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Wednesday night racing — under sail and among friends

VIDEO: Windseekers find thrills, beauty on Tacoma's Commencement Bay

The premier sailboat racing series in the South Sound gives skippers a chance to test their skills every Wednesday evening.
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The premier sailboat racing series in the South Sound gives skippers a chance to test their skills every Wednesday evening.

From a landlubber’s perspective, it was a beautiful Northwest summer evening on Tacoma’s Commencement Bay.

Hazy skies, still water, a dipping sun producing a soft caress of heat.

From the sailors’ perspective, there was one problem.

No wind.

Skipper Brian White of Puyallup pursed his lips and craned his neck to check a gauge atop the mast of the racer/cruiser sailboat he owns with wife, Cheryl.

The needle was barely moving. Not a promising sign.

Soon after, Brian White and 30-plus other skippers jockeying for starting position got the news they didn’t want to hear: The third race of the Windseekers Late Summer Series had been canceled because of a lack of wind.

“Bummer” was the collective opinion of White’s crew. Then they turned it into a moment singer Jimmy Buffett would appreciate.

Changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes. Cans of cheap beer were passed all around.

“It would be nice to have little more breeze, but it doesn’t matter,” said White, a 49-year-old mechanical designer with an engineering firm. “We’re out here to have a good time.”

Variable conditions on Commencement Bay aren’t unusual for Windseekers racing. They sharpen the skills of the sailors who compete every Wednesday night.

Spring weather in April can be turbulent, August balmy. Learning how to deal with it is the key.

“Wind is a constant factor in this area,” said commodore Paul Case, 56, of the Corinthian Yacht Club of Tacoma, which oversees the racing.

“People who race here face every kind of condition, from really, really high winds to nothing.

“It’s very difficult to sail in light air, but sailors who get good at it do well around the world.”

Four local guys started Windseekers very informally in the 1960s, said Case, a retired stockbroker from Auburn. Its roots are in what’s known as beer-can racing in yachting circles.

Legend has it that most of the participants in these casual, weekday events didn’t know how to read the race rules and couldn’t tell a windward mark from the starting line.

So they simply followed the empty beer cans tossed overboard by the leading boats.

That won’t do for Windseekers racers. No one wants their expensive sailboats rammed or the environment polluted.

And after members of the Corinthian Yacht Club took over management of the races in 2005, things got really organized.

They taught proper race rules, including navigating among the giant cargo ships that regularly inhabit Commencement Bay.

Windseekers offers a way for beginners to dip a boat shoe into competitive racing, Case said. Anyone with a sailboat and $5 can participate.

Only about half of the Wednesday night skippers are members of the yacht club, which is a pretty low-key organization in its own right.

“We’re 100 percent sailboats,” Case said. “As long as you have a boat, pay your dues and are a decent human being, you can join Corinthian Yacht Club.”

The crew of the Whites’ boat — the GraceE, named after the prior owner’s grandmother — would toss a wealthy elitist like Thurston Howell III of TV’s “Gilligan’s Island” overboard — along with his yachting hat.

“The spirit of our club is not to be the biggest, baddest dude with the most money to spend and to be first across the line every time,” said crew member Rick Donohue. “It’s about camaraderie. It’s an inclusive thing.”

Donohue hooked up with the Whites about seven years ago and said the experience changed his life. He developed a love of sailing and found new friends.

Cheryl White, 47, even became an ordained minister to officiate at Donohue and his wife’s wedding, and many of the crew had a role in the ceremony.

Donohue doesn’t own a big sailboat — yet — but he rarely misses a Wednesday night race.

Windseekers’ skippers are always on the lookout for new crew members. Experience is appreciated, but most boat owners are willing to train newbies.

“I knew nothing when I started,” Donohue said. “Absolutely nothing.”

The language of sailing was the most intimidating, he said. What looked like a pile of ropes turned out to be sheets, lines and halyards.

Knowing which to grab under fire took practice and familiarity.

“A piece of rope that is used to tune the shape of a sail is called a sheet,” crew member Chuck Welter said. “A piece of rope that is used to hoist a sail is called a halyard.”

Though there’s a common nomenclature among sailors, Donohue said, “you can spend a bunch of time learning that boat’s vocabulary then hop another boat …

“And feel like a complete idiot,” interjected John Coyne, a fellow crew member.

Most of the GraceE’s crew are well past the learning stage and have jelled as a team.

The boat is in first place in the current four-race summer series and has done well competing in more serious competitions against crews from Seattle in $250,000 boats.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a boat go fast,” Brian White said.

Little things are more important to the GraceE.

Such as where to find the best tater tots after a race. Beer can never be served in brown bottles. And crew members can’t be jettisoned when there’s no wind.

“The first rule of sailing,” Welter said, “is you must return to the dock with as many crew as you left with.”

More on Windseekers racing

What: Windseekers Racing is a series of Wednesday evening sailboat races that runs from April to the end of August. This year’s season will end Wednesday with the last of a four-race Late Summer Series.

Who can compete: Anyone with a sailboat can enter. Boats are divided into classifications based on size and a skipper’s experience. Most of vessels sail the same course. Between 30 and 50 boats take part.

Where are the races: Races are held in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay with the start/finish line near Tyee Marina. Courses depend on wind conditions, are marked by buoys and typically are two to six miles long.

Prizes: The Corinthian Yacht Club of Tacoma, which governs the racing, offers engraved plaques at the end of each series based on accumulated points. More than half of the skippers are yacht club members, but you do not have to be a member to participate.

For more information: Online at cyct.com.

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