Regatta Series Brings Out the Best of Marblehead

The Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series rolls into the seaside town of Marblehead for another edition of this New England classic.

The Viper 640 class will sail its New England Championship at the 2023 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Marblehead.

Marblehead may be old, but in this hallowed New England sailing town, the big summertime regatta known as Race Week never gets old. It’s a regatta that started in 1889—the very same year Washington, Montana, and both Dakotas joined the statehood. Today, with three established yacht clubs working in lock step to support the local scene, sailing in Marblehead is thriving, as it should be, because there’s a new and young energy, a few of the old-timers say, and this coming next edition of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series at Marblehead Race Week will demonstrate that Marblehead racing is hot.

The regatta gets underway on Thursday, July 27, and carries through the weekend, with upwards of 140 sailing teams competing in dinghy and keelboat classes. Among the fleets are the Marblehead Race Week regulars: The International One-Designs, the Towns and the Rhodes 19s. Ten J/105 teams will be present, as will a growing Etchells fleet and nearly 20 J/70s. Among the J/70s are several pro teams training their way to their pending World Championship. Closer to shore, will be ILCA singlehanded dinghies for youth and adults—a recent addition to the regatta, but a welcome one for the area’s small-boat sailors—and there’s the long overdue return of Lightnings at Race Week. The Viper 640 class will enjoy its biggest-fleet bragging rights with 24 registered for the Viper 640 New England Championship.

The Town Class, the most popular local one-design fleet in Marblehead, will host its New England Championships at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series. Paul Todd/Outside Images

“This is a big turnout,” says local fleet skipper Fletcher Boland, who bears some responsibility for providing his classmates memorable regattas in the past and luring them to challenge for the New England Championship title. The class has a popular winter southern series that a core group travels to and many of these road warriors have been drawn to the quality of the racing and the good times to be expected when Viper sailors gather in Marblehead. “Maybe people heard about our party last year, which was certainly a good time,” Boland says. “We’re still figuring out how, or if, we can top that.”

Revel as they may after racing, on the water, it’s always good, fast and tactical racing with these little sportboats. Vipers demand full-effort hiking, knee pads and a preference for planning and that seems to be the attraction for twenty and thirty-something sailors. “There’s a wide mixture of skill and age across the US class,” Boland says, “but the composition locally is skewing to the younger side.”

Boland says this edition of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta fleet is an excellent mix of Viper teams, including four from the Canadian side of the border who come for open-ocean racing experience they can’t get back home, so he expects a challenging series on what can often be a challenging racecourse.

It’s the same big-sea experience that appeals to Lightning sailor, Bob Shapiro, as well. Shapiro splits his time between Marblehead and New Hampshire’s Bow Lake (Strafford, New Hampshire) and is thrilled for the return of Lightnings to Marblehead Race Week. He figures it has been at least 40 years since these cult classics of one-design sailing played ball at Race Week. Shapiro and others have been leading a concerted new effort to host more open-water regattas in New England.

“Most of our Lighting regattas are on small lakes,” Shapiro says, “and when we go to the big championship regattas, they’re often done on open water.” 

A recent Lightning regatta out of nearby Duxbury, and this return to the waters off Marblehead Neck are significant growth milestones for the regional Lightning fleet, and especially for Shapiro and fellow skipper Charles Ritt. “We are the only two people [in the fleet] that used to sail in Marblehead back when there was a fleet, so it’s sort of a coming home for us.”

An International One-Design foredeck crew preps for a hoist at the 2022 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Marblehead. Paul Todd/Outside Images

Among the skippers of this small-boat local revival will be Nathan Cunningham, son of a great sailor and another New Hampshire traveler, alongside Greg McGinnis of Squam Lake, up Lake Winnipesaukee way. There’s young Owen Moore and his teammates, enjoying life as beneficiaries of the International Lightning Class’s boat-grant loaner. They’ve been racing the boat all summer, Shapiro says, and they’ll come to Marblehead as an easy favorite. Laura Goldberg is coming from afar—Cleveland, Ohio—to race and reunite with college sailing friends. Bow Lake regular Rob Donie is another youngster, as is William Hall, son of a Lightning world champion from long ago.

“As you can see, it’s a pretty young crowd,” Shapiro says, “We’re working really hard to get younger people in this district and doing what we can to help areas of the sport that need a boost.”

Dave Curtis, the great, is plenty known around town. He’s a National Sailing Hall of Famer and Olympian and his name adorns the trophy for which the regatta’s Etchells sailors will vie. Curtis, 77, is still around the waterfront but not so much on the boats that earned him seven Etchells World titles. There’s something about Marblehead that has historically fed Local Fleet 4 sailors the upper echelons of the class; the likes of other greats and inductees, Robbie Doyle and Jud Smith.

The Etchells fleet is making a rebound in the Boston region and will feature several new teams at the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Marblehead in July. Paul Todd/Outside Images

For whatever reason—how the elegant hull presents itself to the local waters, or how knowledge is passed among newcomers and old-timers alike—the Etchells is right at home in Marblehead, says fleet captain Paul McLaughlin, “There’s a lot of old pride in the sailors that have come through the fleet, which has been around since 1971.”

If only space and moorings were easier to come by, McLaughlin says, Fleet 4 would be twice its size or better, but with the space limitations as they are, the fleet has been extending its event calendar ever deeper into the fall. In October, they’ve got their New England Championship, and they’re working toward hosting a North American and world championship soon.

But until then, this week’s assembly of 17 teams in Marblehead features local hotshot pro, Thomas Hornos, the perennial winner of late and the guy to chase around the course. Up from the Florida’s Etchells hot-bed is skipper Chris Lanza, assured to have a top crew. There’s Donald Brush, one of Vermont’s finest, Don Dowd from Connecticut, and Robert Hitchcock from the South Coast’s Buzzards Bay. And that’s to name just a few outsiders, joining several new local teams that have been progressing up the fleet thanks to clinics run by Hornos and others.

“My goal was to get 15 to 20 regularly sailing in Marblehead,” McLaughlin says. “We’re up to 12 and we’re all getting better. We’re building it and the improvements are evident.”

Where other clubs may look for flashy new designs to embrace over time, there’s no denying Marblehead favors its one-design history, and the renewed interest in the class of late, McLaughlin says, has been bolstered by Corinthian YC’s Sailing Committee.

The Rhodes 19 class remains one of the local favorites and guarantees close racing in Marblehead Paul Todd/Outside Images

“We’ve gotten a lot of support from them,” he says, “they love the idea of the Etchells and there’s an enthusiasm. It’s just one of those classes that, as a fleet, gets the attention because it’s still prestigious to host an Etchells event.”

And speaking of hosts, it is Corinthian YC’s turn to open its doors to the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series’ competitors, and they do so on Thursday with IODs and Rhodes 19 racing. The remaining fleets join Friday, with ILCAs racing Saturday and Sunday only.

Thursday evening at Corinthian is the enlightening Sailing World’s Speaker Series, an intimate and in-depth conversation with world-class yacht designer Britton Ward, who will share his experience leading the hull design team of the New York YC’s 37th America’s Cup Challenge with American Magic.

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