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Beth Fleisher on the 51st world's longest Sunfish race

by David Schmidt 6 Jul 08:00 PDT July 9, 2022
Sunfish Sail Diagram with National Letters © International Sunfish Class Association

When most people think of the venerable Sunfish, a One Design class that was designed in 1953, they picture the boat's lateen rig, hard-chined hull, and absolutely classic class symbol. They likely also imagine buoy racing, possibly off of a beach, and the big grins that the boat has delivered for the last 69 years. What most people likely don't envision is a circumnavigation race that plays out over the course of more than 20 nautical miles. But this is exactly what the 51st annual World's Longest Sunfish Race (July 9) offers adventure-minded Sunfish sailors.

This year's running of the World's Longest Sunfish Race will be hosted by the Southold Yacht Club, in Southold, New York, on the North Fork of Long Island. Once the starting guns fire at 1130 hours, local time, sailors will race around Shelter Island, plying the waters of the Peconic Bay, Shelter Island Sound, Southold Bay, and Gardiners Bay.

The event is open to all Sunfish sailors and will feature racing in Open Sunfish, Sunfish Doubles, Sunfish Youth, and Sunfish Youth Doubles divisions.

I checked in with Beth Fleisher, event chair of the 51st annual running of the World's Longest Sunfish Race, via email, to learn more about this adventure-minded One Design event.

Can you please tell us a bit about the annual World's Longest Sunfish Race, it's history and culture, and the kinds of sailors that one can expect to find here?

Southold Yacht Club has had a great Sunfish fleet as long as I can remember! Fifty-two years ago (Yes, we had to cancel in 2020, because the town wouldn't let us hold a "mass event" 'cuz Covid) the Sunfish sailors at Southold Yacht Club looked across Southold Bay at Shelter Island. A glint entered their eyes, and they decided to race around it. Now you need to understand that Shelter Island is BIG, with a very irregular shape, and to circumnavigate it is about 26 miles / 4-5 hours in a Sunfish. You have to sail in all sorts of current, through the paths of two separate ferries. It's a grand adventure for a Sunfish, where the average race lasts 30 minutes, maybe 45!

The race draws many different types of sailors. There is a very competitive group, nationally and sometimes internationally ranked sailors. There's a lot of depth in that cohort, usually 15 or more boats really dueling it out in the current and squirrelly winds.

But we also have a doubles division, people sailing with their siblings or children, accomplished sailors but who are out for a beautiful day on the bay. We have a good number of women participating every year, and the age spread is truly fantastic: You have to be 15 by December 31, 2022 to sail without a parent or guardian (and your parent/guardian must sign a waiver, safety first!), and we have sailors in their 80s registered this year. Our oldest sailor participating has been 94.

Truly a diverse group on the water, something very rarely seen in sailing!

What kind of entry numbers are you seeing this year? Also, are there any notable geographical concentrations to this entry list?

Last year, for our 50th anniversary, we had 71 boats on the starting line. This year, we're capping registration at 51. That number was reached last week, and we have a waiting list!

Boats are coming from up and down the East Coast, upstate NY, NJ, Brooklyn, and beyond.

How competitive is the event? Or, is it intentionally designed as more of an adventure race?

It is indeed competitive. See response above. But there is also a great sense of satisfaction in all who complete this race.

It's like running a marathon: People set their personal goals, whether it's to have an interesting, beautiful, challenging sail, or to fight it out for a record time and a top trophy.

And let's not forget the afterparty on our beautiful beach, with the camaraderie of other sailors and the accolades from those who stayed on shore.

Weather-wise, what kind conditions can sailors expect to encounter on off of Shelter Island in mid-July? What are the best-case and worst-case weather scenarios?

Like any day on the water, you can predict "the usual:" a sea breeze, SW, 10-12. But we've had races with a strong blow out of the NE, and little zephyrs of wind and a sea breeze that never fills.

Do you see local knowledge playing a big or small role in the race's outcome? Can you please explain?

I won't call it "local knowledge." But what really helps in getting around the island is to study the charts for current.

The bottom the sailors are travelling over goes from 92' down to shallows and sand bars.

Understanding how current affects the movement of the boat really helps. And if you don't understand current, there's always "follow the leaders."

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) sailors and teams, what would it be?

This is a fun, unique day on the water. Set your goal to be to enjoy the challenge. Look as the scenery as you sail, the beauty of these waters, the birds and fish you'll encounter. Wear a hat. Bring water, and sunscreen.

Anyone who has done this race understands that to complete this course in a Sunfish is something to be proud of. We give every participant a certificate with their finish time, because this truly is a bucket-list event for the small-boat sailor.

Do you have any sailors that you're eyeing for podium finishes? What about any dark horses who you think could prove to be fast, once the starting guns begin sounding?

I'll never predict. It's not fair to the readers!

We recently had someone who was sailing this race for the very first time, not a local sailor, win. He beat nationally ranked sailors, and previous winners.

A few years ago, we had someone win and have a top 5 time around the island, who started over 5 minutes late! This isn't a drag race. It's speed and smarts and a bit of luck.

Can you tell us about any efforts that you and the other race organizers have made to try to lower the race's environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the event?

We used to give out water in plastic bottles. Now we provide water so that sailors can fill up their reusable containers.

Is there anything else that you'd like to add, for the record?

Come sail this one! If you haven't sailed here before, you will be struck by the beauty of this area, the camaraderie amongst all the sailors, and how satisfied you'll be at the end of the day.

Another thought: Some people wonder, 'Why a Sunfish? It's a recreational boat, not a racer.'

But what they forget is that small boats make the sailor, and the Sunfish is a strict one-design class. There's no better test for a sailor than to race against others solo, in a strict one design. No fancy sails or instrument package to help, no sail makers on board to coach you around the course.

Many of us race other boats, too — I myself own and race a J/80 — but Sunfish racing is a true test.

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