Eight Bells: Will Harris

Published on July 10th, 2024

Sailing legend Will Harris, 65, crossed the bar for the final time, in the early morning hours of July 8, 2024. He was on his trawler, docked in Chesapeake, VA, with his dog Luna.

Born July 28, 1958, Will started sailing 24’ Sharks with his family in the 1960s out of Olcott, NY. His parents gave him incredible latitude to use the family boats, first the Shark then a Cal 29. This allowed Will to independently push his own limit and gain experiences that rendered him peerless among those his age. Will was also a participant in the Olcott Yacht Club Junior Sailing program.

It is important to note that sailing was not Will’s only special character.  He was very smart, analytical, and quick witted. Will was incredibly well-read and a veritable repository of knowledge. While he had a devilish attitude, he was empathetic, generous, and kind to everyone around him. And then; there was his infectious laugh…

For those who encountered Will at Junior Regattas at clubs along the South Shore of Lake Ontario, it took no imagination to recognize that Will was a player. As an adult, he was the Forrest Gump of the sailing world.  Whenever something big was happening, Will just happened by and simply joined the party.

He spent time in the Pacific Northwest sailing against the likes of Bill and Carl Buchan and Jonathan McKee; all three, Olympic medal winners. Somewhere along the road, Will sailed across the Atlantic and spent some time in England making lifelong sailing friends there, while also reveling in the burgeoning Punk Rock craze of the time.

He spent many years in Newport, RI, sailing J/24s with and against the very best in the world – Ken and Brad Read, Geoff Moore, etc. He was involved with the Doyle Sail Loft in Newport, always innovating and creating some interesting times on the sail measurement floor and the laundromat (spinnakers shrank when you ran them through a dryer).  This was during the glory days of the J/24 Class.

One of the premier big boat programs of that time was the maxi boat Boomerang owned by George and then John Coumantaros. Will joined this team from time to time while they were shattering records wherever they went.

Will moved back to Niagara County, NY to raise his family. Around this time, he started sailing with Chris Doyle and Adam Burns on the J/22. They quickly became one of the teams to beat at the national level.

During this period, Will continued to be active in the sailing marine trade, working with Waterline Systems/US Watercraft, then builders of the J/22, J/24, and other specialty sailing vessels.

Everyone has a Will Harris story, with a favorite tale coming from when he was competing in the 1988 J/24 Worlds in Kingston, ON with Geoff Moore and other Rhode  Island Sound sailors.

It was a HOT, ZERO WIND postponement when Will noticed a particularly ominous looking Lake Ontario line squall heading in from the West. He immediately took charge on his boat, instructing his team “I’ve seen this before. It is going to blow really hard and there will be lightning and torrential rain. Get the motor on and running and stow the sails below. But don’t worry, it will be over in a few minutes.”

The powerful storm came, first with the cold wind and then with the rain and lightning. But then, there was more; dime to nickel size hail started to pummel the fleet. It drove most humans down below to escape the beating. It took Windex’s right off of the top of masts.

As quickly as it came, it was over. The fleet returned to the warmth and glassy lake. The humans emerged from the safety of the cabins. It was at this point that Will said to his team: “I guess I forgot to mention, that it can hail too”

He is survived by his sister Elizabeth Harris McAllister and his daughter Hannah Harris. Godspeed Will.

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