The Rockville Regatta - SailNet Community
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The Rockville Regatta

The once-a-year epicenter of racing in Charleston—the Sea Island Yacht Club.
For eons, the murky waters of Bohicket Creek have swirled past the high banks and ancient live oaks that host the sleepy village of Rockville, just southwest of Charleston, SC. It's a town of some 20 houses, two churches, and a modest community hall that serves as home to the Sea Island Yacht Club. For three days each summer, the hall becomes the epicenter of sailboat racing in South Carolina's Lowcountry—the coastal region that stretches from the Georgia border nearly all the way up the shore to North Carolina.

The Rockville Regatta holds a special significance and appeal for everyone who attends. Much of this stems from the fact that it's always been somewhat of a family affair, with its ranks populated by the descendants of plantation owners who annually sought refuge from the August heat in their summer homes here. In part it's the regatta's esteemed heritage—dating back to a race between two cousins who allegedly sought to settle a matter of family pride out on the water aboard their scow-like work boats over 11 decades ago. And it's partially the fact that this series of races is the season-capping event for Charleston sailors. But it also has to do with the 400-plus spectator craft that anchor or raft up on the far side of the river, giving the proceedings a raucous, yet festive, atmosphere—sort of like NASCAR meets Wimbledon.

There's also the notion that for almost everyone competing here, the Rockville Regatta represents a chance to finally get it right—to finally put together all the aspects of a good race after a summer's worth of practice. Though the race committee gives itself the option of 10 possible courses to select from, the geography of the racing area (the narrow Bohicket Creek and the adjoining North Edisto River) makes the strategy fairly straightforward, even for out-of-towners. Staying out of the current when it's against you and in it when it's with you is essentially the key. Other than that, it's just a matter of staying in the breeze and staying fast.

Island Spirit, one of seven boxy yet classic Sea Island One Designs at Rockville this year.
That said, no one underestimates the tidal currents here. "That's some of the worst current in the Charleston area out there," says Ernest Grimball III. Grimball, who drives one of the seven classic and indigenous Sea Island One Designs at the event, has raced in this area most of his adult life. Despite his keen appreciation of the tides, he found himself relearning an old lesson after he was lured out into adverse current in the second race of the series and ended up losing two places in the span of as many minutes. "It runs strong out there in the North Edisto," said Grimball with a shake of his head.

For Rose Hamm Rowland, a local mathematics professor who stepped back into racing about five years ago after a 15-year hiatus, the tides don't present much of a problem. "I don't think there's anything secret about the current here—it's just wicked. Of course you can't get out of the tide and go where you'd like to go because of the spectator fleet."

Rose Hamm Rowland—traveling the learning curve in the Sunfish.
What Hamm Rowland means is that, due to an arrangement the race organizers have with the roughly six different branches of local law enforcement that monitor the event, the sailors aren't allowed to sail through the spectator boats and the powerboats aren't allowed to interfere on the racing side. By way of a line of pink, spherical buoys, the officials gerrymander the creek, splitting it into two zones—the racing area and partyville. In general it works to make things go more smoothly between the two populations, but it doesn't keep the racers from grousing about how they might have less current if they could sail across to where the water is shallow.

After a lengthy postponement, the first race got started in a light, six to eight-knot breeze with a vicious flood tide sweeping up the creek. The start of each of the seven classes was almost anticlimactic as the boats crawled to weather against the brine. Among the nine-boat E-Scow fleet, Peter Hamm set the pace, finding breeze on the far side of the North Edisto River. After returning up Bohicket Creek, the fleet marched past the spectator boats several times, yielding cheers and jeers and at least a few rebel yells.

Ed Durant—king of the MC Scows at Rockville.
In the MC-Scow class, Ed Durant from Augusta, GA, grabbed the first bullet. "For me," he explained later, "just winning the start was the key, because it became somewhat of a drag race. It was light and shifty, and in those conditions, the lead boat has the advantage." Durant, who has spent the last two years actively improving his abilities in the MC Scow, had his hands full with Savannah's John MacIntosh. "I've sailed here four or five times," said Durant. "Today I mostly hugged the spectator fleet to stay out of tide, or in the good tide, but these conditions are perfect for the guys from Savannah, because this is what they sail in all the time. They're right up on the river there and there's lots of tide on their racecourses."

MacIntosh proved Durant right in the second race by posting a win of his own. With the breeze building to 15-plus knots, and the flood now turned to an ebb, the sailors sought lanes in the middle of the creek heading upwind, and stuck to the edges downwind. After tacking their way out of the creek, the E-Scows planed across the North Edisto River on a reach, passing most of the Sea Island One Designs in the process. The course took them back across the river into the creek where they set their spinnakers and sailed as close as possible to the spectator fleet to stay out of the ebb.

Local sailmakers Peter and George Durst succeeded in putting together their best race of the season; with flawless spinnaker trim and good mark roundings, they brought Dixie home to a win in Race Two by a fair margin. And John Townsend, a local meteorologist found his stride to win the race among the 10 boats in the Sunfish Masters class. In the Sea Island One Designs, it was all Dave Stanger as he and his crew on board Cygnet II nearly locked up the competition with two firsts.

Brad Law (in the window) and his crew prior to winning the last race among the E-Scows.
The following day, the breeze built more quickly, and the race committee responded, promptly sending the classes off in a strong flood tide. This time, it was Brad Law's chance to pull it all together. With only three years under his belt in the local E-Scow class, Law isn't usually considered a threat, but he and his crew were the first to get out of the tide on the far side of the creek and they gradually sped away. Adding to their lead on each of the five legs, they crossed the finish line first by over 300 yards, and reaped the reward of some hearty cheers.

With the August heat in full force, the sailors gathered up on the broad veranda of the hall for the awards. Sea Island Yacht Club Commodore Michael Storen addressed the rowdy, sun-weary group of competitors with praise: "Y'all should be proud. You've taken this event into its third century and you're continuing a very rich tradition of racing here." As the trophies were handed out and the din subsided, the powerboats across the river began to pull up their anchors and scatter.

Out on the lawn, Rose Hamm Rowland happily stows her Sunfish gear for some future regatta. "In the last year, I've gone to three away regattas," she says. "I sailed the Sunfish Nationals for Masters in Delaware, and the Sunfish International Masters, and then the Sunfish Women's in Texas. I'm learning things by going to those events, and that's good because I've got a lot to learn. Here at Rockville, I've learned to look at the leaders' boats and see how they're set up. I've followed them around the course, and now I'm spying on them," she concludes with a laugh. Musing back over the event, she appears satisfied. "The sailors take this seriously," she says. "For the folks out on the water and on the bank, it's a happening. Between those two extremes, I guess I'd say the atmosphere here is, well, wonderful."  


Dan Dickison is offline  
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