CHAMPION: Getting lucky at WetaFest

Published on April 18th, 2013

Since garnering Boat of the Year in 2010, the trimaran Weta fits prominently into the ‘simple fun’ category. At 4.4 meters, with a boomless main, jib and roller furling gennaker, it is typically singlehanded, but as the 2013 U.S National Champion Toni Sacco explains, doublehanding is a good way to get lucky…

Never in my wildest dreams would a trip to Florida to sail Wetas entail sailing with an Olympian and winning a national championship.

At 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday March 20, the morning after my birthday, the Ithaca, NY Weta fleet, represented by Richard Stephens, Keith Rice, and me, started our grueling 25-hour drive to Fort Walton Yacht Club in the panhandle of Florida. We were on our way to the largest gathering of Weta’s this nation had ever seen – WetaFest 2013. As the entries grew from four boats to twenty, our 25-hour drive seemed like a small price for three days of one-design multihull racing.

When we arrived early the next day, we were greeted by Dave Kleinman and John Luzius of Texas, who had just emerged from tents that had been doused by the yacht club’s sprinklers for three hours. They gave us the first of many tips shared that weekend – beware the sprinklers.

WetaFest kicked off that evening with the first of two debrief sessions in which the top Weta sailors, including Chris Kitchen of Weta Marine, Jim Leonard of Montgomery, AL, Richard Stephens of Ithaca, NY, and Jonathan Weston of Dublin, CA shared tips on all things Weta including rigging, sail trim, and the most important question of all: which color boat is fastest (clearly grey). The learning continued all weekend as friendly racers shared tips and tricks of the trade abundantly.

The morning of the first day of racing, I was quietly freaking out as the forecast for 10-15 knots was proved glaringly false when the anemometer in the club showed a 24 knot average wind speed by 10 a.m. I had faced these conditions at a regatta the previous fall, also in unfamiliar waters. This turned out to be a traumatic experience as I tore open my daggerboard slot after hitting an unmarked rock.

For weeks before going to Florida I had nightmares of similar disasters. Being that I weigh 115 pounds fully geared up and dripping wet, I lack the ballast to keep a boat flat in seriously windy conditions. I had two options – run to the local grocery store and eat everything in the junk food aisle, or find a crew.

Richard and I started the hunt for a warm, preferably heavy body. Race organizer’s Cliff Farrah and John Farris had already TonyandRandybegun making calls to local sailors when local sailing phenom Brian Harrison announced that he was going to call his neighbour. The locals in the group immediately seemed excited. Someone asked me, “Do you know who he’s calling?”

My confused response was “His neighbour?” Turns out that Brian’s neighbour is none other than Randy Smyth, a two time Olympic silver medallist and multihull guru. It took a bit of explaining for me to fully grasp the situation. After some persuasion, Randy agreed to come and sail for the day. He arrived an hour later for the skipper’s meeting.

Randy had never been on a Weta before, nor had Brian Harrison, who finished third overall by beating Weta designer, Chris Kitchen. By design, the Weta is a simple boat that is quick to learn, forgiving to sail, and a thrill to ride. It is accessible, and caters to world class racers and recreational sailors alike. I find it’s great for small people to singlehand, as it doesn’t require the weight as a Hobie 16 or Laser. There were a handful of courageous racers at the WetaFest who were either new to the boat or to racing, but came out and had a blast anyway, despite the challenging conditions.

With the relief of knowing that I was about to sail with the best crew imaginable, three fantastic days of racing and partying commenced. Day one started with mouth-watering donuts from a local family-owned donut shop, provided by our hosts at Fort Walton Yacht Club. We raced five windward-leewards in heavy air and rough seas. Just as Randy and I were getting dialled in, race four started with an ear-splitting t-bone between Chris Kitchen and Brian Harrison, which sent Brian’s prod through Chris’ jib and left a gaping hole in Brian’s brand new main hull. Later that race Keith Rice, who was close on their tail in the standings, was forced off the course when the shackle holding his gennaker to the furling drum broke. Amidst the fierce duels throughout the fleet there were reports of a superman leap onto a perfectly trimmed runaway boat and the occasional capsize. Tim Wieringa, of Kentwood, MI, and father-son duo Jeff and Max Feldman of Philadelphia, PA, successfully finished their first day of racing ever. Randy and I finished with three bullets that day. That night, while the rest of us slept off our aches and pains, Randy, Cliff, Chris and Brian stayed up late fixing their boats and making steaks in preparation for day two.

