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Regatta racers become rescuers

“If you’re going to throw a perfectly good race to save somebody, it never hurts when it’s the commodore.”

“If you’re going to throw a perfectly good race to save somebody, it never hurts when it’s the commodore.”

When Tom Stewart and his crew crossed the starting line of the 12th annual Whitebread Regatta, held Oct. 8 off Shelter Island, N.Y., he knew the racing was going to be tricky. The wind was whipping up to 30 knots and the chop was about 3 feet. Twenty-four of the 108 entrants wouldn’t finish. Two boats would be dismasted. But what he didn’t know was that before the day was done he’d be a hero for rescuing the association’s commodore who had fallen overboard.

“Well, it was windy as hell that day,” Stewart, who is 55, says. “Racing is always interesting when it’s blowing like stink.”

The Peconic Bay Sailing Association’s ( Whitebread Regatta, held every year during Columbus Day weekend, is a 35-mile race from Cutchogue Harbor east around southern Shelter Island and back. Sailors from New York and New England participate in the race. “A lot of sailors wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Stewart says. “It’s everybody’s favorite race.”

Stewart and his crew, aboard his J/100, Ice-Nine, were three or four miles from the finish when they noticed a boat ahead of them sailing erratically. “We were sailing along upwind and this boat was acting strange,” Stewart recalls. “Soon, one of my crewmembers called out, ‘Hey, there’s something in the water ahead.’ As we approached it, we all realized it was actually a person in the water.”

Stewart gave orders to roll up the jib, lower the sails, haul in the lines and turn on the engine. Ice-Nine putted its way to the man in the water. “We heard him call for help so we pulled around and lowered the life sling,” Stewart says. “He grabbed onto the horseshoe and we eased him in over the transom.”

Once on the boat, the Ice-Nine crew sat the man down and let him collect himself. Before a word was uttered, Stewart recognized the wet, disheveled man as the association’s commodore. “When I saw his face, I knew who he was,” Stewart says. “He had a hard time climbing up the swim platform, though. We wanted to give him some time to catch his breath.”

“I was completely exhausted,” admits association commodore Bill Coster, who is 60. “I was still wearing my boots and had my inflatable life jacket on underneath my jacket. I’d been a little anxious trying to get at the toggle. It was tough. I was in the water for about 15 minutes, I think.”

Coster and his crew, aboard his Tartan 33, Silent Passage, had been taking turns at the helm and were preparing to adjust the jib sheet when the boat hit a wave and Coster was thrown overboard, winch handle in-hand. “I’ve done this work so many times without incident. I remember going through the lifelines thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m going into the water right now,’ ” he says. Coster’s crew apparently had difficulty circling back to retrieve their fallen skipper. They knew how to take down the sails, Coster says, but didn’t know how to turn on the engine.

With the commodore safely on board, Stewart and his crew decided to drop out of the race and return to shore. “They didn’t have to do that. They could have continued on,” Coster says. “I was embarrassed, but also very grateful for their help.”

Each year, following the race, association members gather for an evening barbecue where awards are handed out to the winners of each division. Although Stewart didn’t finish, he was awarded a seamanship trophy and given a bottle of rum in appreciation of the rescue.

“I guess I’ve learned something from all of this,” Stewart says. “If you’re going to throw a perfectly good race to save somebody, it never hurts when it’s the commodore.”