Bragging rights on the bay

07/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Dozens of sailboats embark on an informal race around Robins Island in Peconic Bay every Wednesday evening between March and October. The race, which is not timed or scored, is a way for sailors to relax and have a little midweek fun.

Stagnant air brought the speed of the Artemis down to about .4 knots — not exactly the best conditions for a sailboat race.

Less than a half-mile from the finish line, Drew and Lois Shemella of Greenport and their crew briefly considered using the boat’s motor to pull into the dock, but they soldiered on, hoping for a better wind, lest they have to admit defeat.

That wind never came and it took the Artemis three hours to complete the circle around Robins Island that Wednesday afternoon, but the group still took pride in the fact that they didn’t cave in; they finished the race in earnest.

Plus, a slow finish is easier to swallow when the stakes are never that high to begin with.

Every Wednesday in Peconic Bay just off New Suffolk dozens of sailboats like the Artemis line up to take part in an informal, unscored competition. The sailboats gather before a buoy everyone refers to as Bob, named after the late Bob Fisher, who was a staple at the event for many years before his death. At the sound of the 6 p.m. Cutchogue Fire Department whistle, they’re off.

The event, commonly referred to as a beer-can race because many sailors are knocking back a few brews during the race, is an unofficial gathering held every Wednesday evening during daylight-saving time. No score is kept and no official organization oversees the race.

“The format we have is very simple,” said Willie Fisher, a New Suffolk sailor who is distantly related to Bob Fisher. “There are no dues, no memberships, no trophies.”

Hundreds of events like the one in Peconic Bay are held mid-week throughout the country.

“There is no better way to get through the midweek daze,” said Dave Comando, secretary of the Peconic Bay Sailing Association and a familiar face at Wednesday night races.

On odd-numbered calendar days, the race goes clockwise and on even days counter-clockwise. The faster boats generally travel on the outer edges of the circle, making their course somewhat longer. “The goal is to try and make the boats finish close to one another,” said Dr. Shemella, a Greenport dentist and former commodore of the sailing association.

Mr. Fisher said the tradition started in the SSRq70s, but since there are no records, the exact date is unknown. Sailors start showing up after daylight-saving time begins in spring. Attendance is somewhat sparse the first few months but explodes in midsummer, when as many as 50 boats can be seen sailing the Peconic Bay course. When the season heats up, even summer rains can’t stop sailors from hitting the water.

“It would take an active thunderstorm to force people to blow it off,” Mr. Fisher said.

The fastest sailboats, usually small catamarans, can make the lap in just over an hour. Most boats clock in at about an hour and half if there is a healthy wind.

Informal races have also fostered many friendships over the years. Mr. Comando and Dr. Shemella noted that they are friends with almost every other sailor at the Wednesday races.

The Shemellas waved to a few people on a passing sailboat before they realized they had never seen them before.

“We’ll know them before long,” said Ms. Shemella.

The event also has a few quirky tradition, such as immortalizing unlucky boaters who crash while navigating the bay.

“If you hit something, it gets named after you,” Ms. Shemella said, gesturing toward “Fred’s rock” and “Art’s rock.”

Following what might be described as one of the most important Wednesday customs, most sailors head over to Legends restaurant afterward for a post-race drink. Some get together and grill burgers on the dock.

Mr. Comando summed up the reason the winner will undoubtedly find himself a prominent bar stool at Legends after the race.

“It’s for bragging rights,” he said.

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