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Walking the Blue Chip

Scow country’s most storied regatta has a reputation for stiff competition and a tradition unlike any other.

April 21, 2020
E Scow Blue Chip Regatta
Pewaukee YC’s annual E Scow Blue Chip Regatta, with its celebrity mystery guest, is renowned for competitive racing and antics, both on and off the water. Sharon Green

As we stand outside the doors of the Pewaukee YC bar, a voice booms over the loudspeakers. “And now…the moment you’ve all been waiting for…the infamous E Scow Blue Chip bar walk.”

As per tradition, the last-place team going into Sunday of the regatta must walk across the club’s bar in their underwear. Unfortunately for my crew and me, no races Friday and a horrific Saturday means we’re the night’s entertainment.

Anyone who’s been in the game long enough knows that sometimes things just go wrong out there on the racecourse, but I’ve never had more go wrong than my first day at the Blue Chip. On the first beat of the first race, our outhaul shackle snapped, and one of our crewmembers sliced open his thumb trying to repair it. Blood trails ran thick enough to make our boat look like a Jackson Pollock painting. We retired and sent our crewmember ashore to get patched up before Race 2. By then the wind was cranking from the southwest, an unfavorable direction for Pewaukee Lake, which at just under 4 square miles of surface area, feels more like a puddle than a lake at times. The race committee posted a five-leg race with the breeze blowing anywhere from 10 to 20 knots with 25-degree shifts. Halfway through the race, we were midfleet before we capsized on a downwind leg, going into lunch without finishing a single race. A 12th in the third race wasn’t enough to get us out of last place, and as we derigged for the day, the text messages were coming in hot.

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“Can’t wait to see some action tonight!”

“I hope you brought something sexy!”

“Make sure you practice your dance moves!”

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Being in last place wasn’t bad enough. Now we had to humiliate ourselves in front of the entire event. But this would be no half-assed effort. If we had to put on a show, we’d give them a show they would never forget.

As the emcee introduces our team, I take a deep breath, compose myself, and push through the doors of the club, where more than a hundred drunken sailors stand waiting.

“To be clear,” one of the regatta organizers says in my ear. “You don’t have to do this. It’s all at your discretion.”

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“Don’t worry,” I say. “If we can’t win the regatta, we’ll win the party.”

And with that, we are fully committed.

The key to a Blue Chip bar walk is layering. As we hop onto the bar, we strip our slacks to reveal radical neon-pink ­joggers with the words “Unicorn Dreams” stitched into the waistbands. “It’s Raining Men” booms out of the speakers, and everywhere I look, I see smartphones capturing every moment. The crowd throws cocktail straws and shouts obscenities from the top of their lungs.

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Being in last place wasn’t bad enough. Now we had to humiliate ourselves in front of the entire event. But this would be no half-assed effort. If we had to put on a show, we’d give them a show they would never forget.

As I reach the middle of the bar, I strip down to my second layer—a pair of multicolored swimming trunks. Any nerves I had before are long gone. Chris Farley comes to mind, and I attempt my best Chippendales impersonation.

Our third layer is a pair of standard tighty-whities, and needless to say, the crowd loves it.

My final layer is the toughest to reveal—a pair of boy’s jockey shorts with a Batman cartoon print. After all that had gone wrong today, the last thing I need is another blowout. This is where we unleash our grand finale—a series of bananas and cucumbers hidden beneath everything. The crowd dodges them as we throw them out to the masses.

By the time we hop down, we are showered with praise.

“Best bar walk I’ve seen,” one of them says. “I did it 15 years ago.”

“You guys killed it. Have a drink on me.”

“Way to go. That banana hit my girlfriend in the face. It was hilarious.”

“Plenty of good sailors have walked that bar. Don’t feel bad!”

And that is where it finally hits home. The E Scow Blue Chip is one of the toughest regattas on the planet. Because it’s an invitational, the best of the best in scow sailing are present. Add that to tight racecourses, massive windshifts, and the tricky nature of sailing on Pewaukee Lake, and you are in for a battle.

Moreover, event organizers invite a “Mystery Guest” each year: pro sailors, Olympians, and America’s Cup legends alike. This year’s Mystery Guest is Malcolm Page, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in the 470. Unlike our team, he had a stellar day, winning two races to lead the regatta. Believe it or not, this is a rarity for most Mystery Guests, some of whom have gotten beaten up by the lake and the E Scow, a few of them having walked the bar themselves.

last place
As per tradition, the last-place team after the first day of racing must strut the bar. Courtesy Frankie Potts

“These boats are ­something special,” Page says. “They have the tactics of a ­keelboat upwind; downhill, they drive like an 18-foot skiff. This event has been a blast. It’s lived up to everything I had heard beforehand.”

He first learned of the E Scow and Pewaukee Lake from Australia’s John Bertrand, who lived in the area for three years in the 1970s and served as Mystery Guest in 1974. “The people are the best part of the event,” Page says. “We fight as hard as we can on the water; afterward, we’re all good mates.”

The Blue Chip has grown into a cult classic over the years, with the fierce competition nearly outdone by the Midwestern hospitality of Pewaukee. Perhaps the best insight of the Blue Chip experience comes from Gary Jobson, who was the Mystery Guest in 1991. “You’ll do great,” he says. “Just don’t let them overserve you.”

Locals often regale visitors with their Blue Chip memories: how one year Morgan Reeser became so inebriated that he fell down the stairs of his host family’s house with his silver medal still hanging around his neck. Or how Peter Harken took Russell Coutts on a midnight romp through Chicago on Saturday night of the regatta and somehow made it back for the final day’s racing. One year the bar walk got so unruly that a Pewaukee YC board member had to hose down the crowd to get them to disperse.

Yet the heart of the Blue Chip has always been E Scow racing. Dennis Connor calls the E Scow “one of the most refined one-design classes in the world.” He was the Mystery Guest in 1972; though he didn’t win that year, he borrowed a boat in 1977 and qualified the old-fashioned way. That time around, he went home a winner.

Fellow San Diegan Andrew Campbell says: “To judge the quality of E Scow sailors is to index the very best that American sailing has to offer. National, international, world, and Olympic champions and legends are scattered across the historic records.”

In 2011, he became only the second Mystery Guest to win the event, behind 1969’s Gordon Lindeman. Page eventually goes out and captures the regatta, becoming the third Mystery Guest to win in 54 years of competition.

“It’s a tremendous honor to win this event,” he tells the crowd. “I’ll have to shout a challenge to Andrew Campbell to come back and try to recapture his title. It would be a great time—if he’s man enough.”

And the saga continues.

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