Three boats were straining for a windward mark one recent Sunday morning in Vineyard Haven Harbor. The racing was close, and the vessels played every puff of air as they approached the buoy. Just as the lead boat began to tack around the buoy, a little boy, maybe five years old, waded out about ten feet from the beach, grabbed the stern of one of the competitors, and pulled it toward him for a closer look.
In model boat racing, all the same rules apply, all the same tactics are employed, and all the same forces of nature are at work as any other sailing competition, including the Holmes Hole Sailing Association races that were taking place in the outer harbor at about the same time on Sunday.
But there is no rule to govern what happens when a curious child grabs a boat and starts to lift it out of the water.
The members of the Martha’s Vineyard Model Yacht Club got a good chuckle out of the short disruption at the mark, then got back to the competition at hand, sailing their radio-controlled Soling One Meter boats around the beachfront course toward the finish line.
Every Sunday morning in the summer, the collegial group gathers for a couple of hours of informal but spirited racing.
Sailors control the boats by radio transmitter. One thumb rests on a small joystick that operates the tiller to steer, the other on a joystick that trims the sails to catch the wind.
“It’s a great hobby,” said Carroll Buress, who has built more than 30 Soling One Meters for himself and others in the basement of his Vineyard Haven home. “All the same rules apply. If you’ve got your finger control, you can make the boat do anything you want. You can sail the boats [in wind] up to 20 knots. You just flatten the sails out, same as you would on a big boat.”
One difference is quickly apparent, however. In a more conventional boat race, competitors are scattered around the course. In model boat racing, they are all gathered together on the beach. This leads to some serious trash talk.
“Follow Rock,” Bill Dennehy said, directing the competitors to follow Rock Mullins, as he was organizing the start of the last race of the day.
“We’ve been doing that all day,” said Peter Wells, who owns and operates the Chappy Ferry when he’s not racing model boats.
As the race got under way, Mr. Dennehy held the advantage.
“All right, Dennehy, we’re coming for you,” Mr. Wells said. “Don’t be nervous.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Buress’s boat, usually one of the most competitive, was lagging behind the pack. “We’ve definitely got weed on our keel,” he said. “The boat doesn’t want to turn.”
The club, like hundreds of others throughout the United States, is sanctioned by the American Model Yachting Association.
The rules ensure that boats are all the same. No one gets an equipment advantage. In one-design sailing, the most skilled sailor is supposed to win.
The Soling One Meter is a scale model of the 27-foot Olympic class boat popular among racing sailors here in Vineyard Haven and around the world.
A build-your-own kit costs $190. By the time you add necessary materials like six pounds of #9 buckshot and epoxy for ballast, it will cost about $400 and take some 40 hours to get on the water. Sometimes there are used boats for sale. A new, completely assembled vessel costs $700 to $900.
The Soling One Meter class is designed to be an affordable, easy-to-sail, yet competitive class for model boat sailors. But even the best can have an off days.
Walking off the beach at the end of a day of racing, a spectator in a beach chair asked Mr. Dennehy how he did.
“Aww,” he said. “Even my thumbs were all thumbs today.”