MARQUETTE — Untether the line, push off the dock and get ready to set sail. From June to October the Marquette Yacht Club can be seen racing its Pearson Ensign sailboat fleet in the Lower Harbor every Wednesday evening around 6 p.m. Crews of three to five on boats with names such as Irish Eyes, Kai, Eh?, Man O’ War and Zooner converged recently at the starting line near the Lower Harbor breakwater for this weekly race.
“It’s just this frenzy for people to get all in the same place at the same time to get started,” said Jennifer Grant, commodore of the yacht club and Kai crew member.
Volunteer and race committee member Stephan Thocker sets the course buoys in a motorboat based on wind conditions. Once the boats are in place, Thocker fires the starting pistol about a mile and a half away from the starting line. Competitors use sailing tactics to traverse the course, then repeat one to three times, depending on wind conditions.
During a Wednesday evening in July, the racers reported that the wind measured less than a knot, which equals about 1.15 miles per hour, and created less than ideal racing conditions.
“It was very, very, light, almost impossible to sail in,” said Chad Lewis, Ensign boat builder and Man O’ War crew member.
The Man O’ War started the race out strong that evening, Lewis said, taking the lead for the first lap. However, by the second lap they were surpassed by one boat, then another, then another. Ultimately Man O’ War took fifth place.
“It was a night of zephyrs,” Lewis said. “There’d be no wind, then either individual boats or clumps of boats would get a puff of wind, then they’d die.”
However, there was one boat that made navigating in challenging wind conditions look as easy as a summer’s breeze.
After starting almost last, the crew of the Lickety-split slowly sailed their way to glory, becoming that evening’s champions. Team members Eva Kipper, Jason Beecher, Al Reynolds and Jim Napp attribute their ability to spot “cats paws” — little ripples or fans on the water — as the reason they were able to gain an advantage over their competitors.
“A couple of times we saw ripples on the water, and we were able to trim our sails right, and we were able to pass people on that,” Napp said. “You only have 5-10 seconds, because that’s as long as the wind lasts. If you don’t get your sails trimmed and speed up, you’re sunk.”
Napp, who has been sailing for over 40 years, recalls when the yacht club around 1978 established its Wednesday night Pearson Ensign racing series. Napp said that about two years earlier the club bought the former railroad weight master’s office along Lakeshore Boulevard, which included a large scale, for about $8,000.
“They got this property a couple of years before,” he said. “It was a coal pile over there (pointing near the yacht club house), and this is where the trucks came to get weighed and billed.”
If you inspect the grounds at the yacht club, you can still see indentations in the ground from where the large scale used to sit.
Marquette’s industrial lakeshore has become part of a bygone era. Instead of area residents rushing off to the lakeshore to work, they are there to play.
The yacht club offers more than the Wednesday night racing series. There is a Sunday race for a one-design class of small sailing dinghies called the Laser Standard, and every other Saturday there is a series for members. While you have to be a member of the Marquette Yacht Club to skipper a boat, others can act as crew members. Those interested in learning the craft can show up at the dock around 5 p.m. when racers gather on Wednesday evenings to see if a crew needs another hand.
“We do not leave people on the docks,” yacht club member Gabrielle Gentz said. “We try to fit everybody on the boat.”
Gentz described the club as being for those who love and appreciate the water, and want to learn more about it. She said that even if a participant does not have racing experience, but they have some sailing experience, most boats are willing to teach you how it’s done.
For those without any experience, Gentz suggests that they take lessons. The Marquette Junior Yacht Club Sailing School — a separate organization that operates in close partnership with the Marquette Yacht Club — offers youth lessons in July. Gentz provides private lessons by appointment to all ages. Gentz herself was a graduate of the program and started sailing at a young age. Now in her 20s, she has raced all over the country.
“I think that’s why I am able to travel and race all over, because I’ve had such a good foundation here,” Gentz said of the Marquette Yacht Club.
At the end of each sailing season, the racers and club members gather for a celebratory banquet and awards ceremony. Next year the yacht club will host the Ensign Class Association 2020 National Championship Regatta in Marquette. The event spans four days and brings in sailors from all over the country.
For more information on the yacht club, visit www.marquetteyachtclub.org.
Corey Kelly can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 243. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.