There can be a lot of egos, yelling, screaming and surly behavior in the sailboat racing world, especially when a boat doesn’t cross the line in first place. But in wooden sailboat racing there’s an appreciation for the yachts that can outshine the race results—a lovely sheerline, rich brightwork or a newly constructed cold-molded boat that captures the spirit of classic sailboats.
And then there’s Maine’s Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, the ERR, which Ron Zarella, the owner of the 49-foot racer-cruiser Blackfish, called “the Woodstock of the wooden sailboat racing world.”
“He had never been here,” Steve White, president of Brooklin Boat Yard (BBY), says about Zarella’s first time at the ERR. “He came up here and he said, ‘I have never had so much fun.’”
Fun is what the ERR is about. The sailors race to win, but the event is just as much, if not more, about the boats, the collegial atmosphere and the all-important party. After the racing is over, boats raft up, crews go for a swim, the beer flows, the band plays, a robust barbecue dinner is served, and the awards are handed out by little kids who raced with their parents.
“It’s an amazing regatta,” says Patrick Gavin-Brynes, skipper of the 1968 Bill Tripp, Sr. designed sloop, The Hawk. “You see all of the boats, families, kids, spectators. It’s one hundred plus boats taking off up the Reach. It’s rare you get to see so many boats on a course going in the same direction.” With a smile he adds, “and the boats aren’t ugly, and the people are nice.”
“It’s very familial,” says Sam Temple, president of Rockport Marine, the yard that co-organizes the ERR with BBY and whose employees provide a lot of the volunteer manpower for the event.
The ERR was started by White and BBY vice president Frank Hull in 1986. “Basically, we stored a lot of wooden boats here,” White says, “but they weren’t racing, so we said, we’ll start a race for wooden boats.”
In year one, 13 boats showed up. In the next couple of years, the numbers kept doubling. “I was pretty astounded when we got up to 30 boats, and then the next year to 60,” White says. “We’ve been in the 90- to 110-boat range for the last 8 or 10 years. This year we had 112 boats. I really thought it would remain a small, little regatta in the local area that might attract 20 to 30 boats a year.”
Classic yacht sailors come from near and far to attend the ERR in the waters between Maine’s Blue Hill Peninsula, Deer Isle and Mt. Desert Island. The setting is one of the big attractions. The 16-mile race—the course has been the same for all 36 years—begins inside the Reach at the bottom of the Blue Hill peninsula, heads east and south into Jericho Bay, past Swans Island, out to Halibut Rocks and back north to finish in Brooklin’s Great Cove.
“This is probably one of the most beautiful backdrops,” says Trevor Harney of Manassas, Virginia, who sailed aboard The Hawk with Gavin-Brynes. “It couldn’t be more picturesque. If you don’t like this, you need to find another sport.”
The off-the-grid, low-tech nature of the event is another attraction. “It’s pretty rural,” White says about the locale, whose base is more than a mile from the center of Brooklin, which counts a population of 811 souls. “Virtually every other regatta you’re tied off on a slip or mooring in a town that has restaurants and bars. When you come to Great Cove, there isn’t anything ashore except Wooden Boat Publications and the Brooklin General Store. You have to be on the anchor and people are visiting each other. It’s more of an adventure and different from going to Newport and tying up at the dock.”
On the morning of the race, the down-home nature of the event becomes immediately apparent when White steps onto a wooden picnic table bench at the skipper’s meeting to share a few simple rules. He reminds everyone to use the Porta-Potties, lest they overwhelm the septic system at Wooden Boat Publications, and that the Wooden Boat School’s campground is closed to sailors due to Covid. After briefly describing the racecourse, White tells the skippers their boats have been assigned a random number. “Here’s my random number,” he says, as he shows off the number 13 and draws laughter from the crowd.
When someone asks White what channel the launch monitors, he doesn’t miss a beat. “The launch doesn’t have a channel,” he responds. “Blow a horn or just wave,” he says. “The launch runs until 10:30. After that you better have a dinghy, or you can swim.”
