Booms were lowered, ropes were learned and sails were in sight Wednesday afternoon and well into the evening during a weekly competition that has brought some members of a sailing crew together each week for more than a third of a century.
Jack Mathias of Amherst will celebrate a 50th anniversary as a participant in Olympics sailing competition when the Olympics program marks its start July 17 in the Expo Stadium in Montreal.
Mathias competed in the 1976 sailing competition with a crew that finished just below medal status. Before and since that Olympics entry, he has surrounded himself with avid, competent sailing partners who gather each week for the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club Wednesday Night Series.
“It’s not so much about me as the way the crew does things together,” Mathias said of the regulars who crew on his 30-foot Pearson Flyer Gust-O.
On Wednesday afternoon I met up with Mathias at the Skyway Marina slip while Bill Lewis and Tim O’Brien were working on rig lines and Ken Kahn was arranging papers and electronics in the boat’s hold.
Minutes later, Greg Hylkema and son Patrick, 19, arrived followed with Tom LeBuhn. All had a place to work and a task to complete in getting out sails, and knowing the ropes were where they should lie, tie and be at the ready.
Wind, the main consideration in sailing, had been mild early Wednesday, falling to a dead calm before noon. So sailing speed, or even movement, was a concern at 5 p.m. when the crew began assembling at the dock.
Fortunately, a gentle south wind picked up. The reported average wind speed cited after competition was 6 mph. As we pulled out of the Buffalo River, it became clear that this was a grand gathering. As a lightly clouded sky dimmed the sunset, sailing hulls surrounded us and masts spiked the southwest horizon as we turned into Lake Erie’s open waters above Donley’s Wall at the north end of Buffalo Harbor.
Kahn explained the nearly 6-mile course set up for this evening’s competition, which requires sailing into, down and back around the prevailing south winds. But as every boater, from paddleboard to cruise line skipper, knows, breezes mean everything.
“You have to look for where the wind is,” Mathias said.
A wind-vane arrow at the top of the mast and marker on each side, called a windex, tells wind direction and just how far to each side the boat can move in a direct wind. Lewis noticed differing winds closer to shore. Others spotted strong or dead wind spots on the water surface. And skippers intentionally use drafts and eddies from their own sails to affect hulls down wind while avoiding ill breezes from sails up wind.
After the main sail was in place, the crew began setting the jib, the first sail in front of the main mast. Here, veteran Greg Hylkema further mentored his competent young son Patrick at the fore end while Tim O’Brien kept me company in the back (aft) as we snuck back and forth under the tiller handle to shift weights with each change of a sail side.
At amidships, Tom LeBuhn and Bill Lewis handled the mainsail’s boom as Kahn, and occasionally Mathias, locked down pull ropes for sheets/sails up front.
Crew members, bow to stern, knew every inch of rope, angle of sail and best body placement as the boat coursed into, around and down gentle, subsiding winds all that evening.
The Pearson Flyer is a solid, fiberglass hull, wider than some of the newer sailboat models that move better in near-calm wind conditions. Yet this crew had done well, finishing third in the Cold Water Series that ended the week before. This voyage was the first in the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club’s Wednesday Night Series that basically covers the summer prior to a late season Drifter Series that ends on the second Wednesday in September.
Mathias was disappointed with their sixth-place finish in fleet of 12 entries last Wednesday, but as a casual observer of this boat’s crew in action, the skill, coordination and unspoken passion for sail handling was obvious in the eldest and youngest aboard.
Though an intense competitor tending to all manner of coordination while afloat, Mathias said afterwards, “It’s all about getting together as a group of friends.” Clearly, the reference was to his immediate friends aboard Gust-O and the other skippers and crew members in other boats.
O’Brien passed snacks and poured libations after the competition, which continues each Wednesday throughout the sailing season.
“Weekends once were when sailing competitions were held, but so many things go on during weekends today that these Wednesday contests continue without conflicting with family gatherings,” Mathias explained.
He and the crew look forward to improving their fleet finishes on future Wednesdays, sharing the intensity of competition, seeing the harbor sunset and enjoying the company of competent companions.
For more details about these and other sailing club activities, visit buffaloharborsailingclub.org.