Peter Isler – Being the Mystery Guest

Published on September 26th, 2012

“It’s the best regatta! Just stay out of the middle on the runs,” counseled my friend Dave Ullman. “You’ll have a great time, the E-Scow is one of the most refined one design classes in the world – it’s on par with the Star,” said Dennis Conner. “You’ll do great, just don’t let them over-serve you,” added Gary Jobson. peter-islerThose were some of the tidbits of advice I got from former Mystery Guests at the fabled E Scow Blue Chip regatta. This past weekend (Sept. 21-23) in Pewaukee, WI… it was my turn

Everybody should get the chance to be a “Mystery Guest” at some point in their life. Here’s the gist of it: sail with a crew of four in one of the fastest and most developed one design classes in the world in big breeze against the best sailors in that class on a lake with a deep rooted sailing tradition that has made it the “heartland of American sailing” for many years. On the surface the Mystery Guest’s role might seem pretty obvious – but as the late Roy Disney used to say, “The devil is in the details.”

Over the past 47 years of the Blue Chip, a wide variety of “celebrity sailors” have been invited to take part in this epic three day regatta – which closes down the sailing season for the class with a bang. The obvious duties of the Mystery Guest are to take the helm of an E boat with a local ace crew for the regatta – racing against 20 or so teams from around the E Scow universe that have qualified during the season to attend the event. But there’s so much more.

You have to put up with some of the best hospitality imaginable … being treated better than a king for four days. You quickly realize that the regatta is not just about the sailing… the shoreside feasting and festivities are more than equal in importance. And the Mystery Guest is asked to keep up with the “pedal to the metal” pace of the participants both on and off the water!

Mystery guest lore runs deep – but looking back at the score sheet – success on the water is rare – only a few have mastered the E Scow’s secrets and broken the code to the wind shifts on little Pewaukee Lake. In 47 years only seven Mystery Guests have made it into the top three. Two San Diego sailors, Dennis Conner (1977) and Andrew Campbell (2011) pulled off the impossible by winning the ultimate “away game”. But nobody at Pewaukee YC seems to put too much of import of the MG’s regatta score… it’s all about showing the Mystery Guest a real good time, and looking forward to the big Saturday night banquet when the Mystery Guest gets to entertain the crowd with some tasty sea stories over dessert.
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I had never sailed an E Scow – but I had seen them before, and I had spent three days out on Pewaukee Lake – teaching a US Sailing Advanced Racing Clinic to the E-Scow and M20 fleet. I was a hot college sailor and I’d never seen a scow sailing before – but I soon was hooked. The boats are super powered up – and sail on their edges, heeled over to reduce wetted surface, increase waterline and orient the lee board vertically – in 12 knots they are flying and in 20 knots they are off the chart sailing fun – especially downwind. I didn’t have a pocket gps, but we had great breeze all weekend and I’d bet the boats go upwind at about 9 knots – tacking through 75 degrees… and downwind, with the masthead A-sail the boats easily break 20 knots. A local sailor told me they pulled 2 wake boarders behind the boat earlier in the summer – I believe it.

The first real cold front of the season came through on schedule – on the first day of fall and we had some smoking great breeze that proved a bit much for some of the class “experts” on Saturday. I counted about 7 capsizes including two directly in front of us that caused my heart to race just a bit to avoid them. Talking to the victims later – the blame was not placed on the 45 degree – 25 knot puffs – but the “activities” of the previous evening – or should I say early morning? Luckily the Mystery Guest was able to keep the mast pointed at the sky – though we did have a couple of heart wrenching moments. I seemed to get the hang of upwind boatspeed pretty quickly – but picking the right side of the course sailing downwind (and concurrently keeping the mast pointed at the sky) were a challenge and when the six race scores were tallied – we finished in 13th place.

2012 Class National Champion, Andy Burdick and team completed a season “hat trick” – averaging better than 2nd place and winning his second Blue Chip by 18 points. Andy and gang also won the big A Scow Nationals in 2012 – an impressive clean sweep of the big scow Classes for the well-liked President of Melges Performance Sailboats.

The impressive thing for me was to see how successful the 28 foot, E Scow has been in transitioning through the generations. It’s roots come from the big 38 foot A Scow – created in 1901, that was, for many years, the world’s fastest monohull. The E Scow is easily on its third generation of sailors and still attracting the best young sailors in the Inland Lakes region… for good reason; this boat is well balanced, well rigged and very high performance. And on the smooth water of Pewaukee Lake – you wouldn’t want to race any other boat.

Except maybe the giant big brother A scow! After the awards’ ceremony on Sunday, PYC Commodore Dave Decker made good on his late Saturday night promise and we launched his A boat and I got to take the helm for spin around the lake. Tick another item off my bucket list! I still had a few more hours before my plane departed, so in the Blue Chip spirit of keeping the pedal to the metal, I rode over to the brand new Harken headquarters where I got a tour from my good friend and Pewaukee legend, Olaf Harken.

Olaf and his brother Peter represent, to me the epitome of American business success. The new facility is huge and state of the art … who knew that robots built the blocks that we all use on our boats! A cool touch that hammers home the one design performance heritage of the Harken company is a fully rigged Finn dinghy (with USA sail numbers) on display in the foyer. Olaf said it was the last boat manufactured by their sister company Vanguard – part of the fleet that went to the 1996 Olympics – it’s never touched the water!

So I got to add my name to the long and illustrious list of Blue Chip Mystery Guests. It was so much fun – I’m thinking of trying to sail a few E regattas next summer! Hopefully I upheld the tradition and the high bar set by my peers. But somehow I don’t think anyone will be able to surpass the performance of Russell Coutts, mystery guest in 1995 (the year Black Magic took the Cup to NZL). Over the course of four days I heard more stories about Russell than any other Mystery Guest. But none of them were about the sailing… no one ever even hinted on how he finished – the Mystery Guest’s legacy is clearly tied to their performance on shore as well as on the water!

Photos by Tammy Sawyer

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