Getting to and from the dock at Great Cove is an adventure in and of itself. People use the beach and granite dock pilings to dinghy to and from their vessels. All available watercraft are used to get hundreds of sailors to their boats. Someone uses a paddleboard to get his dog to his boat.
The ERR eschews sponsorship. White says they have been presented with sponsorship opportunities, but they prefer to keep things informal and simple. There are no banners, not even for the two boatyards that organize the event. Rockport Marine employees who volunteer their time use the company’s Tin Pig, an aluminum workboat, and Spare Time, Temple’s 28-foot wooden lobsterboat, to ferry people to their vessels. The line to get on a launch is long, but nobody cares.
Windless conditions delay the start for 30 minutes. It freshens nicely, but seconds before the first start, one of the International One Designs T-bones the starting dinghy. Somehow the dinghy stays afloat, the first boats take off and the Tin Pig crew moves in to bail out the dink. The other divisions follow at 10-minute intervals, and 50 minutes after the first start, 112 classic yachts are sailing out the Reach in a 10-knot breeze. Small crowds have gathered on the shoreline to admire the spectacle, and a hundred or more spectator boats watch as the fleet heads out to the bay.
With the wind from the south, most of the boats get out of the Reach on a single tack and on to Swans Island. But as they make their way upwind on Jericho Bay, the wind drops into the single digits.
Not surprisingly, Outlier, the 56-foot spirit of tradition racer, is first to make it to the windward mark and puts its spinnaker up for the downwind run. The Botin Partners-designed sloop, which Brooklin Boat Yard built in 2019, has the highest rating of any boat in the fleet and after jibing its way to the finish is first to cross in a little over three hours. As the rest of the fleet crosses the line, boats anchor in Great Cove, crews come ashore, and sailors gather around the kegs, which include a batch of Hell’s a Day at Sea beer from Sedgwick’s Strong Brewing.
“The party is pretty important,” says Rockport Marine Assistant General Manager and event organizer Katie Schoettle.
In 36 years, the race has only been cancelled once (due to heavy fog), but the party still happened. And even when Covid cancelled the celebration in 2020, the race still took place and people partied aboard their boats instead. “In the first years we asked people to bring their own hors d’oeuvres,” White says. And even though the event turned into an award dinner with a band, White says they try to keep things simple. “The informality is one of our attractions,” he says.
As Primo Cubano, a popular Portland band, begins to play its traditional Cuban dance music, a crowd gathers and people begin to salsa on the lawn.
Over dinner, Josh Goldberg, who races a Concordia named Dame and a Buzzards Bay 18 named Besherte, explains why he really likes the ERR. “Yacht clubs are awesome, but having boatbuilders running the race makes it more egalitarian. It’s all about cool wooden boats and having a good time.”
Around 9 p.m., White and Richard Stetson—who runs the race with the assistance of his wife, Bridget, and daughter Saphrona—appear for the awards ceremony. White gives a synopsis of the day, makes a few comments about each boat, and owners and crew come up to collect their trophies. “There’s never any heartburn around the awards,” says Temple. “It’s all pretty low pressure.”
It’s that low-key environment that continues to attract sailors to the event. Frans Van Schaik brought Zwerver, a 1956 57-foot Sparkman & Stephens-designed cutter, to the ERR in 2009 and won its first race. “This event is so much fun,” he says, even though that win earned him a new handicap. The ERR uses the Classic Rating Formula MkII for scoring the widely divergent designs and assigns penalties for next year’s race if a boat performs well. Van Schaik doesn’t care that it may now be tougher to win. “I really love the weather and the sailing,” he says. “I’ve done two Fastnets, a Bermuda Race and two Antiguas. I’ve also done the Mediterranean races and they’re like this. It’s not about the owners,” he says. “It’s about the sailors.”
Gavin-Brynes shares a similar sentiment. “This is my seventh or eighth ERR,” he says. “It’s the highlight of our season; catching up with people at a great party with great music. And this is the best place in the world to sail.”
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.