Out of the view of most people on the mainland, members of the Astoria Yacht Club playfully battled on the Columbia River last weekend.
The Regatta Cup, as they refer to it, isn’t a good spectator sport from land but stands as the last strictly “regatta” event of the Astoria Regatta, a festival originally based around the Columbia.
The Rattler, an Olson 30 captained by retired firefighter Mike Campbell, took home the Regatta Cup after two days of races over the weekend, besting six other boats including the Wildfire, which snapped its boom in gusty 15- to 25-knot winds Saturday.
The term regatta means a race or a series of races between boats. But gone are the high-powered boat races, rowing, the waterfront grandstand, high dive and swimming competitions and other waterfront activities of decades past, as a changing economy and financial necessity on the North Coast have moved the focus of Astoria’s premier summer festival inland.
The sail-driven boats of the Astoria Yacht Club, said Vice Commodore Toby Dyal, have to go where the wind works. Although listed as an event in front of the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the sailboats took to the water Saturday just west of the Astoria Bridge, which Dyal said acts like a sieve to the wind.
But a higher wind forecast took the races Sunday upriver of the Astoria Bridge, right in front of the main Astoria waterfront.
“It’s like an airplane wing, is how it works,” said Dyal, describing how the yachts race in arcs.
To the layman, said yacht club member and sailing instructor Bruce Faling, watching a yacht race can be like watching paint dry. But once you understand what’s going on, he added, it gets exciting. Faling, Dyal and Curt Yoder tracked the races from the yacht club’s committee boat, parked just north of green buoy 35B.
The five boats in Sunday’s races jockeyed for position near the starting line at Buoy 35B, just east of the Astoria Bridge, where Columbia river and bar pilots transfer onto and off of ingoing and outgoing ships. Their course stretched 4.8 miles, back and forth between green buoy 35A just west of the Astoria Bridge and red buoy 40 nearer to Alderbrook.
The boat crews raced in wide arcs on the Columbia. They tacked and jibed, maneuvering between starboard (right) and port (left) to catch the wind on their sales. The yachts became most visible going downwind, their large spinnaker sails unfurling in all colors as they raced upriver to red buoy 40 before going back to their more mono color mainsails as they tried to catch pockets of wind at about 35 to 40 degrees. The Rattler, trying to catch wind in the shoals near the south bank, also made its way near the waterfront by Buoy Beer, before arcing out and crossing under the Astoria Bridge.
“It makes a big difference with the crew,” said Dyal, noting that the Rattler used the same five people it had throughout the racing season. The crew usually numbers around five, with a captain, trimmers working with the sails and a tactician trying to read the wind and find the best course.
The yacht club races April through September, mostly on Tuesday nights. They also take part in offshore races such as the Oregon Offshore International Yacht Race from Astoria to Victoria, British Columbia, in May. This year set new records, as boats made their way north to Canada in as little as 14 hours of continuous racing.
“It was a big deal for people to come down to Astoria and race their boat,” said Charlene Larson, the marketing manager for the Astoria Regatta. Some of the earlier boat race trophies, she added, are on display in the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
“We used to have hydroplane races on Cullaby Lake,” she said. “That was a tradition on the Sunday of Regatta. That went on through the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and then we got into that kind of fuel crisis. And then it became not the thing to do.”
There are still hydroplane races on Cullaby Lake, she added, although in mid-July and unassociated with the Regatta.
Jon Englund, an owner of Englund Marine and boat and fishing historian, said “she gillnet races lasted a long time. That was a big deal, because Regatta used to end on Aug. 25, that weekend, and it was the end of the fishing season.”
The gillnet boats, busy fishing, were absent from this year’s festivities. Englund said the bow pickers and gillnetters couldn’t keep up with the fiberglass boats of today. And racing a boat hard and potentially blowing up the engine of one’s livelihood in the midst of fishing season just doesn’t work out economically.