What started out over four decades ago as a way to drum up publicity for the Southold Yacht Club has become so much more. The World’s Longest Sunfish Race, Around Shelter Island, N.Y. is a test of sailing skills, not to mention endurance and patience.
All those qualities will be tapped into on Saturday when the club hosts the annual race for the 46th time. A nautical marathon that covers a distance of 25 miles, starting in Southold Bay and circumnavigating Shelter Island, the race can last anywhere from four to six hours. What the weather conditions will be like is anyone’s guess. That is why the decision as to whether the sail around Shelter Island will be clockwise or counterclockwise will not be made until race day.
The date for the race was selected months ago based on the tides. Sailors hope the currents will be going their way as much as possible.
Last year’s race saw a combination of virtually no wind and an incoming tide create what could be regarded as the most challenging conditions in the history of the event. The race was halted when the six-hour time limit was reached.
Nonetheless, it didn’t keep John Condon of the Mattituck Yacht Club from becoming the first sailor to win the race a fifth time. He was in Gardiner’s Bay, approaching the Sag Harbor Lighthouse with a one-mile lead, when the race was halted. Bernadette Levesque of the Massapoag Yacht Club (Massachusetts) was second. Nancy Haberland, a six-time winner of the Women’s Sunfish North American Championship from the United States Naval Academy Sailing Squadron, took third.
Condon will be back again, vying for a sixth title, but he will have some stiff competition. A pair of four-time champions, Bobby Boger, a former Southold Yacht Club sailor who is unaffiliated, and Dick Heinl of the Seawanhaka Place Yacht Squadron, will be in the fleet. Heinl will celebrate his 92nd birthday a couple of weeks after the race.
The race record of 3 hours 23 minutes was set in 1999 by Todd Klingler of the Narrasketuck Yacht Club.
“I think for most Sunfish sailors, it’s a feather in your cap that you can survive this marathon,” said Celeste Flick, the Southold Yacht Club treasurer who is a member of the race committee.
The event is a big one on the local sailing calendar.
“It’s unique,” Flick said. “It’s one of the highlights of our season. I think it’s on a lot of people’s bucket list.”
Anywhere from 25 to 30 Sunfish are expected to be in the race. A dozen Lasers and 15 to 20 Catamarans will race separately. Fifty to 70 sailors from about 10 yacht clubs and sailing associations, most based on eastern Long Island, are expected.
In addition, 12 to 20 safety boats will patrol the waters, with at least 40 volunteers involved in running the event, said Flick.
The Sunfish are scheduled to start at 11:30 a.m., with the Lasers heading off at noon and the Catamarans at 12:30 p.m.
Flick said the ideal weather for the races would be a partly sunny sky, with steady breezes throughout the day. She said, “That would be a perfect day.”