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An interview with Ike Babbitt about the 2018 Rhodes 19 East Coast Championship Regatta

by David Schmidt 20 Jun 08:00 PDT June 22, 2018
Teams compete at a recoent Rhodes 19 regatta hosted by the New Bedford Yacht Club © Image courtesy of the New Bedford Yacht Club

Rare is the sailboat design that can continue to generate interest and tight racing seventy-plus years after it took its nascent tacks, but such is the story with the venerable Rhodes 19, a time-tested design that originally set sail as the Hurricane before practicality, design and materials evolution and a commitment to maintaining a great class took root. Different builders have come and gone, of course, as have the names of winning skippers and crews, but the Rhodes 19 class still delivers great racing, including this week’s East Coast Championship Regatta (June 22-24), which is being hosted by the New Bedford Yacht Club and the Rhodes 19 Fleet 9 on the waters off of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Some backstory: Like many mid-century One Design classes, the boat that would become the now-classic Rhodes 19 began as a result of factory know-how and capacity. The Allied Aviation Corporation of Cockeysville, Maryland-like many era manufacturers-had ramped-up for war-time production capacity and, following victory, exited World War II with a need to keep work on the books, in this case plywood construction.

The company turned to building One Design sailboats, including International 14s, Thistles and Jolly Boats, and they hired naval architect designer Philip Rhodes to create a family-friendly, inexpensive and “wholesome” craft that would be fun to sail and race. Rhodes’ answer was the 19-foot Hurricane, a design that proved popular in Connecticut (Greenwich, to be exact) but that failed to attract a national audience.

Jump forward to 1947, and the Southern Massachusetts Yacht Racing Association (SMYRA) purchased some unfinished hulls, redesigned the decks (adding a cuddy cabin), and added floatation, keels, and aluminum rigs and used the boats as junior trainers and club racers. Not surprisingly, their reputation grew with their popularity, and the SMYRA itself sold boats for a time.

Some years later, the boat made the jump to fiberglass construction, numbers surged (especially around the Long Island Sound area), and regattas and events sprang up accordingly.

While the design and its builders have continued to evolve over the years, the boat that is now known as the Rhodes 19 has aged gracefully and has earned itself a dedicated following of sailors who remain committed to the boats, and to fast, competitive racing.

I caught up with Ike Babbitt, regatta chair of the New Bedford Yacht Club and the Rhodes 19 Fleet 9’s Rhodes 19 East Coast Championship Regatta, via email, to learn more about this event.

What kinds of numbers are you expecting on the starting line this year, and how does this compare to numbers from the past few editions of this event?

We’re hoping for 20 boats, but thinking the actual number will be a little lower. Some of our local fleet cannot compete, which definitely draws the number down a bit. The last East Coast Championship was in 2016 and drew 24 boats, but it was located to a denser population of Rhodes 19s.

The Rhodes 19 is a wonderful but older design…what kind of gravity keeps the class together and interest in racing these great boats high?

The price point and competitive nature of the class keeps our local fleet together, and I think that holds true for the other fleets as well.

Another big draw is that you don’t need a large crew to go out and be competitive. For a class-sponsored event, [each team is] required to have three crew, but a lot of our boats sail with two people during our weekly series. A lot of them are family boats, including my own.

What kinds of racecourse conditions can visiting sailors expect in late June on Buzzard’s Bay?

Late June on Buzzards Bay is a great time of year for our sea breeze. We’ll be sailing in an area that’s fairly protected from big swell, but will have some wind-produced chop.

The sea breeze is typically stronger earlier in the summer so I’m thinking we’ll have at least two days of a good 15-knot southwesterly.

Buzzard’s Bay has a reputation for being choppy thanks to its shallow soundings—do you have any advice for competing sailors on how to best negotiate this infamous sea state in a racecourse setting? Or, will racing take place outside of the worst of the churn?

Hopefully where we’re sailing it isn’t too choppy so the competitors don’t have to break out the spray gear, but we should have some light chop.

The advice is similar to almost any boat, but even more important in a slightly underpowered boat like a Rhodes: Don’t let the boat slow down!

How serious do you expect the racing to be? Are we talking about crews comprised of families or are we talking about ringers and the errant hired professional sailor?

The racing will definitely be intense, but hopefully not too serious. I think there will be some families competing, but it sounds like others will have their regular race crew.

I personally am sailing with two college friends. One has spent limited time on a Rhodes and the other will have his first day on the boat on our first race day. It should be fun!

What kinds of evening/onshore entertainment do you and the other organizers have planned?

We have two nights of activities planned. Friday night we’ll have some appetizers and the sorts out when sailors come off the water, accompanied by local beer from Buzzards Bay Brewing. Saturday night, we’ll have a cookout with music from a local band [called] Fourteen Strings.

Can you describe any steps that the regatta has taken to reduce its environmental footprint or “green-up” the event?

For every event run out of NBYC, we have a refillable water station in order to cut down on single-use [water]bottles.

We are also doing our entire registration online, which should help reduce the amount of paper used to put on the event.

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