Michael Fortenbaugh, commodore of the Manhattan Yacht Club located in the Liberty Harbor Marina, is a fierce competitor. And for the first two days and through four individual races, he had to fight back for the lead.
The 11th International Yacht Club Challenge featured 13 teams from all over the world competing in six individual races over three days, and celebrated the club’s 30th anniversary.
This was no adversarial race, but one designed to promote goodwill though friendly competition, which took place near Ellis Island and within sight of the Statue of Liberty.
Observers of the race had seat on a floating platform called “the William Wall” – most often called the “Willy Wall” – from which staff signaled the start of the race via flags and marked the finish of each boat as it came across the finish line.
All competitors used J24 sail boats owned by the Manhattan Yacht Club, a standard racing model, with a crew of five.
Unlike a horse race where competitors had set positions, boats jockeyed for position along the starting line, each seeking to get the best position that would allow them a rapid start.
Large billowing sails opened in the first lap as the boats took advantage of the wind coming from the west.
In each race, boats sailed to a marker situated in the mid-Hudson River, went around it, and sailed back to a marker near the starting line to complete three circuits before finishing the race.
Since this part of New York Harbor is frequently traveled by other boats, part of the challenge included getting around or avoiding a host of unexpected obstacles such as ferry boats, cruise liners, tug boats and barges. Sometimes the larger boats made way for the sail boats, most of the time they did not.
Although some of the sailors on some of the boats had vast experience in international competitions, this was an amateur race, and those sailing competed for honor, bragging rights and a trophy.
Each boat had a team captain, who directed the operations of the boat, telling other crew members what to do.
On the first race, Fortenbaugh’s boat fell behind early, struggling to maintain third place against a determine crew from Spain, ultimately, coming in fourth behind Spain.
“Each captain develops his or her own strategy,” said Sarah Raymond, who was among the staff on the Willy, watching as the boats sailed off and returned. At one point, the current shifted and the whole fleet of boats came to a halt, some choosing to steer in towards the shore in order to pick up current there.
A brave Spanish crew decided to stay the course, and was able to gain on the American boat as a result.
Although New Zealand finished first and ultimately won the six race competition, the American crew regained its pride by finishing first in the final race.
While international races are special, the club holds races during the week. Club J/24 races are held on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from May through October, and expanded to Saturdays last year.
“The focus of our Club J/24 program is camaraderie ahead of competition,” said Fortenbaugh in his on line report. ”All of our races take place around the Honorable William Wall so that spectators can watch the action. After sailing, all the race teams gather back at the Jersey City clubhouse and the competition extends to the BBQ and which team can live the best.”
Members of the club used to primarily come from Jersey City, Raymond said. But since locating in Jersey City, the club has attracted a lot of local people interested in learning how to sail. She said some eventually get into the local competitions, and others simply enjoy the scenery as members get to use club boats.
“Each captain develops his or her own strategy.” – Sarah Raymond.
Although Manhattan Sailing Club started near the South Street Seaport in 1987, living up to its name, the club moved from the East River to the Hudson River at a marina near the foot of Battery Park City in 1994.
The club has had a rocky economic history that saw a large membership its first year only to suffer a decline with the national economic crash of 1987, rebounding in 1988, only to face a recession in the 1990.
It started its sailing school in 1993, which it still operates in Jersey City.
For various reasons, the club eventually moved to Jersey City, with the help of developer Peter Mocco.
“He provided us with this small plot of land for the club house,” Raymond said. This also included a number of berths for their sail boats as well as other berths for sailing school boats elsewhere in the marina.
The Willy Wall serves as more than just an observation deck for the races, but is the club’s floating clubhouse, open to the public and for private events – although limited in total occupancy to 149 people according to U.S. Coast Guard rules.
“This is one of the best kept secrets in Jersey City,” Raymond said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.