Regatta showcases Barnegat Bay icon

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An anonymous philanthropist created the Duckboat Worlds as a way to keep the bay boats from extinction

An anonymous philanthropist created the Duckboat Worlds as a way to keep the bay boats from extinction

A total of 54 Duckboats came to the starting line of the Duckboat Worlds Aug. 26 on New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay, almost the entire world fleet of these pumpkinseed-shaped, cat-rigged vessels. The nearly-100-percent participation in this, the 37th Duckboat Worlds, was no surprise. The Duckboat is a Barnegat Bay original, and this is the only place it is sailed. But that so many boats would start any race would, only a few years ago, have been a huge surprise.

The 12-foot-long wooden boats, descendants of duck hunting boats used in the 1800s and sailed competitively since about the 1930s, were sinking toward decay and extinction, replaced at the bay’s 13 yacht clubs with Optimist prams. Then one wealthy local sailor and wooden-boat enthusiast decided to refloat the fleet.

This sailing philanthropist, whom no one involved will name because he insists on anonymity beyond his local waters, used hustle and dollars. Through significant financial incentives, he has motivated clubs and even private groups to bring almost the entire remaining fleet of Duckboats back to life. And he personally discovered forgotten and discarded Duckboats in neighborhood barns and backyards, according to friends.

“There are hardly any undiscovered boats left,” says Pam Switlik, who registered the boats for the regatta, which is hosted annually by the Mantoloking Yacht Club.

The 2005 Duckboat Worlds was won by Russell Lucas, who placed sixth in the first of five races, improved to fourth in the second race and won the three remaining races. He was one of 29 adults skippering the boats. Patrick “Packy” Mignon, 13, came in fourth overall, placing eighth in the first race, winning the second, notching another eighth in the third, a 15th in the fourth, and an eighth in the last race. He was the top finisher among 27 juniors — 15 and under — skippering boats in the race and he sailed with Grace Lucas as crew. Many of the junior boats were double-handed, which means that more kids than adults sailed in the races.

The goal of the philanthropist was restoration of the Duckboat fleet, but the rules he imposed required the participation of children, according to Switlik, whose husband, Stanley, is commodore at Mantoloking. “[He] was willing to underwrite the regatta, saying for every boat that shows up, I will donate money to your favorite charity. A boat in Bristol condition would get more money than if it just came.” The boats had to be restored by kids, with help from the clubs. And the rules require that they be sailed every year.

Pam Switlik says that each boat is eligible for a one-time $5,000 donation if the first time it shows up it is in top shape. After that, each boat that shows up gets a $1,000 donation. Some of the money goes to aid sailing programs at the local clubs. There also have been contributions to charities such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, churches and college athletic teams, Switlik says.

The competition is not limited to yacht club members, she says. “A church found a boat and fixed it up for a $5,000 donation to the church. And the Point Pleasant Beach (N.J.) High School restored a boat to raise money for its surfing team.

The week before the Worlds, the Bay Head Yacht Club holds a tune-up race it calls the Internationals. The Worlds and the Internationals are each held on Fridays. There is a big party on the Thursday night before the Worlds, when boats are lined up on trailers for judging as to their condition. The races are held over a short, triangle course. “If it’s windy, there are a lot of drop-outs and sinkings,” Switlik says. “People don’t put the boat in the water to let it swell up.”

A moderate breeze helped the 2005 Duckboat Worlds to see most of the boats complete the races, she says. Indeed, 43 of the boats that started the first race finished the fifth, including Connie Pilling. At 76, she was the oldest competitor, and she finished a respectable 22nd with a top finish of seventh in the first race.