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Spinnaker not required: Jazz Fish preps for annual tradition of racing in the NYYC Annual Regatta

by New York Yacht Club 30 Sep 13:30 PDT October 2-4, 2020
Jazz Fish - NYYC Annual Regatta © Stuart Streuli / New York Yacht Club

There are some sailors who might turn up their noses at the thought of a long weekend of jib-and-main racing in the 166th edition of the New York Yacht Club's Annual Regatta. No spinnaker, no fun, they might add, when pressed. Paul Koch is not one of those sailors.

"Non-spinnaker racing is EXACTLY the same as spinnaker racing," says the retired ophthalmologist, who hails from East Greenwich, R.I. "There's the start, upwind work, mark roundings, downwind work, tactics and strategy. The only difference is I do not have to find and feed a couple of gorillas. Or buy a spinnaker every few years. And everyone in the division waves, and no one yells, except for hellos."

So this coming weekend, as he has nearly every year for better part of three decades, Koch will sail his Freedom 35 Jazz Fish over from his home port on Narragansett Bay's West Passage and line up for the 166th edition of North America's oldest annual sailing competition.

The Annual Regatta was first sailed on the Hudson River on July 16 and 18, 1846. A similar competition the previous year was called a Trial of Speed. With a few exceptions for world wars and other global crises, the event has been held every year since. For the majority of its existence, the Annual Regatta was held on waters close to New York City. Since 1988, however, the event has been held off Newport, R.I., and has settled into the current three-day format, which includes a race around Conanicut Island on Friday and two days of buoy racing or navigator-course racing on Saturday and Sunday. The 166th Annual Regatta will also include the 2020 Melges IC37 National Championship.

The Annual Regatta is traditionally held at the start of the Newport sailing season. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was pushed back first to late August before finally settling on the first weekend in October.

"It wasn't a call at all," says Koch, when asked whether he debated not sailing. "I try to sail the Annual Regatta every year. That the date of the regatta had to be changed was never a factor. I'm just happy that some friends were available to join me. I took delivery of the Jazz Fish early in 1993 and literally was bending on the sails for the first time while motoring to the starting line of the Annual Regatta the next morning. It was a goat rodeo for sure, but we made it! I may have missed one or two events since then, so a good guess would be about 25 Annual Regattas in this boat."

The Freedom 35 may not be the most likely race boat. But for Koch, it represents the perfect multi-purpose tool.

"It's more a traditional design that has proven time and again to be competitive," he says. "The Freedom 35 is nimble enough to race, comfortable enough to cruise, and set up well enough to singlehand. Over the past 28 years, I figure I've raced the boat a third of the time, cruised with crew another third, and solo raced or cruised the last third. It was designed by New York Yacht Club member David Pedrick. He also sails a Freedom 35; we will have a little race within a race during the Annual Regatta."

Another regular Annual Regatta competitor that figures to battle with Jazz Fish for top honors in PHRF Non-Spinnaker is Bill Clavin's Duck Soup, a C&C37R,.

"We usually go to Newport for this race," says Clavin, of Warwick, R.I. "[We sign up for non-spinnaker] because we don't always have enough crew to do spinnaker we like the competition at the Annual Regatta. It's competitive as any other fleet, the only difference is we're not putting a spinnaker up."

The lack of a spinnaker does make for more relaxed downwind legs. But, if anything, that puts even more emphasis on the tactical decisions of each team.

"Watching the currents is a key factor," says Clavin. "We got some current tables that give us some assistance. It may only be a half a knot here or there, but it adds up in the course of a long race."

Racing will start each day at 11 a.m. The start for Friday's Around the Island Race will take place off Fort Adams in Newport with the boat heading south toward Beavertail Light or north through the East Passage depending on the wind conditions.

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