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Jeff Johnson on the San Diego Yacht Club’s 104th Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup

by David Schmidt 22 Oct 2018 08:00 PDT October 26-28, 2018
Day 1 of the 103rd Challenge for the Sir Thomas Lipton Cup © Cynthia Sinclair

104 years is a long time to be doing anything, but the San Diego Yacht Club, in San Diego, California, has the proud distinction of hosting their 104th Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup from October 26-28, 2018. This inter-club regatta will be contested aboard evenly equipped J/105s, which will be provided to visiting teams by the regatta’s organizing authority, and will see 12 teams from up and down the West Coast and as far East as the Chicago and New York yacht clubs competing in in a series of around-the-buoy races to determine the fastest gun in town.

As its name implies, the 104th Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup is named after the famous America’s Cup challenger and tea merchant who-at the request of Commodore Lucien Blochman of San Diego’s Corinthian Yacht Club (now the SDYC)-donated a trophy, in Lipton’s name, that would recognize outstanding West Coast sailing.

The first Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup unfurled in 1904 and was won by a team from the SDYC aboard their chartered 47.5 foot Detroit. Interestingly, when the Corinthian Yacht Club and the SDYC joined forces in 1905, the trophy was re-deeded to the SDYC.

Flash forward many years, and the event is now contested in popular and offshore-capable J/105s, which has helped the event to retain its critical mass. Today, the Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup continues to be one of the West Coast’s most prestigious regattas.

I checked in with the Jeff Johnson, the San Diego Yacht Club’s Waterfront Director, via email, about the SDYC’s 104th Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup.

What kinds of participation numbers are you seeing for 2018 and how does this compare to recent years?

Participation has been steady at 12 boats for last eight years since the ‘round robin/provide boat invite’ concept was adopted over the “BYOB” (which ferreted-out the best boats that dominated competition).

Do teams supply their own sails or does the SDYC maintain an inventory that’s used for this event?

The SDYC purchased a set of 12 North Sails-built J/105 sails, which we use only for this [regatta] and the International Masters regattas. Teams just bring their “round robin kit” (yarn for tell tales, tape for marking lines, etc.) and jump on the 105s that have been tuned for these sails, and equalized (de-cluttered, cleaned, serviced, etc.).

In the ideal world, what kinds of conditions will Mother Nature bestow? What about in the not-so-ideal world?

Ideal conditions are “San Diego Chamber of Commerce” conditions – 8-12 knots from 240-270 (WSW-W). Clear skies, 68 degrees.

Not so ideal (and still sailing) [conditions] are any breeze over 15 knots. Borrowed boats in the hands of people who may or may not know how to handle them in tight quarters/breeze on.

Not-so-ideal Part II–when the breeze goes left of 280 [degrees] or right of 240 [degrees], the course is very hard to lay on the ‘city front’ location (just off Harbor Island) as it crosses the harbor and shortens the navigable water.

With a left breeze (<240 [degrees]) marks are not allowed in the channel so that shortens the course dramatically. With the big right winds (280+ [degrees]) the weather mark is up by the rocky shoreline of Harbor Island and the RC really struggles with dangerous, crowded laylines verse precious .05 nm to add to the course length…

Ideal/Not-so-ideal Part III–no commercial/recreational traffic vs. lots of commercial [and] recreational traffic. Running the Lipton Cup “on the freeway…such as San Diego Bay is…is asking for trouble as you can imagine when boats have nailed the start and are trying to ‘hip up” or pinch-off a competitor as they progress across the bay and into the marked channel, which they are entitled to sail in (we just can’t set marks there), and having to make a judgment when they need to break off and get clear of commercial traffic in the channel….most [boats] just won’t blink, and we have to use Umpires to waive the Lipton racers off the channel.

Also random motorboats and fisherman just don’t understand or care about a grudge match between to competitors fighting it out for a position. Altercations happen!

What kind of racing format will the event use? Also, how big of an advantage is local knowledge on this racecourse?

Racing is round-robin [style], with competitors changing boats after each race. Most years yield nine to 12 races, for 12 competitors, so mostly everyone sails every boat. A few years we have lost most/all of a day to light air. One year, we had significant collisions in one windy race and that killed half a day. No more racing until two of the boats had overnight yard work. We had one spare.

Race is also an Umpired event, so all penalties are [handled] on the water. In the umpire world, they are ‘refining’ this type of event as it requires omnipresent eyes (four umpire boats with two umpires aboard each) and instant rule awareness to officiate. But sometimes too much of a good thing – competitors seem to dumb it down to “if they didn’t see it then it didn’t happen”….or “no flag, no foul”… Not all, but some. It’s a thing.

On the city-front venue, local knowledge isn’t really a factor. Most of the “nuggets” like where puffs come from or current trends are logical things that are apparent to all skilled racers. And the harder to perceive ones–the good racers can figure them all out by Race Two or Three. I’d say “boat knowledge” is the more important resource to conscript, because even if you know where to go, if you can’t put your foot on the gas…[it] don’t matter.

A 104-year history is impressive…can you tell us about some of the regattas great traditions?

The event has (I vaguely recall) the distinction of being one of the earliest (first?) Lipton cups. There were more than a dozen. Racing has certainly changed over the past century. (

The event has been sailed in J/105s since 2002…any plans to modernize the fleet or are the J/105s still working well as a platform for the Sir Thomas Lipton Challenge Cup?

The event has been driven by privately owned boats since its inception. Private J/105s still work well as a platform in that they are not “too” sophisticated. Equalizing 12 privately owned boats is difficult, and to the degree that the boats are not “modernized” (i.e., Melges [boats or] J/70s, or other exotic 30’-40’) is in fact why [the J/105s] work.

Can you please tell us about any efforts that you and the other volunteers are proud of?

I would say the legion of people that loan their boats, others who gather them, clean them, service them, tune them, rig them, and care for them during the regatta is remarkable.

[For example,] the helpers that just run out on the floating docks anchored in San Diego bay and hold dock lines and fenders to protect the boats from getting scratched [or damaged].

That sustained level of effort (and the Lipton is week two of this insanity, as the first week is the International Masters Regatta held in the same boats – as a tune-up of sorts) is remarkable and not like any other we host during the year.

I see other large events (like Baldwin Cup in NHYC, Con Cup in LBYC to name two on the West Coast) that are equally mammoth events that require intensive care by many, many club members. Hats off to that effort. That’s a whole other story.

What about any efforts that you and the other organizers have taken to “green-up” the 104th Lipton Cup or otherwise reduce its environmental footprint?

We haul water down and place on the docks for refilling reusable water containers.

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