A Passion for Racing
Gold Cups Races and Sailing Regattas at the Lake George Club
The origin of The Lake George Club is intimately tied to boating and the need for waterfront to dock and race power boats. Its precursor, the Lake George Yacht Club, was organized in1887and opened with an elaborate clubhouse on Basin Bay in 1890. It burned in 1894. Three of the club’s founding directors—J. Boulton Simpson, LeGrand C. Cramer, and E. Burgess Warren—became key organizers and founding directors of the Lake George Club 15 years later.
When the Lake George Club was organized, boating needs were prominent in a statement of purposes read to a meeting of Lake George residents at the Sagamore Hotel on September 5, 1908: “To provide docks, boathouses, bathing facilities and all the usual and necessary accompaniments of a Yacht Club. To hold regattas, arrange for aquatic sports, etc. from time to time with suitable prizes.”
Gold Cup Racing
On opening day, August 14, 1909, a speedboat race started immediately after the raising of the inaugural flag. The Crow’s Nest just north of the main dock was designed for starting and finishing boat races, already well developed as a major Lake George sport with regattas and trophies. Just a year later, the Club became the venue for the season’s closing championship on Labor Day, 1910.
After winning the Gold Cup in 1913 on the St. Lawrence River, Count Mankowski brought the regatta to Bolton Bay in 1914. A Lake George Club syndicate built the speedboat Hawk Eye for that regatta, but neither it nor Mankowski’s Ankle Deep succeeded in retaining the cup.
Gold Cup competition returned to Lake George exactly 20 years later, after George Reis won the cup on the Detroit River in 1933. He had added steps to the bottom of a racing boat designed by John L. Hacker in 1922 to produce the breakthrough El Lagarto, nicknamed “the leaping lizard.” Reis repeated his performance twice more on Bolton Bay in 1934 and 1935 in an unprecedented string of three wins, but broke down within a mile of the finish line during his final Lake George Gold Cup race in 1936. Lake George Club officers both sponsored and managed these major powerboat regattas.
One Design Sailing
A seamless transition to sailboat racing also began in 1934, just as the second round of Gold Cup competition brought national attention to Lake George. A sailing committee comprised of William Bowdon, E. F.W. Alexanderson and John English invited the Rogers Rock Yacht Club in the northern basin to race in the southern basin for one August weekend. To raise interest, club members invited all the sailboats they could find moored around the southern basin to join in racing scored with a handicap system. That event led to more racing in 1935 and a regular racing schedule in 1936–for every Saturday except Gold Cup Saturday!
By that year the growing national interest in one-design racing and the participation of class boats led to separating them from the handicap fleet. There were enough boats in two different classes—the Lake George version of Cape Cod Knockabouts, with keels added by Hibby Hall, and the growing national Star class—to start one-design racing. Harold Pitcairn had bought two Cape Cods and two Stars for his large family to join boats already owned by E. F. W. Alexanderson. At the end of the 1937 season Pitcairn added two Long Island Sound Inter Clubs to help start a class of larger boats.
The Sound Inter Clubs, like the Stars, represented the primacy of the one-design principle that shifted the outcome of races from the ingenuity of the designer to the skill of the skipper and crew. Built at the same time in a Nevins yard at City Island, New York, 28 identical 29-foot Inter Clubs started racing in Western Long Island Sound in1926. Many of the premier skippers in that hotbed of competition were at the helm, some of whom later became involved in America’s Cup racing.
A decade later one of these prominent skippers, Cornelius Shields, introduced a newer boat designed for international competition, the International One-Design class, and that began a migration away from the Sound Inter Clubs. From 1937 to 1940, both before and after the massive 1939 hurricane had wreaked havoc to Long Island Sound sailing, nine of the original fleet had come to the Lake George Club.
Somewhat improbably, in the short span of years from the middle to the tail end of the Great Depression, sailboat racing had replaced powerboat racing as the prime waterfront activity of the club. The larger Sound Inter Clubs raced 20 years until 1958, the small Cape Cods 50 years until 1985, and the mid-size Stars even longer for 57 years until 1992. Two of the three one-design classes established during the depression years had unusual longevity, and the third was replaced by the 24-foot Rainbows in 1963 to fill the gap for a larger, spinnaker boat left by the Sound Inter Clubs five years before.
Merle and Liz Smith had scoured boatyards and boat shows for a new class that would be a comfortable day-sailor for half a dozen people, as well as a sensitive racing boat that helmsmen would enjoy. They settled on the Rainbow, an adaptation of the proven Naval Academy Knockabout used to teach plebes how to sail, with the addition of a small cuddy cabin that did not interfere with a large cockpit. Starting at the club with three boats in 1963, the fleet grew rapidly to 12 locally, with additional fleets established in Annapolis, Long Island Sound, Chicago and New Orleans. Rainbows raced actively for 30 years before the next phase of sailing began to replace them at the Lake George Club.
Throughout these years of growth in sailboat racing, fleets with a national presence sent many club sailors to regattas elsewhere and hosted regattas at the Club. The Stars sent boats to major regattas throughout the Northeast, had a home-and-home series with the Northern Lake George Club fleet every year, and brought the Star District Championship to the Club when Tom Linville won it the year before. The Rainbows sent boats to the National Championships every year and hosted that regatta frequently. The other two classes were isolated, the Sound Inter Clubs as the remnant of a larger Long Island Sound fleet, and the Cape Cods with keels as a modified class that could not compete equally with the centerboard fleets in southern Massachusetts.
