spinnaker class, which provided a nice little one-design element to the day’s exercise. At the outset, Stu had made one thing perfectly clear. On handicap, he didn’t particularly care if we trailed the other boats in our division, which included an Ericson 38, a Baltic 37, a C&C 38, a Sabre 38, and an Alerion 33, all relatively quick steeds. But if we weren’t the first Beneteau home, boat-for-boat, returning to Newport might not be an option.

For the first 21 miles, it was all going very much according to plan. We’d nailed the pursuit-style start. The sun was shining overhead, the 15-knot southwester was ideal, and we had the boat in a groove. The other Beneteaus were all properly astern.

And then that gorgeous 50-foot Concordia schooner from Hyannisport, Mya, came roaring up from behind, and we had one more obstacle to overcome before glory (such as it was) would be ours.


Yup. Ted Kennedy.

So this guy goes to the house next door and says to his neighbor, “Gee, I think my wife is dead.” And the neighbor says, “Really. Why do you think that?” And the first guy says, “Well, the sex is the same but the dishes are piling up in the sink!”
-Unknown Comic No. 1, Figawi Annual Sunday Morning Joke-Telling Session

As we stepped on the launch in Newport for the ride out to the boat before heading to the regatta, a woman with a Nantucket sweatshirt was stepping off. I happened to mention we were headed in that direction and her companion asked about our plans.


“We’re doing the Figawi,” I said.

Her friend raised his eyebrows and chuckled knowingly. “Bring those rum-drinking shoes,” he said.
To say the Figawi’s reputation precedes itself would be an understatement.

The first Figawi, so the story goes, started in 1972 when a handful of friends and families decided that a fun race from Hyannis to Nantucket during Memorial Day weekend would be a swell way to spend a day and launch the sailing season, not to mention an inarguable means by which to settle the ongoing discussion of who owned the fastest boat. In this very grass-roots manner, a tradition was launched.


Figawi? The following anecdote may be apocryphal, but there’s little doubt that Nantucket Sound and nearby Vineyard Sound can attract more than a small bit of fog. In the days before GPS satellites put an end to navigational nightmares, it was not at all uncommon to become wayward when transiting from the mainland to the island. And so when that first lost navigator, in his best Cape Cod accent, asked, “Where the Figawi?” the fledgling regatta also had a name.

By the late 1970s, word was spreading about this small, regional event, and the numbers began to grow. In 1978, organizers added a lay day and a race back to Hyannis, making it a three-day affair. And the East Coast hailing ports from which sailors came to attend the Figawi continued to expand.

In this year’s race program, Figawi board member Charlie McLaughlin summed up the welcoming feeling extended to every Figawi sailor: “Your decision to join us in this event reflects an unusual level of intelligence, bonhomie, determination, and perseverance. We are glad that you made it. We hope that it’s either the start of a long tradition or the next chapter of an even longer one. And while we don’t count heads, our guesstimate is that you have joined a rather non-exclusive club of some fifty thousand or more sailors who have tied up before you and taken home many great memories, most of which can be shared.”

I was at the Atlantic buffet last night and I was talking to this admiral, an elderly guy, and we were discussing our sex lives. So I asked him, when was the last time for you? And he says, “1955.” I say to him, “That’s too bad.” And he looks at me and goes, “Not really. It’s only 2210.”
-Unknown Comic #2, Figawi Annual Sunday Morning Joke-Telling Session

Of course, as Charlie readily admits, some of those memories, depending on with whom you’re considering sharing them, are better kept within. Certainly that’s the case with Sunday morning’s annual Joke-Telling Session, an event fueled by cheap mimosas and driven by a platoon of long-time Figawi regulars known as the Band of Angels. They may be angels, but it’s hard to tell which heaven they call home.

We’ve taken the liberty of publishing a few jokes, and to those who take offense, we apologize. However, if you find these off-color, by all means, steer clear of the Figawi event tent on Sunday morning. Way clear. There are lots of churches open for business on Sundays in Nantucket.

One thing about the Joke-Telling Session, it’s an equal-opportunity offender. Being Nantucket, there are certainly more than a few filthy limericks aired out, but otherwise, the topics are wide-ranging and all-inclusive, and include men in prison, children’s train sets, sex, priests, white people, black people, sex, Mexicans, Asians, Europeans, sperm whales, sex, the male anatomy, the female anatomy, sex, genies who grant wishes, bodily functions, sex, doctor’s visits, and, oh yes, sex.

Now there were a lot of things I really enjoyed over Figawi weekend. Heck, even the delivery out was a blast. You always feel like you’re in the islands when the soundtrack over the radio is courtesy WMVY (92.7 FM) on the Vineyard (even if the James Taylor tunes drive some of your crewmates crazy). Once out there, it was very hard not to get wrapped up in the ongoing discussion and debate over the proposed Cape Wind “wind farm” turbines on Nantucket Sound (and the local’s vehement objection thereto). The sight of dozens and dozens of boats of all sizes and description motoring out to the starting line off Hyannis, and then parading back into the marina in Nantucket, was very, very cool. There’s nothing more fun than renting bikes and tooling around Nantucket on its beautiful, winding bike paths. And the tent parties, overall, were hilarious.

When all was said and done, however, that Joke-Telling Session is the one thing that might really stand out.
Oh, yeah, that and Ted Kennedy.

A Greek guy and an Italian guy are arguing over who has the superior culture. All day long, back and forth, back and forth. The Greek says, “We built the Parthenon.” The Italian says, “We built the Coliseum.” The Greek says, “We gave birth to higher mathematics.” The Italian says, “We built the Roman Empire.” All day long, back and forth. Finally, the Greek guy says, “We invented sex!” And the Italian says, “Yeah, but we introduced it to women!”
-Unknown Comic #3, Figawi Annual Sunday Morning Joke-Telling Session

First off, as the senator himself might say, we need to make one thing perfectly clear. Yes, there’s no question that he’s had some well-chronicled misadventures in these waters, and you may or may not necessarily care for his politics, but the man definitely is a sailor, and a good one at that.

Approaching that finish line, we just needed to keep our air clear and get across cleanly when Kennedy’s Mya came rolling up on our weather quarter. Stu asked if we had room to cut ahead, and before he had a definite answer, the wheel was over and we were slicing over and past the schooner, with perhaps a boat length to spare. Kennedy, regal behind the wheel, couldn’t have been more nonplussed. He kept his perfectly trimmed boat-with all sails flying-rolling right along. Midway through the maneuver, I glanced back, did a double take, and realized precisely whom we were dealing with.

For the crew of Summer Breeze, it was our very first Figawi, and we wouldn’t require the Mount Gay hats to commemorate it.

We had our souvenir.


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