Skip to main content

Beauty on display at wooden boat regatta

Classic sailing yachts are the stars of eastern Connecticut’s annual Morgan Point Invitational Classic sailing yachts are the stars of eastern Connecticut’s annual Morgan Point Invitational

A host of classic wooden boats gathered on the waters off Noank, Conn., last fall to participate in the Morgan Point Invitational, a 34-year-old sailboat race.

The race was formed by Paul Bates and a group of local enthusiasts who were concerned the interest in wooden boats was waning due to the influx of fiberglass vessels. “We thought a race was a good way to get the boats together, create camaraderie and commiserate about the trials and tribulations of owning a wooden boat, in addition to generating interest in them from the community,” recalls Bates, who has been organizing the race with partner Nancy d’Estang for the past 25 years.

Both d’Estang and Bates have been around boats their entire lives. D’Estang worked at Mystic Seaport for many years as the Supervisor of Research and Documentation for the historic boats the shipyard was restoring and maintaining, and rescued many significant vessels with Bates that would have otherwise, historically, been lost forever. Bates spent his youth on the MysticRiver and sailing up and down the East Coast, and raced overseas in Italy, Scotland, Ireland and France.

But it is really a mindfulness for tradition, an appreciation for good craftsmanship, and the importance of community that inspire d’Estang and Bates to do the things they do, which includes running the MPI every year.

The course is set just before the race, which usually begins off RamIsland in Noank, continues to New London, and ends in Stonington. It is 10 to 15 miles with typically 12 to 20 boats participating in two classes: large and small. Good vantage points to watch the race are found on Fishers Island Sound between New London and Stonington.

“The local community can be seen on the water taking pictures and admiring the boats as they maneuver at the start and during the race,” says Wes Greenleaf, a 12-year race veteran who owns a 1929 Herreshoff S boat that he crews with his family. “Local charter boats such as the Mystic Whaler will go out of their way to get close enough so their passengers can get a good look.”

D’Estang and Bates let people know about the race by written invitation, but it is open to anyone with a wooden sailboat. And even though it is a competitive race, the MPI was designed with fun in mind, so that participants have time to enjoy the day. For example, there is a no-spinnaker rule in effect, which eliminates a lot of tension during the downward leg. The race is more about the boats themselves than about winning.

“There is nothing on earth as beautiful as 20 or so perfectly maintained classic wooden boats out on the race course. It is inspiring and fulfilling to own one of these fine boats. I think we all need this inspiration to continue the cost and effort necessary to keep these boats in commission,” says Greenleaf.

Historical photographs of boats from the Noank Historical Society, the Mystic Seaport and other local collections are awarded to the first-, second- and third-place winners of both classes.

“I think this is one of most distinctive aspects of this race in addition to the gorgeous boats,” says d’Estang. Perpetual awards are also presented to the first-place winners, which are half-models handcrafted by local model maker Roger Hambidge.

After the awards ceremony the race participants, their families and friends, and other members from the resident boating community gather for an evening of grub and grog, and to celebrate their common passion for wooden boats.