On Saturday, August 29, 2020, The Ram Island Yacht Club (RIYC) in Noank, CT looks forward to holding its 75th Invitational Regatta, a race around Fishers Island. The most challenging elements of sailing are at work in The Race and the Watch Hill reefs, where currents hit four knots and the race day winds can blow zero to thirty-plus.
With few interruptions, Ram Island Yacht Club has held this race since 1945. Though the name implies invitation only, RIYC welcomes all registered competitors; the Regatta has historically drawn as many as 140 boats. The following is a splash of the rich and exciting history of the Ram Island Yacht Club Invitational Regatta.
Ram Island Yacht Club was founded in in 1941, just before the United States entered World War II. During the war, most sailing competitions were put on hold, but when the clouds of war cleared, members were eager to resume racing schedules. According to Steve Lee’s history of the club, Jack Wheeler, Bill Dodge, Ernie Howell, Paul Amoroso, Ernest Post, Byron Hatfield and other club plank-holders informally organized the first race in late August 1945. To defray the expense of early races, Frank Leuthner and Duke Francis ran an outboard motorboat at the starting line to collect a few dollars from each participant.
In 1949, at the ripe old age of 11, Mark Turner, an RIYC member since 1964, recalls being invited by his father, Howard Turner, club Treasurer and race scorer aboard the committee boat. Mark remembers his dad jotting down information with a pad and pencil, and operating a mechanical adding machine as the committee announced the finishers. John Nicholas Brown won the race by a large margin on Bolero, his brand new 73-foot Stephens design. This was her first race, and she went on to win many more, including the Newport Bermuda Race in 1950, ’54 and ‘56 – setting a record that remained unbeaten until 1974. John Nicholas Brown was Assistant Secretary of the Navy and descendant of the founder of Brown University. After winning the 1949 race, he had enough time to go back to Fishers Island, dress for the award party, and return to Noank on his 45-foot “launch.” He invited the young Turner aboard for a tour. Brown’s kindness and the beauty of his boats sparked Mark’s love of sailing and all things nautical; he and his son Sandy are active members today.
By 1952, Mark was crewing for Lou Cross and Bill Dodge in a GLP A-class boat. Lagging the fleet, bailing, and bucking the tide to the Watch Hill buoy, local water sage, Bill (whose son is a member), advised that they duck inside the tidal lee of the Watch Hill reefs. They “made out like bandits,” rounding Watch Hill and sweeping to the finish in the money. Rule change the next year: Boats must stay seaward of the reef. In later years, Watch Hill was dropped as a mark of the course.
By 1955, the RIYC Regatta had become “…the largest privately-owned yacht club sailing race on the East Coast,” according to a New London Day article quoting Bill Ames, longtime race director and club officer. Boats from Delaware to Massachusetts came to Noank that year. A beautiful Herreshoff-designed Newport 29 took the Commodore’s Trophy. You may recognize her name, Dolphin, as she is still winning races today. A slightly older Mark Turner took Class C1 in Jaeger that year. In a demonstration of the sportsmanship embodied in the club, several competitors dropped out of the race to help two boats that were dismasted.
Ed Purcell, skipper of Just Friends, has sailed every race since 1960. Purcell recalls his first race, with Paul Wood on La Folie in 1960. There was no time limit that year and by 1900 hours there was just one boat left to beat. Both crews decided to quit and made it home just before dark, well after the party had reached its zenith. After that, races included time limits.
Purcell also recalls crewing for Charlie Sturgess aboard his Cal 40 Shadow in 1968. To settle a debate of skill versus equipment with Jut Wasley and Windquest (an equally new Cal 40 but with more frequently updated sails and electronics), the captains and crews agreed to swap boats for the race. The score was settled when Windquest, under its pro-tem skipper and crew, handily beat Shadow.
These waves of history exemplify the spirit of Ram Island Yacht Club, the race, and all of the participants: competitive, good sports, up for a challenge, and fun. It also shows how the race continues to evolve. This year, for the first time, RIYC is hoping to add multihull and advanced one-design classes. And also for the first time, the race plans to use “green” principles.
The race has included Olympians, Bermuda Race winners, and more. Legacies abound; participants are of all generations, and you never know the new friends you’ll make until you meet them there. For many, the race is a highlight of the summer, and the club rises to the occasion afloat and ashore. You don’t want to be late at the start or the finish, but you really need to be at the party on time to sample the famous Ram Island Regatta meatballs and deviled eggs!
Compiled from club history and member recollections by John K. Watson, Trustee, Ram Island Yacht Club, Noank, CT. Editorial assistance by Robin Leeds and April Hunt.