November 01st, 2023
The 2023 Wētā North American Championship, held in conjunction with the Columbia Sailing Club's Fall Invitational from October 19-22, took place on Lake Murray in South Carolina. This event drew sailors from various states, including California, New York, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. Lake Murray is a substantial body of water, covering 50,000 acres, with an extensive shoreline of over 650 miles. The combination of warm, freshwater conditions and the scenic beauty of the lake provided an excellent setting for this Championship.
Upon arrival, it was evident that Columbia Sailing Club boasts excellent facilities. The close proximity of the beach launch to the camping area and shower house was very convenient for the participants. The Clubhouse, with its fantastic waterfront views and a porch spanning its length, offered a picturesque setting for everyone. The indoor-outdoor fireplace was a nice touch, providing a cozy and warm space for sailors and spectators to gather and enjoy the beautiful lakeside scenery. Overall, the combination of convenient facilities and scenic surroundings made the Championship experience even more enjoyable for all involved.
Preparations were made to ensure a warm and welcoming atmosphere for out-of-state sailors. The arrival of two charter boats and their rigging demonstrated a commitment to accommodating participants who could not bring their own Wētā.
The welcome signs at the club entrance and the Wētā feather flags flying created a sense of excitement and hospitality for those arriving at the event. Such gestures contributed to the overall positive experience and sense of community that are an integral part of sailing competitions.
Thursday marked the arrival of the eager group of sailors, and the beach area buzzed with activity as they set up their rigs and campsites in preparation for racing. It was a clear sign that the excitement and anticipation for the event were running high. Jim Serpa from Fort Walton, FL, passing out his wife's famous pretzel sailing snacks added a personal touch to the occasion. Many of the sailors had a chance to enjoy these delicious treats that provided such much-needed energy in between races.
A 95% turnout of the twenty registered sailors for the race speaks to the enthusiasm and commitment of the sailing community. Chuck Carroll, the new Mid-Atlantic Fleet Leader, and Steve Cardoze were there to greet the arriving sailors, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for everyone.
The swag bags filled with a variety of donations, including Wētā fleeces, t-shirts, coffee mugs, sailing gear, and more, were a fantastic gesture. These items not only serve as mementos of the event but also add to the overall experience for the competitors, making it even more special and memorable.
The composition of the “rock star” Race Committee with a highly experienced and skilled team of four US Sailing Race Officers led by PRO Ryan Hamm from Charleston was a testament to the dedication to running a top-notch sailing event. In addition, the support of experienced local sailors on the water was invaluable. Their local knowledge and familiarity with the conditions added another layer of expertise, further enhancing the overall quality of the competition and ensuring that everything ran smoothly. Navigating a lake with such varying and challenging depths up to 200 feet added another very interesting dimension.
After the Competitor's Meeting, Friday races were postponed on shore for about an hour until a weather front moved through. Lake Murray had good breeze all day with wind in race three getting upwards of 16 to 18 knots with puffs in the mid 20's which made for some very wild rides. Prior to one of the starts, Bill Swanson was a spectacle to be seen as a puff hit him causing a near capsize.
At the end of four races on day one, only three points separated the top four sailors.The 2023 Wētā Championship was gearing up to be an extraordinary event, particularly due to the participation of four past North American Champions.
Later on Friday, the lasagna dinner with plenty of sides and dessert options proved to be very satisfying. Next up, a fantastic evening was planned at Billy Ray’s Barn, a real sailor’s paradise. The so called "Man Cave" with sailboat parts and a library ladder was a unique and intriguing feature. With live bands on tap for entertainment, starting with "Lighten Up Francis," it seemed like a lively party atmosphere was in store for everyone. And with Alan, the bartender, mixing up your favorite drinks, it was clear that all the elements were in place for a great night. On top of all that, being served a South Carolina specialty like "Chicken Bog" certainly added a local flavor to the evening.
Saturday brought nearly perfect conditions all day with wind from 10 to 16 knots with a slight right shift. After four more races, it was no surprise that the sailors would be looking for refreshments and sustenance. Snacks and the beer wagon were back in action, providing a much-needed opportunity for everyone to relax and refuel. The menu of pulled pork, fried chicken, and all the fixings was a satisfying feast, and it was no wonder that after a few beverages and full bellies, many of the sailors decided to call it a night and head to bed early.
Having double-digit winds for racing on Sunday, following two previous days of similarly favorable conditions, was a dream come true. Although, a 65-degree shift in wind direction between races one, two, and three provided a significant and challenging scenario for race committee. As the final races of the Championship approached, sailors got a lot more aggressive (feisty) at the start causing the only general recall of the regatta.
After 11 races across three consecutive days of fantastic double-digit winds, the 2023 Wētā North American Champions were crowned. Congratulations to Pete Merrifield in the Single-Handed Division and the dynamic duo of Phil Styne and Stephanie Taylor in the Double-Handed Division for their victories.
Recognizing and celebrating "spectacular showmanship" on the water is a great way to acknowledge the enthusiasm that sailors bring to the sport. Awards like this go beyond just podium finishes and highlight the overall love for sailing that participants exhibit during the competition. Congratulations to Wētā sailors Tim French and Pete Merrifield for receiving this special award in recognition of their outstanding showmanship on the water in 2023. If you happen to see them, checking out the stern of their Wētās might reveal some interesting details about this award!
The highlight of the regatta was the young talent and enthusiasm of Talia Falls, the 9-year-old competitor from California. Seeing her sail down the race course with her father and enjoying every moment was an inspiring sight. Youth participation in sailing is a great way to ensure the sport's future, and it's clear that Talia has a bright future in the world of sailing. Her determination and love for the sport are something to be celebrated, and it's exciting to know that she'll be returning for another North American Championship, continuing to hone her skills and passion for sailing.
Class President Bruce Koch summed it up perfectly! A great venue, welcoming hosts, fantastic weather, thrilling racing, delicious food, and wonderful people all come together to create an unforgettable weekend. This comprehensive combination of elements is what makes sailing events like the 2023 Wētā North American Championship truly exceptional. It's a testament to the efforts of everyone involved in organizing and participating in the event, and it reinforces the sense of community and enjoyment that is so integral to the sport of sailing.
By Stephanie Taylor
Photo credit Tony Feraci, Stephanie Taylor & Kelly Willette
1. Pete Merrifield - St. Petersburg FL
2. Bill Swanson - Daytona Beach Shores FL
3. Keith Rice - Ithaca NY
1. Phil Styne - Orlando FL & Stephanie Taylor - Greensboro NC