Sailboat racers ready to rock in Oak Harbor

The myriad of sailboats competing in Race Week will be visible all week in Penn Cove. Popular viewpoints to watch the event include any high point in Oak Harbor as well as the Coupeville Wharf, which is visible in the background. - Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times
The myriad of sailboats competing in Race Week will be visible all week in Penn Cove. Popular viewpoints to watch the event include any high point in Oak Harbor as well as the Coupeville Wharf, which is visible in the background.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times

The excitement --- and some adrenaline-pumping music --- were blasting top-notch from the Oak Harbor marina Monday morning as sailors from around the world geared up for the first big contest of Race Week 2012.

Sailors swarmed over the dock and their boats, making last minute adjustments before heading into the harbor for the start line. “Shoot the Moon” is a Race Week regular, having competed for the past 19 years. The Peterson 40 sailboat is so well known that it was featured on this year’s Race Week poster.

Its Seattle crew has been competing in Race Week for 30 years. Owner Don Wills hoisted himself up the mast of the bright red boat to re-tape spreaders while the rest of the 10-person crew made preparations below.

Wills’ daughter, Lauren Wills, said she always looks forward to the racing.

“It’s just fun coming up here, it’s always been like a family vacation every year. It’s always fun to continue to see your friends you see every year,” Lauren Wills said. She has seen younger generations grow up each time she returns. “It makes it fun to come back every year.”

Teresa Wills, Lauren Wills’ step-mother, even asked Don Wills to marry her during Race Week. Since then, she’s seen two grandchildren grow up coming to Race Week.

Out on the water, it’s “really fun,” Lauren Wills said, smiling. “Sometimes there’s no wind and we just kinda hang out and get to rekindle our friendships and sometimes you get the big winds and you gotta work hard together and make the boat go,” she added, laughing.

“We try and stay pretty competitive but at the end of the day, if it didn’t work out for us, we just try to have a good time --- and have a week off work,” Lauren Wills said.

Lauren Wills and her father grew up around boats.

“My dad’s first boat was a dinghy my dad made a mast for and my grandma sewed some sails and he took it out to Green Lake and sunk it to the bottom of the lake,” Lauren Wills laughed.

Don Wills is well known in the boating community for owning the “Grayling,” a one-of-a-kind Q Class boat built in 1923 by Nathanael Herreshoff. The boat was commissioned by finance titan J.P. Morgan because he wanted to start a class that would replace the old New York 30 class, said the “Grayling” current owner, Duke Phan.

The boat came to the Pacific Northwest in 1945 and stayed, Phan said. He bought the boat from Don Wills and this is his and his crew’s first time racing together in Race Week.

“And everybody recognized the boat,” Phan said, adding that it receives countless compliments and prompts stories from people whose parents have raced against it. “It’s an honor for me to be the caretaker of the boat,” Phan said.

“We took the boat out here to show him (Wills) some support and have some fun,” Phan said, adding that the 30th anniversary of the race seemed like the perfect time to do so. The “Grayling” is also featured on the Race Week poster behind “Shoot the Moon.”

Also crewing the “Grayling” are Hilary Specht, Ryan Thurstan, Brittany Affholter, David Holmes and Eric and Angie Bultmeier. Monday of Race Week was especially notable for Specht because at eight and one-half months pregnant, it’ll be her only day racing. The joke around camp is that since Holmes is a nurse, if Specht went into labor while sailing, they wouldn’t even have to dock.

“So we’re all set,” Specht laughed.

As a costumer, Specht designed the crew’s garb, classic yachtsman style from 1923: all white with red kerchiefs. During Race Week, she said she’s looking forward to honing her skills on the boat.

Thurstan added that racing is his focus.

“Just five days of racing. Sailing everyday. None of this taking weeks off, just boom, boom,” Thurstan said.

Also on the edge of his seat for the race to start was Ken Tuomi, crewing “Tantivy,” one of four J-109 sailboats at Race Week.

“It’s pretty good to get four of us together,” Tuomi said, adding that he’s mainly looking forward to racing against them. They’ve competed against each other in recent races, too.

“They’re really good competition,” Tuomi said.

Tuomi, of Seattle, has been racing in Race Week since 2000. A couple of years ago, he won by one point against the sailboat “Absolutely.”

“That was pretty exciting. There’s a pretty good rivalry between us and ‘Absolutely.’ I just love the competition. People just never give up,” Tuomi said.

The tough --- or thrilling --- aspect of racing in Penn Cove is that once a sailor thinks he or she knows the currents, something changes and “you gotta think your way outta here,” Tuomi said.

Tuomi said he’s also eager for the moment a bunch of boats converge on the mark, as all the boats are moving at different speeds and waiting until the last second to take off the spinnaker and round the mark.

“You get some real chaos,” Tuomi said. “Sometimes, you get some contact.”

As sailboats pulled away from the marina one by one to sail toward the start line, the sun was warm, the tunes were blaring and the sailors were smiling.

“I’m mainly here for the racing,” Tuomi said as he finished preparations on “Tantivy.” “Any time you get a good westerly through Penn Cove, that’s exciting.”

Race Week continues through Friday, July 20. Popular viewpoints to watch the event include any high point in Oak Harbor as well as the Coupeville Wharf.


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