Reports of a storm front shortened day two to one windward-leeward race in very light air, flat seas, light rain, and occasional thunder. The tornado warning went off once, which Randy dismissed by saying, “Don’t worry. It won’t hit us.” Jim Leonard crushed the fleet, finishing at least 4 minutes ahead of Chris and Richard who took second and third place respectively. There are reports that Jim had created his own source of wind. Randy and I bobbed along to a 5th place finish, amusing ourselves with talk about the challenges of peeing in a drysuit, particularly for females. Unfortunately, West Coaster Jonathan Weston had to withdraw from racing after the first day due to a nasty lung infection, which left Dick Hitchcock of Weta Florida to finish up the races.

The fierce competition on the water gave way to friendly camaraderie on land. There was always a hand to help catch you when you sailed into the beach, guide you in adjusting your rigging, give you a tip on how to get the most out of your sail trim, and, in my case, help raise my mast each day. With extra time on our hands we spent the afternoon trading stories and discussing strategy, such as human catapult for the Everglades Challenge, over triggerfish sandwiches and fries. The second evening we were greeted by an enormous “Welcome Sailors” banner at the infamous Fudpuckers restaurant where the official regatta party was held. With their house drink of five different Cruzan rums in hand, I had a blast laughing and mixing with a convivial group of sailors. Our hosts at Fort Walton Beach Yacht Club went above and beyond expectations of hospitality not only by arranging food and drink, but by finding housing for sailors in tents during the very windy and rainy nights that the front blew in.

Day three started with a hearty breakfast at Tommie’s, with Weta sailors taking up much of the side dining room. A 1 p.m. start allowed time for a handful of us sailors from the cold, sun deprived north to go out and enjoy the warm sun and good breeze while sailing around the bay. The wind built steadily throughout the morning, leaving us with bunched up waves and gusty wind for the nine-mile long distance race. The race committee selected a course that ran downwind across the bay and back to the club. I was psyched to see the conditions, as we had decided the night before that I would drive for the distance race. As the last boat off the beach, Randy and I headed toward the start line with time to spare. After making a pass by the camera boat, we parked ourselves near the favored end of the line and waited.

With a downwind start, we threw the gennaker just before we crossed the starting line and began our run towards the second water tower. Immediately Randy passed me the tiller. I steered, while Randy masterfully handled the lines, keeping the boat flat and fast despite heavy gusts. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong water tower and found ourselves far windward of the mark, forcing us to make extra gybes and leaving us in fourth place around the mark. Despite beating upwind through the waves, it didn’t take us long to make up ground on Chris, Brian, and Jim, who were vying for the lead. Two pairs of hands allowed us to drop the gennaker to the deck on the upwind leg. However, with no way to tie it down, it dragged in the water most of the way, leaving us with no advantage. Who knew you could shrimp a gennaker on a Weta!

We stayed behind the point and headed towards the shoal in order to sail in flatter water, while Brian and Chris kept to the center of the bay and were rocked by the heavy waves. The story I heard is that Chris was taking pictures when Brian passed him. Soon thereafter, we caught up to Brian near the finish line and two quick tacks helped us cross ahead of him, though he was close on our tail. Chris came in a close third, followed by Richard Stephens and his new local crew, Linda Wright. Despite a few reports of capsizes, everyone made it to shore with huge grins and wild stories. We were all ready for a Mongolian BBQ feast.

Before we knew it was time to pack up the boats and start our 25-hour drive back to cold, snowy Ithaca, NY. After lingering over beers with our new Weta friends from across the states, we took a few last pictures, hit the head, and said our goodbyes and see you laters. Now two weeks later, I’m still trying to process the whirlwind experience and the boatloads that I learned sailing with Olympian Randy Smyth. There aren’t words to describe how fantastic the boat felt as it was humming through the water at full speed. It was akin to the exhilaration of sailing I felt as a teen when I first single handed a Hobie 16 from a trap seat and became addicted to the sport we all love.

I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to race at the national level, and particularly glad for the support and encouragement that was shown by everyone at WetaFest, Weta Marine, and Fort Walton Yacht Club. Thanks to WetaFest sponsor Ronstan for the swag. I’d like to particularly thank Richard Stephens for inviting me to WetaFest and trusting me to sail his boat. The Ithaca Weta fleet is unpacking the boats today in balmy 50 degrees and already gearing up for next year’s championships in San Francisco, CA. Will we see you there?

Final results:



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