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Youngstown ready to set sail on its last level Regatta

YOUNGSTOWN – Expect the tiny village of Youngstown to swell in size beginning Thursday as old salts return for reunions and newcomers arrive to be part of history.

This year, as it has been for 39 years, the Youngstown Yacht Club will be the place to be for sailors on the final weekend of July, as the club hosts its 40th and final Youngstown Level Regatta.

“This is the last hurrah,” said race organizer Patrick Mackey.

The race peaked with a record 466 boats in the mid-1990s, and registration has slipped to around 200 over the past several years. While not as busy as the heyday, the race still attracts a big fleet.

“Just like in business, there is a product life cycle,” said Mackey. “You look at the introduction of the idea, the growth, the plateau, and then there is always decline. Once other people pick up the idea, the novelty wears off. Now there are many clubs that have picked up this idea of level regattas and are running events comparable to this.

“But we still have the largest race of its kind on Lake Ontario, so we’re going out on a high,” he added. The race takes its name from the fact that the boats race against each other without any handicaps, regardless of size.

Mackey said the yacht club will host another race at the same time next year, “something new and exciting,” although details are being withheld until later this year.

“We want to focus our attention on the 40th Level Regatta now and the celebration of the history of this event,” he said.

Mackey added, “Some people are coming here who haven’t been back in 15 to 20 years, and it’s kind of a reunion. Some are coming for the first time because this will be the last one. Sixty percent of our racers come from Canada, but they also come from throughout New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Chicago, St. Petersburg, Florida ... It will cost people thousands of dollars to do this. Can you imagine trailering a boat all the way from St. Petersburg for this? But they do it. And they use the local hotels, motels and restaurants.”

“This is going to be the one,” said Cheryl Butera, co-owner with her husband, Mark, of Yankee Spirits in Youngstown. She also serves as president of the Youngstown Business and Professional Association.

“It’s going to be a huge success,” she added. “They’ll go all out for this one … It’ll be the party of all parties.”

She recalled the regatta’s peak years when “Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the top parties of the year. It’s a wonderful event. There was a time at its peak when you couldn’t find a parking place anywhere here or a blade of grass that didn’t have a tent on it.”

Mark Butera added, “For many, many years this has been the busiest weekend – economically – in the village. And it’s still going to be busy. We’re sad to see it go, but we know there’s an opportunity for something coming there that’ll be equally as exciting. Forty years is no small feat.”

Don Finkle, who founded the regatta four decades ago with the yacht club, added, “People look forward to it. There’s an influx of people patronizing local businesses and it’s not just in Youngstown, but they might travel to the Lewiston restaurants, for example. It certainly has had an economic impact on the village.

“The local sailors like it, too, because if they don’t have a boat in it, they come to crew on the boats in the race,” he added. “It’s a chance to sail against other people from far away. And, the regatta brings our club membership together because they enjoy working together on this. It’s certainly spread the word of the yacht club far and wide. When I’ve traveled to the Chesapeake or to Florida, I’ve seen people wearing our regatta T-shirts from years ago. The benefits have been wide-ranging. And, a lot of people come home to Youngstown for this. My kids will come home for it. It’s kind of a reunion.”

The public is invited to a free street dance to kick off the festivities at 7 p.m. Thursday on Main Street, where regatta merchandise such as shirts and caps will be sold to help offset the cost of the event.

The clothing sale continues at the yacht club from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, but you’ll need a $15 wristband after 4 p.m. The wristband allows entrance to the club grounds party to hear “Strictly Hip” at 8 p.m.

Saturday events kick off with an opening ceremony at 8:25 a.m. at the yacht club, with boats departing at 8:30 a.m.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, to see hundreds of boats leave for the mouth of the river,” said Mackey. “You can see this from Main Street in Youngstown. It’s really a sight to behold. They’ll get a couple of races in in the morning and one or two in the afternoon. It’ll depend on the wind, but they’ll usually start to come in around 3 to 4 p.m.”

Some of the more popular classes will include J-70s, C&C 29s, Melges 24s and Beneteau 36.7s, according to Finkle.

On Saturday night, the Diva Show Band starts at 8 p.m. and a $15 wristband for one night is again available.

Racing starts at 8 a.m. Sunday and continues until 2 or 3 p.m., followed by the awards ceremony. A $15 wristband is sold again for the final day – or you can purchase a $25 wristband to cover events for the entire weekend.

There are five race courses set up in Lake Ontario, from off the shore of Canada to halfway to Wilson, Mackey noted. He said Fort Niagara State Park is one of the best places for spectators to view the races.

“Intellectually, this is the right thing to do, but to some of us, this is a living thing,” Mackey said of ending the tradition. “But we are ending on a high. We’re proud of what we’ve done. We had 147 boats registered as of last Monday and that’s 56 more than we had last year at that time, so we’ll definitely blow through 200 boats. We’ll be able to handle everyone who shows up because we haven’t changed in our capability to handle large numbers, but that one year with 466 boats was definitely over the top as far as our infrastructure. We’ll do very nicely with the 200 to 230 boats we expect.”

Mackey said more than 300 volunteers help meet the needs of the thousands of sailors and spectators expected for the weekend.

“Youngstown has been the place to race sailboats for 40 years now because this race is unique and we’re proud to have started it here,” Mackey said. “It’s a tribute to Don Finkle, who had the vision, and it really caught on. The racers know we own this weekend – the last weekend of July – and next year, we’ll still have an event this same weekend of July.”

Perfect conditions for Saturday’s and Sunday’s races would be, “10 to 15 knots of wind and not too hot,” said Finkle. “We’re sailors, so if we get sprinkled on, we get sprinkled on, but you can’t sail without the wind.”

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