Good Life

At water's edge, small scale, big stakes

The countdown begins. The skippers have two minutes to get their boats to the starting line before the race begins. Everyone is quiet, focused on the task at hand.

Rick West, a retired airplane pilot from Pacifica, Calif., has the look of a surgeon preparing to operate. He charts a course that will sail his yacht to the starting line on Whipple Lake as quickly as possible. He needs a good position at the starting line to win. And he’s here to win.

The yachts he and the other competitors are racing might be small-scale versions of the real thing, but sailing them is a serious business.

Last weekend, the 11 competitors who came from across the country to compete in a regatta at Whipple Dam State Park faced the same challenge: no wind.

West, a world champion model yacht racer, worked his strategy out in his head.

“Sailing is like a chess game on water,” he said. “There is strategizing and maneuvering.”

He finished second in the heat, the first of nine that day. When the regatta was over, he was in second place and Dave Brawner, of Mount Laurel, N.J., claimed the championship.

The championship, hosted by the State College Model Yacht Club and the White Rose Model Yacht Club provides bragging rights. But it’s not a requirement for advancing to the nationals in Detroit next month, said Fred Maurer, who is commodore of the State College club and who organized the regatta.

The boats were East Coast Twelves, designed like those that sailed in the America’s Cup races during the mid- to late 1960s, said Joe Phillips, of Annapolis, Md., who has been sailing model yachts for two years.

“They’re not toys,” Maurer said. “They’re real boats … they’re just smaller.”

They don’t come cheap. Made primarily of fiberglass, they sell for prices ranging from about $800 to $2,800.

Just like a regular yacht, model yachts need wind to control the sail. Unlike a regular yacht, a remote control operates the rudder. When the wind is gusty, model yachts can go as fast as a brisk walk, Phillips said.

Brawner, the champion of last weekend’s regatta, is also the 2007-08 American Model Yacht Association national champion.

He’ll be traveling to the nationals, where he’ll see many of his friends and champions from across the nation.

“Our goal is the more the merrier,” he said.

West will compete at the nationals, too.

He won the world championship in 2006. That competition takes place every three years, and was last held in New Zealand. Charleston, S.C., will host the next one in 2009.

Model yacht racing is a workout of the mind, West said.

“Twenty percent of winning the race is the boat and the equipment,” he said. “Eighty percent of winning the race is the person.”James Earl, of Wayne, near Philadelphia, put his boat, The Blue Bullet, in the water. Then, he walked along the bank with his remote control, planning his strategy. It was the third race of the day and he placed fourth. It wasn’t what he had hoped for, but he was content with just sailing.

His East Coast 12-meter yacht once belonged to his 88-year-old father, and Earl now travels from state to state, continuing the family’s sailing tradition.

“It’s a great sport,” he said. “I really wish that more people would take an interest in it.”