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Sailing into the sunset

The crew aboard "Type A" is out looking for some summer adventure along with its fun on Wednesday nights in Lake Ontario.

They find it in the form of sailboat races.

Imagine sunsets, soft breezes and gentle waves -- then erase all that from your mind.

Racing on a sailboat is a sport where the sails and wind can quickly turn from your friend into your enemy.

Athleticism and skill are required to stay under the shifting boom, which holds and moves the sails, and to tack -- or to sail into the wind.

If anyone doesn't tack fast enough, as a Buffalo News reporter learned the hard way on a recent Wednesday, one can be left hanging on for dear life as the boat tips -- or heels -- beyond 45 degrees.

It can be more like a ride on the Titanic than a leisurely evening on the lake.

The Youngstown Yacht Club pools its resources with its cross-river neighbor, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Sailing Club, to put on the weekly races. They generally attract 50 or more boats, each more than 22 feet long, with three to eight crew members aboard.

They run a two-hour race on an Olympic circle-style course, which travels approximately three nautical miles in Lake Ontario.

On Thursdays, the J-22s, smaller three-person sailboats, race up and down a shorter course.

The Type A is 36.7 feet long, and requires a crew of seven or eight to race.

Aboard the Type A, first-time sailors get brusque instructions from helmsman and boat owner John Fromen Sr., of Orchard Park.

"You're going to be the rail meat," Fromen said, explaining how it was the job of the crew to help to balance the boat.

Fromen said the goal of sailing, unlike motor boating, is to slice through the water, rather than slapping the waves. He said the keel underneath the boat weighs thousands of pounds so that the boat can heel away from the wind without capsizing, or "turtling."

He gives the most important lesson as newcomers step on to his boat.

"Get out of the way of the boom. They call it a boom for a very good reason. It can kill you."

>Lake Ontario sites

Michael O'Connor, also of Orchard Park, works with Fromen, his stepfather, as a Buffalo attorney. He also works with him on the boat at foredeck, giving instructions to the helmsman, who must sail blind with the sails in front of him.

O'Connor said he started racing in high school. He said racing in Youngstown goes way back into the 1920s.

Why Youngstown?

O'Connor said it's a sheltered harbor that draws -- and awes -- visitors from all over the country. From Chesapeake to Marblehead, he said, they love the village and its waters.

"It's such a nice area," O'Connor said. "There's all sorts of places to visit on Lake Ontario."

Fromen agreed. He pointed out spots along the harbor, such as Old Fort Niagara, and Fort George across the Niagara River in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Youngstown is one of the region's best kept secrets, O'Connor said.

"It's absolutely beautiful. The lake is at the end of the harbor, so you can stay sheltered in the river when the water is rough."

The Type A is a Beneteau 36.7, and seven identical boats also participate in the Wednesday evening races. That makes the contests more a test of tactics, crews and strategy.

Lake Ontario's deeper water usually makes for a smoother ride, O'Connor said.

"On Lake Erie," he said, "the waves can stir up quickly and you get square waves, where your boat pounds into the waves, but in Youngstown we are on the western end with a breeze usually coming from the south and not a lot of distance between waves.

"The biggest misconception about sailing is that it is thought to be calm and tranquil," O'Connor added. "Sometimes it is, but when you're racing there is a lot of stuff going on, a lot of stuff happening. It's an absolute blast, and it's a good way to blow off steam."

Tim Booth, of Youngstown, trims the mainsail on the boat. He owns K-100 oil treatment, a village business, when he's not out sailing.

"It's a mind game and so fun," Booth said of the races. "It's controlled chaos. Every wind shift makes a big difference and you have to figure it out."

>Feel for sailing

Feeling the wind is a job for Pat Whelan, also of Youngstown, a retired science teacher who taught at Emmet Belknap Middle School in Lockport. He operates the spinnaker -- a large, colorful, triangular sail that balloons out in front of the boat -- for the team and shouts directions about how the wind flow is coming to the sails. He feels for the pattern of the wind and watches for those same patterns on the water.

Peter Coughlin, of South Wales, a controller for a painting company, mans the jib for the team. He said he looks forward each week to being out on the water and competing.

O'Connor said he only recently started to discover sailing for pleasure, and found that it could be good for taking a family on a weekend trip.

He said his wife used to be part of his sailing crew before they had children.

He said another misconception is that sailing is an expensive hobby.

"There certainly is some expense," he said, "but the Shark, a 24-foot, one-design, can race with a crew of three for a reasonable cost. The J/22 [class sailboats] are a small design and just as much fun."

He added that he really likes being part of the sailing community.

"What you see in the movie is men with hats and blue blazers. It's not that way at all. There are people from all walks of life. It's very diverse," he said.

Competitors come back year after year.

The crew aboard Type A has been racing the current boat for two years, but O'Connor, Whalen and Fromen have been together since the late 1980s with C & C sailboats, while Coughlin and Whalen have been racing together for 13 years on Whalen's J-22.

O'Connor said they win a flag and a pat on the back for Wednesday racing, but there also are some nice trophies.

For Youngstown, these races all boil down to the big one: the Youngstown Level Regatta, which will be held on the last weekend in July.

Hundreds of yachts are expected to compete in the Level Regatta, one of the largest freshwater sailing competitions in the world.

O'Connor said members of the Type A crew participate in as many area races as possible, but added, "It's all about the last weekend in July. We will definitely be part of the Regatta. It's fun and a lot of boats come to it. You see a lot of friends you haven't seen in awhile and . . . the party's great."

He said they also have the Buffalo Yacht Club's North American Championship race "marked in gold stars in their calendar" for the first week in September. The race for the Beneteau class in Lake Erie draws in 30 to 40 for that style.


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