In a sailing class of their own

At the Yachting Capital of America, more than 200 skippers try to outwit the elements - and each other - in the 112th Marblehead Race Week.

It was mariners from Marblehead that ferried General Washington across the Delaware to victory in Trenton. It was teenage boys in Marblehead that founded the first junior yacht club in America in 1887. And 1889 saw the start of Marblehead Race Week, the premier sailboat racing event here in the Yachting Capital of America which occurs in the last week in July.

The town is steeped in nautical history. If you swing into the packed Driftwood restaurant for breakfast, where a harpoon hangs above the counter, you might find locals like Dexter Gillis and police Lt. Dave Millett, both born and bred here. Their families date back to revolutionary times.

"I go back to 17-something," says Mr. Gillis, referring to the length of time his family has been in Marblehead. His buddy, Lieutenant Millett, taking him literally and referring to Washington's famous crossing, quips, "You were the one saying, 'Sit down, George!' "

Across the harbor from The Driftwood, a spit of land juts out into the sea, making a protected U-shape for 1,400 boats moored in the harbor. Upon seeing this clogged channel, a first-time visitor to Marblehead exclaimed: "It looks like a parking lot!"

The Corinthian Yacht club, founded in 1885, perches on the edge of this Marblehead neck. There is a bustle of activity today - the first day of racing. Trailers disgorge boats from across the country and Canada. Sails are examined and readied. Sailors look out at the wind and rain, and wonder, "Will the show will go on?" They don foul weather gear.

One group of sailors wearing white shirts and ties stands out from the others sporting uniformly casual racing wear. These men all sail a class of boat called International One Designs (IODs), boats first built in the 1930s during a more formal era when yachtsmen wore ties and even jackets on the water.

The IODs are one of 14 classes which sailed in Marblehead last month. In 1998, NOOD (National Offshore One-Design ), an organizing outfit that manages nine regattas across the country, joined with Marblehead Race Week. NOOD brings to the venerable institution corporate sponsors and event-management expertise, with the goal of increasing participation.

"One-design" refers to sailboats that are designed for racing. Each class endeavors to maintain a uniformity in the construction of the boats and has standardized rigging and sails. The standardization puts a premium on the talents of the skippers.

It's quite a sight to be out on water where the racing takes place. With four different starting areas, many races occur simultaneously. Skippers tack their boats back and forth, trying to outmaneuver each other, contending with tides, currents, ocean swells, shifting winds, and their opponents' tactics. The colorful spinnakers of a fleet in the distance look like gum drops gliding across the water.

In the distance, the fleet of IODs glides by. With the exception of a few fiberglass-hulled boats - and aside from aluminum instead of wooden masts - they look just as they did when they were first raced off Marblehead in 1939.

Lew Livermore was the ringleader behind the first-day-of-race week tradition of wearing white shirts and ties.

The boat that Livermore races, Pompano (built in 1938), and despite a series of owners, has not missed a single racing summer on waters off Marblehead. Mr. Livermore, like many IOD owners, is rhapsodic about the boats, which look like "a long graceful sloop with beautiful contour lines. A lot of the other boats look like Clorox bottles."

Not only are the boats beautiful, but they are a joy to sail. According to Ken Drewry, who has been racing sailboats for 65 years and IOD's for 31 years, "When you get these boats balanced just right, when you get the sails set just right, they get into a groove and they sail themselves. You can just let the tiller go for minutes ... you don't do that in a race, of course."

One IOD sunk in Long Island Sound (off new York) in the great No-Name storm of 1991. After spending three months under water, it was salvaged. Bruce Dyson, sailor and woodworker, brought the wreck up to Marblehead. Nearly 50 percent of the boat was gone. He restored the boat and has sailed three straight IOD Race Week victories with it. "Everybody was laughing. They said, 'it'll never float again.' "

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