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An interview with Scott MacLeod about the 2018 Sonar North Americans

by David Schmidt 10 Sep 2018 08:00 PDT September 13-15, 2018
Sonar worlds day 3 © Leighton O'Connor /

Bruce Kirby chiseled his name onto the who’s-who list of yacht designers in 1969 when he famously draw a little sketch of his “Weekender”, a fast, high-performance singlehanded dinghy that could be easily car-topped and driven to regattas, on the back of a cocktail napkin. Flash forward many years and the Laser has become the world’s most popular sailboat, with thousands of these one-person dinghies racing virtually everywhere that has a happy confluence of wind, water and competitive spirits, including the Olympic Games. While Kirby’s name is synonymous with the Laser, his design portfolio includes plenty of other popular and well-loved designs, including the Sonar class, which is holding its 2018 North Americans at the Noroton Yacht Club (NYC; Darien, Connecticut) on the waters of Long Island Sound from September 13-15.

Some backstory: In the late 1970s, the NYC-Kirby’s home club-was seeking a new club-level One Design keelboat racer that would reinvigorate their members' participation in the club’s races and regattas. Despite having reviewed numerous designs, NYC members couldn’t select a boat that matched their criteria, so they asked Kirby to lend his considerable design talent to the task.

The club’s wants were considerable: The new boat would have to be transportable via trailer and fun and rewarding to sail for racers of all ages and sailing skills, and it would have to have an ergonomic, all-day-comfortable cockpit, an easy learning curve, and a set of class rules that would prevent the sort of arms races or other jiggery-pokery that have caused the demise of many otherwise-great boats.

Kirby’s answer was a 23-foot sloop that was custom-tailored to address the club’s needs, with a slippery undercarriage, a spacious, sit-inside cockpit, and an ability to move in light, sticky airs. The designs for the Sonar were accepted, and NYC owners excitedly placed orders for boats that would comprise the burgeoning class’ first fleet.

Not surprisingly, the class was a success, and within a few years there were competitive fleets across Long Island Sound and throughout the surrounding areas, including nearby New York State.

In 2000, the Sonar was chosen as the three-person platform for the Paralympic Games, giving the boat and the class an international boost, and, in an interesting historical twist of history, Rick Doerr (himself a member of the NYC), Hugh Freund and Brad Kendell took a proud silver medal at the 2016 Rio Paralympics (the U.S.-flagged sailing team’s best finish at an Olympics or Paralympics regatta since the 2008 Summer Olympics), which—as of this writing—was the last Paralympic Games to include the sport of sailing.

I interviewed Scott MacLeod, chairman of the 2018 Sonar North Americans, via email, to learn more about this competitive and regionally significant regatta.

As I understand it, the NYC established Sonar Fleet Number 1—will any of these boats be competing in this year’s North Americans? What about any of their original owners?

Many of the boats that are registered to compete at this year’s Sonar NAs are owned by members of the original Fleet 1, which was established at Noroton YC in 1984.

Some of the original owners will be sailing, but not using their original boats. The oldest boats in this regatta were built in 1987.

The designer of the Sonar, yachting hall of famer and long-time Noroton YC member Bruce Kirby is registered for the regatta and is hoping to sail (he’s in his late 80s).

How big of a role does the NYC currently play in the class’ culture? Does it serve as a sort of spiritual home for these boats by hosting a ton of Sonar events/regattas, or was it random/revolving that the NYC is hosting this year’s North Americans?

The sonar class was created by Noroton YC in the early 1980s and has continued to be an important part of the Class Association as it has grown into an international Class.

The culture of the Class has been international for over 20+ years. And while Noroton is pleased to host this year’s North Americans, there are many Sonar regattas around the world.

The boat is also used extensively for team racing at venues and clubs across the U.S. and UK (the North Americans is a Fleet race).

The Sonar Worlds is held every other year, and the NAs on the “off” year. The Class votes at each years’ annual general meeting on the location of the upcoming worlds or NAs.

Noroton [YC] sought this year’s NAs as it coincided with the opening of Noroton’s new club house. Last year’s worlds was held in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.

I notice from the regatta scratch sheet that the bulk of the entrants come from the greater New York/Connecticut/LIS area—how much of an advantage do you think hometown teams will have (if any) and what advice would you give visiting teams?

Most of the sailors who will be attending have spent time sailing on Long Island Sound and are familiar with the local conditions, which can vary considerably depending on the weather systems that pass thru at the end of summer. Any good sailor can win.

What will the racing format entail? Windward-Leewards? Also, provided that the weather gods cooperate, how many races does the event hope to run?

[Our] racing courses are generally Windward-Leewards-the official course options will be posted in the sailing instructions. It’s common for a regatta like this to have three or four races per day, weather permitting. For the three-day regatta the hope is for 10-12 races.

Are there any teams that you are already eyeing for podium finishes? What about dark horses?

Competition will be tight. There are many seasoned sonar sailors competing, including many of the top 10 from last year’s Worlds, and the 2016 NAs, which was held at Manhasset Bay Yacht Club in port Washington, New York.

Former Sonar World Champions Karl Ziegler and Rich Voss, as well a defending Sonar North American Champion Collin Gordon, are all registered to attend.

Has the class changed a lot in the years since sailing was dropped from the Paralympic Games? Also, how has this move by the International Olympic Committee changed the culture and the over competition level in this class?

The class has not changed much since sailing was dropped from the Paralympic-mainly because the Paralympic aspect of the class was a relatively small number of boats/sailors, even though they were from many counties.

Fleet racing has continued at Noroton and at other areas with fleets.

The largest growth of the boat-in terms of numbers of regattas-is for team racing, which has been experiencing significant growth across the country, and especially for younger “varsity” sailors (eg., under 40 years old), in the past five or so years.

There are about a dozen clubs around the country that host team-race regattas in Sonars, with the boats being provided by the host club, versus fleet-racing regattas, [where] the boats are often owned by the sailors who are racing them.

Some of the clubs using Sonars for team racing include New York Yacht Club, which has the largest fleet of club owned boats [at] 21 Sonars, Noroton YC, Seawanhaka Corinthian YC, Bristol YC, [and] Corinthian YC.

Can you tell us about any steps that you and the other event organizers are taking to green-up the regatta and lower its overall environmental footprint?

Noroton [YC] is an environmentally focused club. We encourage all sailors to use reusable water bottle, rather than single-use plastics. And the new club includes provisions for water access to accommodate reusable bottles on and off the water.

Anything else that you’d like to add, for the record?

The event is title sponsored by Jaguar Land Rover and also by Josh Wines and Heineken.

Club website:

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