Boats and their crews prepare for a heat in last year’s Whidbey Island Race Week. Racing this summer begins at noon Thursday, July 19. (File photo)

Boats and their crews prepare for a heat in last year’s Whidbey Island Race Week. Racing this summer begins at noon Thursday, July 19. (File photo)

Race Week shifts schedule to accommodate sailors

The name may no longer quite fit, but the substance, pageantry and thrills of Whidbey Island Race Week remain the same.

The sailing event runs Thursday through Sunday, July 19-22, lopping a day from the former five-day, Monday through Friday schedule.

The change was made in an effort to attract more people to the event.

Running through the weekend enables skippers and crew members to take less time off work, according to Schelleen Rathkopf, owner and producer of the race

“Whidbey Island Race Week was the last true race week in the country to go with a shortened event,” she said. “Most have gone to three- and four-day events, and some of these are offering a race week only every other year.

“Producing a race week is also very expensive, and by shortening a day, there are costs saved as the footprint of the event is smaller.”

Rathkopf noted that sailboat racing is expensive and the sport took a big hit during the recession. It is slowly bouncing back.

As people return to the sport, she added, they want to increase their racing skills, and race week events help provide that opportunity.

Sixty-eight boats are registered for this year’s race, which is on par with the numbers from the past few years.

“Of that, 19 are brand new boats making their debut at race week due in a large part to the shift to a four-day, Thursday-Sunday format,” she said.

Rathkopf and company are trying different ideas each year to keep the interest and numbers up.

“We’ve added a fun, casual-cruising class to the event this year that we’re really excited about,” she said.

“There are a lot of people in the Pacific Northwest who own sailboats and enjoy getting out on the water. By adding this new distance race that is fun and more casual, we’re hoping more people want to come up and have fun at race week.”

Organizers are trying to make Whidbey Island Race Week a “destination regatta that offers more than the classic windward/leeward buoy racing,” she added.

Like successful destination weddings, WIRC wants to provide a great all-around experience by including activities a non-racing spouse or family member can enjoy, such as nightlife, gorgeous scenery and activities within walking distance.

“We have been working on the post-race experience for four years now, bringing in good bands, great food and an environment where the kids can also be included,” she said.

The inclusion of children is important to Rathkopf. The creation of a kids’ camp several years ago is one of the new programs she is “most proud of.”

“Parents come and race all day knowing their kids are having a blast with other kids on island outings and learning to sail the entry level Opti sailboat,” Rathkopf said. “The kids love the program. Parents love the program.”

Another positive creation of Rathkopf’s is an advisory board of regional sailors to shape the direction of Whidbey Island Race Week.

This group works together “to navigate the shifts taking place within the sailing communities in an effort to deliver an event that people will continue to work into their summertime traditions,” she said.

The experimentation of new programs is keeping the WIRW participation numbers steady as numbers decrease at other events across the country.

Organizers of Whidbey Island Race Week, however, face new obstacles each year.

The hoist at Oak Harbor Marina is broken, the channel to the marina hasn’t been dredged in years, elevated national security is making it more difficult to obtain areas on the nearby Navy base for racers to camp and the City of Oak Harbor has changed its special permit process.

“But the Oak Harbor Yacht Club and members provide a consistency that is unsurpassed and is very much appreciated,” Rathkopf said.

“Also, the Oak Harbor Marina and harbormaster have been amazingly supportive and flexible. Having this unwavering support from these entities have really helped to create a really special event for boaters in our region.”

Racing in Penn Cove or Saratoga Passage will last about five hours Thursday through Sunday. The races begin at noon Thursday and Saturday, 1 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Sunday.

Above and in the two photos below, boats and crews sail in last year’s event. (Photos by Jan Anderson)

Above and in the two photos below, boats and crews sail in last year’s event. (Photos by Jan Anderson)

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