During the 60s and 70s there was an active Turnabout fleet of dinghies for the club’s junior sailors. Many of today’s active sailors in senior fleets cut their teeth on the Turnabouts. With the transition away from Turnabouts to Optimists and larger Flying Juniors came several new regattas for the junior program. Most notably, the Cheeseburger Regatta, hosted alternately by the Lake George Club and the Northern Lake George Yacht Club, expanded to become a major regional regatta. Teams of juniors regularly travel to Optimist and FJ regattas elsewhere, both in the region and on the Atlantic coast.
The club hosted a district championship for Lasers when that fleet was active in the Club. Jack and Donna Haanen invented the post-season “Horatio Hornblower” regatta to reintroduce handicap racing under a more sophisticated PHRF handicapping system, and it became a fixture now known as the Alexanderson Regatta to honor a founder of sailboat racing at the Club. Throughout the next 80 years, the club has remained solidly in the regatta tradition, continuing the legacy of powerboat regattas from its earlier years.
J/22s and J/24s Introduced to Lake George
As the 1980s began it became clear that sailboat racing was entering a new phase with the Johnson brothers, who created lighter, livelier, keel one-design classes that could plane. One of their designs to gain popularity first in the United States and then worldwide was the J/24, a broad-beamed racing boat with a cabin that could be day-sailed or even cruised with family or friends. A J/24 fleet gathered under the auspices of the Corinthian Yacht Club on Lake George, at the time a very active club that sponsored handicap racing. It served the growing number of cruising sailboats on the lake, partially in response to the gas crisis of 1972 that sparked interest in sailing as an alternative to motor boating. While sailing under the auspices of the Corinthians, the J/24 fleet became a chartered fleet of the rapidly growing national J/24 class.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the club’s remaining Cape Cods, very old wooden boats that were difficult to maintain, gradually disappeared. The growth of the Rainbow fleet was stalled nationally because new boats were no longer being built. The Stars were still very active, but their skippers and crews were on the verge of aging out, and with new, more vigorous hiking techniques replacing draping one’s body over the side, this was becoming a more physically demanding boat to race effectively. As Commodore at the time, I concluded that we needed to get into the J world and invited sailors in the existing J/24 fleet to come to the club and form the nucleus of a fleet.
Over the next few years, many did, and in 1981 the first J/24 race drew 8 boats; a year later 10 boats began regular racing. There was, of course, some backlash in the existing fleets from sailors who sought new recruits for their classes, but as the J/24 fleet gradually increased in number, it became more of a welcome addition to racing than a spoiler of existing fleets. But by the end of the 1980s, it was clear that the inevitable transition from the older to the newer classes was underway.
That change was confirmed in 1992, when the infant J/22 class replaced the remnant of the once vibrant Star class and the fading Rainbows, drawing Sam Hoopes from the Stars and Dick Bartlett from the Rainbows. Unlike the J/24s, the livelier, smaller J/22s required only three crew members to hold them down in heavy winds, and the fleet expanded from three in 1992 to 22 in the next decade, with 14 appearing on the line this season. That kind of fluctuation is normal in sailboat racing, controlled by strong external factors like professional and family commitments of individual sailors and the inevitable aging out of participants. Waxing and waning fleet sizes, like the phases of the moon, is a common occurrence with one-design class sailboat racing.
The Tradition Continues
Each of the new J/24 and J/22 classes had soon created major regional regattas for the Northeastern states and Canada. The first was the Changing of the Colors regatta for J/24s, founded by Bob Brodie in 1978. He used his Yankee Yacht marina as a base that year, and added the Antlers restaurant in the next two years for eating and gatherings. In 1981 the growing regatta moved to the Lake George Club. It became the Great Lakes Championship in 1987 and gained national attention within the class.
Now with a history of 35 years, Changing of the Colors has grown to be the largest J/24 regatta held in the same place each year throughout the world. It has established the Lake George Club as a major sailing venue in the Northeast–from Toronto and Montreal to the yacht clubs lining Marblehead harbor, to Marion and Hyannis in southern Massachusetts and Newport in Rhode Island, to western Long Island Sound in New York and Connecticut, westward to Youngstown and Rochester and beyond all the way to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and south to Annapolis in Maryland. In short, it is respected in the major sailing centers throughout the East and has become a revered fixture of the class. In addition, the Changing of the Colors regatta has helped spawn the growth of the J/22 Open Regatta, a little sister initiated in 1993 just a year after the Lake George Club fleet was born. By 2008 this regatta had grown to become the Northeast Championship for the class.
The Lake George Club’s boat racing heritage continues into its second century, culminating in two major fall regattas each season. Last weekend a Youngstown skipper, Chris Doyle, led the fleet of 26 boats at the J/22 Open Regatta and won the trophy for the Northeast Championship. He was followed by R. J. Moon, a Lake George Club skipper now racing at Rochester, in second place and Stephen Jones from Canada in third.
Last weekend, J/24 sailors arrived for the Changing of the Colors Regatta, a number of them hauling their boats from Quebec, Ontario, and various parts of New England as well as western New York. According to Andrew Brodie, Regatta Chairman, “past champions include future America’s Cup and Volvo Ocean race skippers and sailors such as Terry Hutchinson and Ken and Brad Read.”
This article was completed with assistance from John Jacobs, Michael Slaughter and Susan Jacobs.