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Going With the Wind

Going with the Wind
A Landlubber's look at the great sport of sailing

A popular activity that comes with warmer summer months is participating in an adult sports league. Around Buffalo you can play golf leagues, volleyball, ultimate Frisbee, beer league softball, even kickball. However, one sport that most forget to mention when talking about summer leagues is sailing. Operated by the Buffalo Yacht Club and Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club, sailboats race across the Buffalo harbor several nights a week throughout the spring and summer.

Sailboat racing is often regarded as a hobby only available to those who can afford the large price tag of owning a ship. While that might be true for ownership, those on board for Buffalo’s sailing leagues come from all walks of life. “Generally speaking, you’ve got the owners that own the boats and all these blue collar people sailing with them. I’ve got a wide range of people from managers to iron-workers sailing on my boat,” said boat-owner Ted Johnson, whose day job is President of Hadley Exhibits Inc. “On ladies night I have someone who runs the hula-hoop store on Elmwood [Avenue] and I have a woman who was one of the Female Executives of the Year...You can go from one extreme to another.”

Johnson estimates roughly 100 boats actively race in the Buffalo harbor on a Wednesday night with many other boats racing on Tuesday as well.

“I’d say there are roughly a thousand people racing in the Buffalo harbor per week,” said Johnson. “To get involved people either go on the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club’s website and get on crew list or you find someone who sails. I’ve got a list of people wanting to get on a race crew.” There is no cost to join a sailing crew. “The boat owner pays for everything. All the crew has to bring is the rum and the beer,” joked Johnson, who has been sailing since the 1960s when his father bought their family’s first sailboat.

“It’s nice to be powered by wind. The feeling of the boat going through water propelled by wind and the sound is pretty great,” said Johnson.

He shares his passion for the water with his wife Terry, and daughters Kelly and Mary Bridget. The lady Johnson’s make up some of the crew for Tuesday’s “China Light” program, a league consisting of all women crews. “There are typically eight or nine boats that race, with a crew made of women, and in our case my daughter driving the boat,” said Johnson, who accompanies the ship, helping coach the girls along the way.

On the boat for tonight’s race is a crew made up of Johnson’s wife, daughters, and seven other women, Johnson coaching the back of the ship, a friend coaching in the front, along with three passengers all aboard the boat named Damn Yankee. In the ship’s past life it was titled Blue Yankee, competing for the United States twice in the Admiral’s Cup (regarded as the sailing world championships,) and winning four North Atlantic Ocean Trophies, which according to Johnson is the equivalent of the Northeast’s boat of the year.

It is common practice for owners of professional racing boats to donate boats to a university after a few years of ownership. This allows the owners to claim the donations as a tax write-off and the schools to sell the boats for profit.

Years after the boat’s donation, Johnson found Blue Yankee sitting in the yard of a vacant house. Wanting to purchase the ship Johnson had to hire a private investigator to find the owner. “I had a friend at work tell me: ‘You’re having so much trouble trying to buy that damn boat you should you should change the name from Blue Yankee to Damn Yankee,’” said Johnson.

According the Johnson, Damn Yankee is the biggest boat that races in Buffalo, and you can truly feel the ship’s size as it smoothly cuts across the Lake Erie water. What starts as a calm ride out of port quickly turns to controlled chaos as the crew gets ready for the start of race. As a passenger you sit on the edge of the boat, with your legs hanging out above the water. Behind you the crew communicates in terminology that might as well be a foreign language to inexperienced sailors. The one thing passengers are told to understand however is the term: “ready to tack.” “Tacking” is the process of turning the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side. Passenger scamper from one side of the boat to the other as fast as they can, while dodging and ducking around crew as they crank, pull, and steer the sails and bow to catch the wind.

Racing on a pre-determined course around four buoys throughout the harbor, the crew has Damn Yankee, well ahead of the rest of their class. “Unless something catastrophic happens we’re typically the first to finish,” said Terry Johnson. However, being first to finish doesn’t automatically mean a win, as boats are handicapped based on their hull and sail size. Tonight though, Damn Yankee finished well enough ahead to clinch the first victory of the season. The night ends like a lot of other summer sports leagues around Buffalo, over drink and wings. The crew goes around the boat sharing what they enjoyed and what they feel could have been better from the night’s race. While Johnson and the crew are competitive, for the Johnson family sailing is really all about the experience of being on the water. “I have a lot of fun doing this,” said Johnson. “It’s great to share the experience of sailing with other people.”

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