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Evolution of the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge

by Brian Townsend on 8 Jul 2011
Lake Ontario 300 competitors in 2010 Jeff Chalmers
Twenty-one years ago the Lake Ontario Single Handed Racing Society formed the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge as the ultimate long distance race for double handed sailors. Three Hundred Nautical Miles, non-stop from one end of Lake Ontario to the other and returning back to the start. The race was an inspiration after some of the LOSHRS members raced the Chicago-Mackinac race, which is probably why the distance was set as a length slightly longer than the Chicago race.

The LO300 Challenge was designed as more than just a distance challenge, it was about navigation, negotiating the shipping lanes, the varying winds experienced in different parts of the lake, multiple roundings and an out and back style of course. Perhaps, most importantly, it was about preparation and sailing skills.

Originally, this race was created for the fleet of dedicated single-handed sailors and the experienced sailors looking for a new challenge. A few of these original participants are still competing today, which is a testimony in itself to the attraction of this race. When the race was first announced in 1990 it appealed to a variety of participants from the serious racers to cruisers, husband and wife teams, father and son teams and of course the 'rock Stars' of the day. When all was said and done everyone experienced a totally new challenge.

Over the years the LO300 has evolved and now encompasses a wide range of yachts with a wide range of motivations to participate. Today's Lake Ontario 300 is a more exciting race at a variety of levels and divisions for various reasons.

In the first two years all participants competed with spinnakers. White Sail participants were introduced to the race in 1992 and out of a total of 81 participants, 11 competed in White Sail.

By 1997 the number of participants had started to decline and a fully-crewed division was added to allow more boats to compete in the challenge. Naturally some double-handed yachts converted to fully-crewed, but there were new yachts taking up the challenge. Unfortunately though, the race was not being marketed or promoted well and the number of participants hit an all-time low in 2000.

By the year 2000 participation in the double-handed division was 49%, fully crewed accounted for 50% of the racers and there was one white sail participant. Even though the numbers had decreased the make up of the participants had changed dramatically from the original double-handed race.

Fortunately some course design changes, and some basic marketing started to get the word out about the race and by 2003 the number of entries had doubled. It was a challenging race in 2003 and it made organizers realize that something had to be done to accommodate white sail participants. Out of the total of 6 white sail entries in 2003; none of them finished the race.

In 2004, a 200 nautical mile shortened race was added to the LO 300 Challenge to create a more realistic course for white sail participants. The addition of this course was well received and had immediate effects. The numbers started to increase in both fully crewed and double handed fleets from 6 entries in 2003 to 44 entries in 2007 representing 42% of total participants. This dramatic change to the race is one that has been a contributor in introducing many cruisers to this challenge.

It was at this time that the organizing committee developed a solid long-term marketing strategy designed to expand the LO300 and make it the most prominent race on the lakes. This strategy has successfully resurrected the race with a combination of new participants, new divisions and some veteran participants returning to take up the Challenge.
Over the last 5 years a combination of promoting and making necessary changes to this event, the LO300 has been successful in attracting a consistent number of new competitors as well as providing an opportunity for competitors to migrate from one division to another.

The attached graph demonstrates how the race has dramatically changed over the last 5 years and how it offers a challenge to just about every sailor on the lakes.

- In 2007 a Multi-Hull division was added to the race.
- In 2008 an IRC division was created in response to the need for a competitive division and handicap system to accommodate the Sport Boats.
- In 2008 the course was redesigned as a permanent circumnavigation for both the White Sail and Spinnaker divisions, incorporating both historic islands on the lake, which creates an attraction for many sailors.
- In 2009 a Single Handed Division was added and greeted with great enthusiasm. This division has already started to expand demonstrating that sailors are still looking for a new challenge. (Amazing that single-handed sailors created the race in 1999 and in 2009 a single-handed division was first added to the race.)
- The latest change was the addition of spinnakers to the Scotch Bonnet Island course. This change was intended to make the race more appealing for smaller and higher PRHF yachts looking to compete flying spinnaker. The 200-mile race is still very challenging and the average finish time is in with the rest of the fleet.

When looking at the range of fleets in the 2010 race compared to the 2003 race it is no wonder this event has now grown to become the premier yachting event on Lake Ontario and is a major yachting event on the great lakes. The appeal of this ultimate challenge is now attracting a larger number of US yachts and the Sport Boats looking to enhance their résumé's with a LO300 victory. From short-handed to fully crewed, spinnaker vs. white sail this race has it all. The 2010 race was an experience for all who started with over 30% of the starters not finishing due to very challenging conditions. This year's event will be another exiting one to participate in with many returning from last year to challenge the lake and take care of unfinished business. This year friends and family will be able to follow the excitement with a new satellite tracking system.

As demonstrated on the attached chart indicating participants by fleets, it is clear to see that the Main Duck Island Course and the Scotch Bonnet Island have taken on a new look that creates some exciting opportunities. The majority of competitors are still flying spinnakers. There has been a migration from white sail to spinnaker and the reverse has also happened. The objective of the LO300 over the last 5 years has been to ensure the 'Challenge' is available to as many yachts that want to take it up and based on the number of new competitors already registered for this year's race, the objective of the Lake Ontario 300 Challenge will be realized once again.
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