Sailing: Eckart pulls away to Sunfish victory

The World’s Longest Sunfish Race Around Shelter Island, NY is an unpredictable event in an unpredictable sport.

A case in point was the 48th edition hosted Saturday by the Southold Yacht Club. The nautical marathon, a 25-mile counterclockwise circumnavigation of Shelter Island, featured one twist and turn after another, a number of lead changes and an eye-opening ending. At one stage, with a lead pack of eight boats within 150 yards of each other, it appeared as if there would be a sprint to the finish, but John Eckart would have none of it.

It almost seemed as if Eckart had a motor on his boat as he found speed in Greenport Harbor to suddenly pull away from the pack and win the race for the fourth time. The 60-year-old man from Norton, Mass., finished in 4 hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds. He had previously won in 1982 (4:43), 1984 (5:41) and 1985 (4:44).

Where did Eckart find that speed?

“I have to admit, I got a little bit lucky because it sort of became a timing issue where puffs were coming in off the land and it was just a matter of how they hit you and when they hit you and how far you were able to go before it went away,” he said. “I caught some breeze and was able to get some separation.”

The strategic decision of whether to find wind power in deeper waters or stay closer to the shore was one every sailor had to make.

“I tried to do what made sense at the moment,” said Eckart, a member of the Massapoag Yacht Club.

This fourth victory for Eckart was hardly a breeze, though. Sailing close to shore brings perils. Eckart’s boat struck a rock, cleanly slicing off a piece off his center board like a knife through butter and knocking Eckart out of the boat. “I was able to hold onto the tiller and keep the boat from sailing away, so I kind of got back in real quickly,” he said.

Eckart went on to stretch his lead, winning handily. The second-place finisher was Jaime Torres, 55, of San Juan, Puerto Rico. Torres, sailing out of the Point of Woods Yacht Squadron in Fire Island, clocked in at 4:31:30, which was 21 seconds ahead of third-place Lee Montes of the Wet Pants Sailing Association. It was Torres’ first time sailing in these waters. He also wasn’t used to sailing in a race while power boats and ferries left big wakes.

“The power boats are scary,” Torres said. “I’m not used to having boats zip past me at 30 miles an hour, and a ferry almost ran me over. I mean, he came up from behind. I didn’t see it. They didn’t blow a horn or anything. Suddenly, there’s a ferry right there and I had to swerve and it was scary. But, all that being said, racing is fun. Sailing is the world’s best sport, so how could this not be great? It’s a beautiful location, a beautiful yacht club.”

Following Montes were Todd Klingler of the Sayville Yacht Club (4:33:51), Joel Furman of the Bellport and Sayville yacht clubs (4:34:27), Richard Skeen of the Oregon Sailing Club (4:34:37) and Tom Jacobs of the Point of Woods Yacht Squadron (4:36:37).

Five representatives of the host club — Jeff Anderson (eighth in 4:38:00), John Condon (ninth in 4:38:42), Bart Hale (11th in 4:39:19), Joe Sullivan (13th in 4:40:07) and Michael Preston (14th in 4:41:03) — were among the top 14 finishers in the 35-boat fleet.

Among other top local finishers were the Mattituck Yacht Club’s Mary Kalich (20th in 4:43:48) and the Old Cove Yacht Club pair of Robert and Rob Finora (24th in 4:52:38).

The race around Shelter Island is different. It has been called the “Woodstock” of sailing, attracting sailors from afar. Perhaps they are attracted to what the race committee chair, Beth Fleisher, described as a “quirky, unique race.” She said: “It really is like a sailing marathon. As much as you try to think your way through the race, trying to choose the right spot in the water, trying to anticipate where the wind will be — all of that is unpredictable. You can use your best judgment, and you can be wrong.”

Anything can happen.

One need only look back to last year’s race. Jim Koehler of the South Bay Water Sports Association was three minutes late for the start — and he won!

Torres said Montes had told him, “The first hour and a half doesn’t matter.” Torres said: “It’s so true. It doesn’t matter where you were. Basically, everybody caught up to everybody else … It’s like racing with stoplights.”

The weather conditions were good and there was enough wind to keep the boats moving.

“It was a beautiful day,” Fleisher said. “It was challenging. It was fun.”

And, at times, perplexing.

Catamaran, C420 winners. Greg Gove and Tony Nappa of the Southold Yacht Club were first in the Catamaran A Division. The first B Division team was Southold’s Brion Flick and Pat Preston.

The C420 was won by Southold’s Clay Hard and Grace Cleary in 5:08:43.

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Photo caption: John Eckart of Norton, Mass., approaching the finish to his fourth triumph in The World’s Longest Sunfish Race Around Shelter Island, NY. (Credit: Bob Liepa)