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Sail away

Adia Waldburger, of the Record staff

Last Tuesday, nine laser sailing boats took off from the banks of the Jordanelle Reservoir, just as they have for the last few years thanks to the Park City Laser Sailing Association.

Sometimes the number is less than nine, sometimes more, but it’s a passion for the sport that keeps locals coming out to the water each week.

According to Geoff Hurwitch the club started a few years ago when he had trouble finding other locals who enjoyed the sport. Hurwitch is a native of Massachusetts where laser sailing, and sailing in general, is pretty popular. He had been part of a club there and wanted to continue the fun when he moved out west to Park City. Sailing’s popularity had died out in the Park City area in the mid-1990s and Hurwitch and fellow club organizer John Nuffer, a longtime sailor from Michigan, were determined to revive it.

Tuesday nights were picked because of minimal traffic on the water. Weekends generally mean an onslaught of personal watercraft and speed boats whose pilots are unfamiliar with the sport of sailing.

"Sailing is a foreign sport in Utah," Hurwitch laughed. "People don’t understand."

Laser sailboats are the smallest of competitive sailboats, often weighing less than their sailors at about 130 pounds. The Tuesday evening club activities include a series of intra-squad races and includes a mix of experienced racers and rookies, some sailing brand-new boats and other with second-hand sale finds. Membership is also quite varied, with a number of Parkites and Wasatch County residents as well as a few Salt Lakers and some who even make the drive up from Utah County.

In the era of being green, laser sailing is as eco-friendly as it can get. Sailing takes only wind and human energy and the Jordanelle has allowed the club to store their boats at the water’s edge in exchange for volunteer work to improve the area.

The weekly meetings are about both competition and learning. Hurwitch maintains a website that members use as a forum to talk and ask questions. Last week he even posted an interactive quiz on the site to review the rules of sailing. The Tuesday night meetings are also a good chance to ask questions as each race inevitably brings up a test of the rules.

"Really, what this is here for is to learn and a build a network of sailors," Hurwitch said.

He explains that sailing is a gentlemen’s sport, where following rules and right-of-ways are of the utmost importance.

Hurwitch starts off the evening standing in a fishing boat, with his trusty sidekick, a dog named Rhodes, and whistling signals to organize the first race. Three long whistles is the three-minute warning before the start and a series of short whistles count down the seconds until one long blow starts the sailors on course. The boats race back and forth between buoys a couple hundred yards from shore. The start and finish line run straight out from the tip of the fishing boat.

Last week, Philippe Astie, an experienced sailor from France won the first race and proceeded to win another. He might have won them all, were it not for a communication breakdown with Hurwitch that made him miss the start of the last race. Besides knowing the ins and outs of sailing, Astie also brought the newest laser sailboat to the competition a very gently-used former competition boat.

Hurwitch explains that Astie is an expert at positioning his boat perpendicular to the wind at the start which puts him in the lead automatically.

"If you have a good start, you’ll finish in the top five," Hurwitch said. "There’s a favored end of a starting line, always."

"It will make a difference at the starting line if you are perfectly perpendicular to the wind," Astie said.

Sitting on the starboard(right) or port (left) side can also help a sailor to win a race, as the starboard side always has the right of way in any race.

Hurwitch explains sailing like a game of chess, with strategy always taking place in the water as boats jockey for position. If one of the rules is broken, sailors must make amends for their mistake, winding themselves back from where they made the mistake and re-sailing the route.

"It’s weighing yourself and everything else water, wind, people and what they do," Hurwitch said.

Last Tuesday’s group had only one woman amongst an otherwise all-male roster, but Hurwitch said that there is another female member and hopes to attract more women to the sailing club.

Hurwitch wants to enlist more people to the club in general. He suspects that with all the transplants to the area, there must be more sailors out there. The group is also open to rookies, who are open to learning. This type of sailing takes awhile to learn, but doesn’t cost a lot to get into. Most laser boats are fairly inexpensive, ranging from $800 to $5,000, and without need transportation to haul to boats to the reservoir, participation costs are minimal. Laser sailing also takes a lot of physical strength and conditioning, making it a nice workout for both the mind and the body.

After the race, the members head to shore to critique their tactics, review the rules and load up their boats. Astie’s sons, Florent, Gabriel, Romain and Valentin surrounded their father to celebrate his win and help him store his boat. The lone female race of the night, Nell Larson, helped her boyfriend get both of their boats out of the water before heading to shore for more socializing.

The whole group or sometimes a select few members of the club will travel to regional races in California and Colorado to test their skills against other competition. Hurwitch explains that sailing is a social sport where talking and traveling are all a part of the fun.

The club is also hopeful that sailors will soon be on their way to next year’s District 23 championships, which include Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. Sailors from Montana will also likely make the trip.

Both Hurwitch and Nuffer’s passion for sailing extends beyond Tuesday nights. Both also belong to other sailing clubs which race a bigger class of boats, but both love laser boat sailing. It is more than a recreational endeavor. According to Hurwitch, it an event at the Olympics, and boasts the largest one-design sailing fleet in the world with 200,000 boats. Clubs such as the Park City Laser Sailing Association exist all over the country, with the bulk of them in the Northeast, Midwest and California.

The Park City Club is a non-profit and Nuffer and Hurwitch hope to garner a few sponsors in the next year to pay for water usage fees, so the sport can become even more affordable for its members.

For more information about joining the Park City Laser Sailing Association or to become a sponsor, send an e-mail to parksitylasersailing@yahoo.com.


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