Arena football, sailing style

Published on December 10th, 2020

Near the northwest tip of the Michigan peninsula is Charlevoix, with sailors enjoying access to Lake Michigan but also connected with two inland options. In this report by Tom Barnes, he shares how the locals use what they have to great advantage.


The Charlevoix Yacht Club J/22 Fleet 45 has been holding Arena Racing in Round Lake since 1988 (with a break for about six years). Arena Racing is named after Arena Football which packed a lot of excitement into a much smaller venue.

Starting on the first Sunday after the 15th of October (because that’s when dockage is free), the J/22 Fleet moves from the commodious Lake Charlevoix to the confines of Round Lake for another season of Arena Racing.

What’s so cool about racing on this 55 acre lake is this year we have 10 boats! We race main and jib only to keep people off a potentially icy foredeck and out of the 43-degree water. The average race takes about 15 minutes and we get 6 of them in from 1:00PM to 3:00PM, finishing in time to watch the Detroit Lion’s lose.

The starting line is long enough for 6-7 boats, so there is always a second row…and sometimes a third. Crappy start, caught on the wrong side of 120-degree shift…no worries, the next race is only minutes away. It’s very shifty and this year I’ve blamed “bad luck” on getting caught in knock after knock…but the best skippers have been consistently near the top and so I know the problem is my own.

We get the cream of the crop for skippers and crew. All other area racing is done for the season so Melges 24, J/70, J/35 skippers and crews jump onto J/22s. Two sailors from our sister fleet across the peninsula in Tawas made the three hour drive each way to crew on a boat.

Not just the sailors enjoy Arena Sailing. On November 1st, we had a warm sunny day and there were 50+ people onshore taking pictures and trying to understand the action. My wife was providing color commentary from the docks and verbally abusing me for being mid-pack.

Our Volunteer Race Committee, John Kunitzer, is a Demi-god. He and his crew set the windward marks (sometimes 2 or 3 to accommodate wind shifts), start line and get us going promptly at 1:00PM. Between races they are a way station for beer and brownies. They host members of the local photography club and volunteer helpers who enjoy the antics.

Our NOR and Instructions give the RC a lot of leeway as to courses. On a fickle, light air day, John sent us on a downwind start race; a triangle race where you were allowed to go either way around; and a starboard rounding race. It keeps you on your toes to know the rules.

John also has three different scoring systems running all the time…The Ricky Bobby System – points only if you win (“if you ain’t first, you’re last”); High points scoring based on how many boats you beat; and the daily low point scoring system.

In the late 90s, Charlevoix boasted 16+ J/22s. Seven years ago we were down to one lone J/22 owned by Bob Grove. Bob is an enthusiast and champion of good causes. He set a goal of building the fleet back to 20 boats by 2024. He bought three good used boats and started loaning them out.

I borrowed mine for three years and then bought hull #483 from Bob. He promptly bought another. He sold one last fall and in October bought hull 744 from Cleveland. Bob has a likely buyer that will start racing with us next year and he is starting to shop for #11.

Each year, the Cranberry Cup is the final official race of the season. The Cup is so named as the regatta is held on the Sunday following Thanksgiving (thus the “Cranberry”). It’s a perpetual Trophy and tradition has it that the previous winner is to fill the chalice with dried cranberries to be distributed to participants following the race (this year we had to settle for only the new winner getting the cranberries).

The 2020 edition was held November 29, with Charlevoix Yacht Club arranging a cheering section while three drones filmed the action while 100s of pictures were taken and shared. Even the Petoskey News Review came down and interviewed us right after racing.

With 10 J/22s on the line in WSW winds at 5-15 on a mostly cloudy 45-degree day, we had six races which allowed one throw-out. The RC set two potential weather marks and at race time settled on the more southern of the two.

Despite the well-intentioned square start line, the 45-degree wind shifts every 30 seconds meant one end was going to be favored. More often than not that ended up being the pin end. Being close to that end and having a crew ready to quickly tack allowed boats to cross the fleet on port just after the start.

When the wind stayed right, it was a very short starboard tack to the south shore and boats were calling for “sea room” causing a mass of quick tacks by those with the weather gauge.

The weather mark is only 3 minutes away and while the first-place boat usually got around clean, the middle of the pack was almost always a cluster with lots of calls for “buoy room” and disagreements over when and if an overlap occurred.

The first downwind leg was an opportunity for passing. The breeze came more from the south side so staying high gave an advantage of getting the new breeze first. This ran against the tactic of going left to ensure you were inside at the mark rounding. I tended toward staying left and unfortunately, that cost me several boats over the six races. Lesson learned!

Photo by Dan O’Haver.

That downwind mark rounding saw some of the most interesting events of the day. Our eventual winner and another boat got a late inside overlap and were denied room (by me). They hooked the mark on their rudder and hung there a while getting it clear… this became their throw out race.

The final score was amazingly close. The top three boats separated by only two points.
The cream always rises to the top and “Sailing Inc” – Bow #8 skippered by Dan Tosch with George “Bear” Peet Jr and Brian Prokuda won the cherished cup with 11 points.

Dan dedicated the win to George Peet Sr. who passed away last year. George was a huge sailing advocate, supporter of junior sailing and a very tough competitor in J/22s, Lightnings, and Lasers. Bear is an outstanding sailor in all sizes and boat types. Brian is an experience helmsman and worked hard on bow.

Second Place went to last year’s winners on Pale Face Lite – Owner Bob Grove, skipper Steve Pirie and crew Beverly Cady with 12 points. They received a bottle of Mount Gay, which Beverly eagerly accepted! Steve was also awarded the “Best Damn Skipper” flag (signed by all participants), for most points accumulated during the series (high scoring system).

This came down to the last day of racing with Kevin Meier holding a 10-point lead going into the day…but Kevin made the bad choice of working for a living and missed the Cranberry Cup, leaving the door wide open for Steve. Considering the fickle conditions of Round Lake, these two dominated the top of the leaderboard almost every week.

Third Place went to Bow #02 with Bill and Tom Babel on “Eminence Front” (they are big “The Who” fans) and crew Laura Johnson with 13 points. Bill founded Arena Sailing in 1988, stayed with it until 1992 and had a hiatus until he and Tom jumped on a boat again last year. They now are hooked and we’re hoping to see them back for many years to come. The Babel’s are tough enough when they sail separate, together it almost isn’t fair.

Below are the results for the Cranberry Cup, Arena Sailing Series, and the Ricky Bobby. Steve and Bill tied for the most wins. The tiebreaker was proposed, as in the movie, that they have a footrace and then kiss…at this suggestion Bill promptly conceded the win to Steve.

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