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Whidbey Island Race Week, July 17-21, 2006
Story by Dennis Muri and Liza Tewell - Photos by Todd Martin

(July 25, 2006) Known for all its 24 years as "Adult Summer Camp," Whidbey Island Race Week was marked this year by technically challenging winds and currents, the maximum numbers of races, no drifters and an after-race party every night pumping live music. Add sunshine, a morning beach volleyball tournament, fresh-air camping, just-caught Dungeness crabs plus local Penn Cover mussels and you’ve got the ingredients that melt away a year’s worth of city stress. Kids, by the way, are welcome too. In fact, many of the adults who come every year were once junior sailors themselves and have never missed 'Whidbey.'

Held in the waters off the town of Oak Harbor, this week-long regatta draws boats from California to Canada, and racers from around the world. What sets Whidbey apart from other race weeks is its location, which juxtaposes a startling natural environment against one of the top US Naval Air Stations in the country. While racing in Penn Cove, where all the week’s races were run thanks to 6- to14-knot westerlies, Great Blue Herons, Kingfishers and Bald Eagles often filled the sky alongside EA-6B Prowlers and P3-C Orions practicing touch-and-goes.

Settled by Dutch immigrants, this north end of Whidbey Island (one of the longest salt-water-surrounded islands in the continental US) lies just two hours in either direction from Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. Its proximity to civilization is part of its allure, as is its remoteness. One gets to the island by boat up Puget Sound’s Saratoga Passage or down through the narrow Swinomish Channel, past the tulip town of La Conner. By car, a 30-minute chug on a ferry across from the old mill town Everett drops you off at the island’s southern tip. Or loop around the top and cross the Deception Pass bridge where down below the currents boil and swirl like the waters of the river Styx.

Once they’ve arrived many of the racers put away the keys for the week and unload their bicycles before setting up camp. ‘Tent city’ rises like Brigadoon on a waterfront lot in the center of the old part of town just a ten-minute stroll from the marina, and just a few fortunate steps away from the pubs, bars, restaurants and grocery stores that these sailboat racers will share with the Navy sailors.

The fun starts Sunday evening with a get-reacquainted party on the lawn on the Oak Harbor Yacht Club. The level-rated Performance 30 fleet holds its annual pre-regatta party that sees tacticians maneuvering for tight cover from their crew, while other crew lay cheap-wine minefields for the opposition. As the week progresses, the fun continues with the J/105 fleet barbeque down on the docks. That fleet's "come one, come all" attitude epitomizes the Whidbey spirit. This is also when many of the "Yummy buns" Mumm 30 tattoos begin lighting the night like full moons. After each day's awards party, crew dinners and crew sinners commence. Skippers are seen table-dancing at restaurants and boat names change like magic. Should have gone right, party all night, parrot hats, minor spats, jitterbuggin' and skipper/crew, er, huggin' fill in the slots like lifting puffs to peg the fun meter. Oh yes, and the racing...sweet.

When it’s a Vic-Maui and a Pacific Cup year, like this one was, the numbers of entries suffer a touch of cannibalism. On courses set up to 17 miles long by the award-winning Corinthian Yacht Club racing pros of Seattle, just under 100 boats competed in ten classes, including PHRF, two level-rated classes and the J/105 one-design class. Nine races qualified the throw-out. So close were the finishes that several half-point ties were awarded, even though times were clocked down to 1/100th of a second.

With her rating of 6, Robert Wolfe’s Canadian Farr 40, ‘Mayhem’, was scratch boat in fleet. She took third in Class 0 for the week with six 1D35s and two 12 meters chasing her around the courses. But it was the uncle-son combo of Gordy and Herb Cole aboard ‘Ballistic’, a Melges 32, which won the class and overall honors to take home the Chelsea Clock, beating Gary Stuntz’s Melges 24, ‘Cool Beans’ in Class 6, on a tie breaker. ‘Cool Beans’ made it to the start line for Monday’s first race after a 14-hour Sunday night drive up from Lake Tahoe where she raced the Melges 24 Pacific Coast Championships. In second place for P0 was John Hoag’s 1D35, ‘Shrek’, last year’s overall winner and winner of this past fall’s West Coast 1D35 Championship.

Hoag’s crew, most of which grew up in families of Hobie Cat racers, have sailed together for nearly two decades on a succession of boats, including a Hobie 33 and an Olson 30. As a crew they’ve placed first, second and third for U.S. Sailing’s Lloyd Phoenix trophy, and won three of the four past Puget Sound J/Fest regattas aboard different J/109s. To his arsenal Hoag has just added a Beneteau 40.7 that began garnering awards as soon as he and his crew stepped aboard.

Though local brothers Jonathan and Charlie McKee are otherwise employed by Luna Rossa in Valencia through next year, many of the area’s other regional, national, world and Olympic champions make a point of attending Race Week. Several of the New Zealand members of Oracle’s AC team drove over from Anacortes. The party loving Kiwis have discovered that the after-work nightlife is rather tame in nearby Sedro Wooly, home to not much more than Oracle’s boat-building facilities and a state penitentiary. But they also came to watch their colleague, I-14 sailor Kris Henderson, play guitar in his rock-and-blues band, Hoist, during the after-race party on Thursday and Friday.

Class 2 had several boats in the water for the first time including a J/90 salvaged from Hurricane Katrina and a new J/124. Perhaps the duel of the week however was between the two J/29s in Class 6, Chris Winnard’s ‘Dangerous When Wet’ and Pat Denney’s ‘Here and Now’. They’d often beat each other by a bow sprit in spectator sport, match-racing style. Class 8 saw an influx of recently splashed Moore 24s from this fast-growing West Coast fleet. Class 9 hosted a dozen boats ranging in PHRF ratings from 158 to 241, including Bill Stange’s Columbia 26. ‘Tuesday’ often led Class 9 around the marks, even with her rating of 236. Stange has long been known around the Sound for his magic of making anything that floats go fast.

Back in the dot com heyday of the late eighties and early nineties, national sponsors added a big-time feel to the regatta. When they pulled out, loyal local and regional sponsors, plus organizers Bob Ross and Stan Stanley, stepped up to the plate. Thanks to their commitment to the sport, next year's vacation -- the 25th running of Whidbey Island Race Week -- is already inked for July, 2007.

Got your own story from WIRW? Click here to add your version.

Click here for results of the regatta at the CYC-Seattle website

Click here for photos of the event by Todd Martin at Photos by Todd

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