Gaff rig race featured breathless morning, late-day winds, skilled captains

From left, Brilliant, Corineus, Heart's Desire, Malabar, Isabella, and Wind Rose race toward the finish line. — Photo by Angela Park-Sayles

Updated 1:30 pm, Friday

In some ways the Pat West Gaff Rig & Schooner Race, held on Saturday, Sept. 19, evolved into two separate contests. The conditions, quite unusual for September, were very like those for the Moffett Race, held last week in challenging wind conditions much of the day.

It was a sparkling day, and after a bit of jostling, 20 boats started at 11 am with a serviceable southeast 7- to 10-mph breeze to the first mark east of Hedge Fence. Halfway back to the second mark, the wind died completely, and the slower boats caught up with the leaders.

Sailors waited for two hours or so out in the middle of Nantucket Sound for the wind to reappear. Four times a tantalizing lift began, moving everyone a couple of hundred yards, only to fade away. Carrying a growing load of frustration, a boat can become really small. The strong flooding tide pushed boats east, while the next mark was to the west.

Juno and Brilliant, the two largest schooners, anchored for over an hour once they started going backward. Finally, a fine southerly breeze filled in at exactly 3 pm. Whoops of joy were heard as the race was on again. The smaller, slower boats finished a course of 10.3 miles, the larger, speedier ones a 12.6-mile run. But most of the entries finished together, regardless of size. As Scott DiBiaso, principal race officer, put it, “It was almost like a second start” after the midcourse halt. When the wind came up, bringing everyone home from the same area, any previous advantage was lost. The results were remarkable: The top five finishers, all smaller boats, were within three minutes of one another on corrected time; the longer-course boats ditto. The larger boats are often more than an hour ahead of the smaller ones in this race. The group finish was testament to excellent handicapping, as well as fluky conditions.

The Pat West Race is a benefit event for Sail Martha’s Vineyard. Nineteen of the 20 boats were wooden. A large proportion of the fleet has traditionally been associated one way or another with Gannon & Benjamin, and most of the shipwrights from the yard were sailing, either as skippers or crew. Juno, built at G&B and skippered by Scott DiBiaso, was the largest vessel in the fleet at 65 feet. Matt Hobart’s Heart’s Desire, a 44-foot schooner that he restored here on the Island, completed a fine race sporting a topsail with a red heart on it. Wind Rose was sailed by Duncan MacFarlane, who makes the bright green 31-foot double-ender his home for most of the year. Lyle Zell, son of Ross Gannon, skippered Incandesa, a 41-foot schooner.

From off-Island and far away, Brilliant, an endowed Sparkman & Stephens 63-foot schooner built in 1932, made the trip from Mystic, where she is used for adult sailing programs and other educational purposes. Sailing side by side for the first time, Juno and Brilliant played out a rivalry born in series racing in Maine. Alas, Brilliant finished ahead of our Juno.

For the schooner class, Brilliant won the award for the best corrected time, with Heart’s Desire one minute behind. Juno was third, again just a minute later. And only one more minute after that was Malabar, in fourth. Amazingly, Cara Mia, a gaff rig New York 30 built in the early 1900s, and probably the oldest boat in the fleet, had the best corrected time for boats that sailed the longer course. No award for that, but certainly worth noting.

The award for the best corrected time for the gaff rig class was collected by Wilbur, a 24-foot sloop that skipper Billy Bennett built here on Martha’s Vineyard. In second place, by just one second, was a G&B 21-foot Bella, Isabella, sailed by John and Lisa Stout. Julia Lee, a catboat skippered by Woody Bowman, came in third less than a minute later, with Wind Rose close behind in fourth position. In fifth place, Corineus, a black 28-foot gaff cutter with Jeff Craig, a second race officer, at the helm, finished one minute later.

Saturday was the 27th annual Pat West Race, named in honor of Francis (Pat) West, an intrepid, talented, beloved Vineyard sailor and storyteller who loved gaff rig sailboats. An engineer and problem solver, he worked for the Sperry Gyroscope Co. for 30 years. He died at age 96 on the Fourth of July, 2002. His memory endures.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lyle Zell as Lyle Gannon and Duncan Macfarlane, as Duncan Macfarland, The photo of the boats shown racing away from the finish line misidentified the boats.