Sailing: One doesn’t cut corners in the Whitebread

TIM WACKER PHOTO | Wind filled sails during the 18th annual Whitebread sailboat race on Saturday.

My brother Tom flat out refused when I suggested we use the motor to help us cross the finish line of the 18th annual Whitebread sailboat race before the event was officially scheduled to end. My reasoning was: The committee boat deserved a dirty little trick for refusing to allow extra time for boats struggling through end-of-day doldrums after racing their hearts out for eight straight hours. My brother’s reasoning?

“This is the Whitebread,” he said “There’s no way I’m cheating.”

Cheating seemed a harsh way to put it at the time, but in hindsight, he’s right. The sailboat race that started out 18 years ago as an end-of season excuse to take one last spin around Shelter Island has become something too big to offer any less than a very best effort. Even as it seemed like we were being cheated as we sat becalmed off the end of Nassau Point following what had been, up to about 3 p.m., another stellar early fall day of racing through the Peconics thanks to, among many others, the folks on that committee boat.

It was a quiet, but not quite a calm start that greeted 118 boats in 13 classes Saturday morning, a race day whose selection proved problematic on other fronts. The fickle seven-knot winds became fluky as the boats crowding the start of each class struggled to fill their sails. More than a few, our boat included, suffered for bad timing and the start was not the near-amusement park ride of Whitebreads past.

But the winds were there and the race was on as 20-to 40-foot boats under full sail cruised within inches of each other rounding the first course marker, the Nassau Point buoy. The northwest wind kept spinnakers up through the first three hours of the race. For the cruising canvas classes like ours it was broad reaches and wing-on-wing until the Gardeners Bay buoy, the unofficial halfway mark.

The winds inched higher as the day wore on and proved strong enough to point most of the fleet right back into that stiffening west breeze, sufficiently so to allow a fairly quick return to the challenging ribbon of race course stretching between Shelter Island and Sag Harbor. It was there that the race date again played a role in determining the outcome, dramatically slowing down the fleet as the tides were still heading out as the fleet was heading in.

“We are usually able to pick a race date when the tides are more favorable, but this year there wasn’t a weekend that worked perfectly for us,” the Whitebread’s perennial organizing committee chairman, Mike Drobet, said. “So this year we were in the thick of the tide. It was like heading up a river when we got to the south side of Shelter Island. It was flushing hard.”

The race date also coincided with Yom Kippur, an unfortunate coincidence that Drobet believes cost the event a number of potential entrants observing the Jewish holiday.

The 2010 race saw a record fleet and 2012 might well again as the Whitebread has become much more than a race. Organizing committee emails started flowing back and forth in January. Monthly meetings starting shortly thereafter locked down security, supplies, sponsors, logistics, and music for an after-race party that is as anticipated as the race itself.

That is the primary reason the race could not be extended, Drobet said. Not only are there rather strict rules about after-the-fact alterations of such key racecourse components like the finish line, but as our boat languished in the glass calm of Little Peconic Bay, dozens of people back on land were gearing up to feed and entertain hundreds of people. The annual event budget is fast approaching five figures, and that’s with the efforts of an army of volunteers.

That makes the finish line that 57 boats like ours couldn’t cross this year just one more element of a weekend event that race organizers were looking to improve upon in emails that started circulating Sunday morning. Perhaps more remarkable than the event itself is the enthusiasm of the organizers behind it, which no doubt means there will certainly be a Whitebread 19.

In light of that effort, my brother’s adamancy about honoring the integrity of the race makes me feel a little sheepish. But I was not alone, Drobet said, and one key consideration for the event organizing committee next year will be finding ways to shorten the race, if necessary. It seldom is. Whitebreads are better known for pounding southeast breezes that have snapped masts and hurled boats across the finish line in half the time required this year. Outside of the late-day doldrums, the weather Saturday was stellar and as “Collateral Damage,” a five-piece rock band brought in from Manhattan, packed the cavernous dance floor at the Cutchogue Harbor Marina after the race, the finish line seemed far from anyone’s thoughts, including Drobet’s.

“To me, the best part of that whole race is seeing 110 boats, half of them with their spinnakers up, all racing against each other through the channels,” he said. “That’s a beautiful sight. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

Tim Wacker is a former news reporter for The Suffolk Times and currently publisher of the web site News by Nature (