Atypical Nautical Fun - SailNet Community
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Atypical Nautical Fun

If you're yearning for more than just the average wind-swept, wave-tossed day, consider the Three Bridge Fiasco, a pursuit race that rounds three marks in San Francisco Bay, in any order.
Boating is ideally a harmonious medium that presents ample opportunities to experience the joys of nature. But if the sport often leaves you hankering for something out of the ordinary, you might take some comfort in knowing that you don't have to charter a boat in Bora Bora to satisfy that yen. Throughout the Northern Hemisphere a variety of unique events exist that truly fit the description of "unusual." With summer in full swing and minds apt to wander, we thought now would be as good a time as any to take a closer look at some waterborne activity that's not exactly run-of-the-mill. Read on:

Three Ring Circus    Racing in light airs and strong currents is never easy, but throw in more than 120 boats in some nine classes—including a single and double-handed division—and a course that can be sailed in any direction in a pursuit format and you have the makings of a truly unique event. The Three Bridge Fiasco, hosted by the Singlehanded Sailing Society of San Francisco Bay is one race that can live up to its name. 

San Francisco Bay is anything but your average sailing locale. In addition to the stunning scenery, currents here can approach six knots in spots as the entire northern and southern bays try to squeeze out under the Golden Gate bridge during an ebb, and the entire Pacific Ocean tries to make its way up to the wine country during the flood.

The starting scenario in this event often makes for the race's most amusing moments. With starting times based on PHRF handicaps (smaller boats start ahead of the larger ones), and the option of starting in either direction, contestants can head for either of the course's three marks: the Blackaller buoy at the Golden Gate Bridge, Red Rock near the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, and Treasure Island under the Bay Bridge (hence the event's name). The course measures 21 miles and sailors can round the marks in any order from any direction. If you sign up, just brush up on your racing rules first and watch out for commercial traffic.

Cream of the Crop    Climate may well play a role in nautical nuttiness, evident perhaps no place else on the globe as clearly as in Minneapolis, MN at that metropolis' annual Aquatennial Milk Carton Boat Race. The event started in 1971 as a publicity stunt for a local milk distributor to get teens to drink more milk. The idea is simple, build a vessel from a milk carton and race it across a 100-yard course by means of human propulsion—including oars, human charioteers towing the craft, or sail power—to victory.

This svelt craft made from milk cartons not only proved the speediest in the 2001 edition of the Aquatennial Milk Carton Boat Race, but also participated in the first event back in 1971.
Capricious breezes make depending solely on sail power a risky proposition in this contest, but many entries have failed to go anywhere and still scored big in the creativity category. Victory can take the form of the fastest boat, the most creative boat, and of course the boat that has the most pronounced cow theme. Fifty-four boats and 255, uh, let's call them mariners, were on the starting line this year, competing for a $900 pot, all of them having a blast of a time in the process.

A one half-gallon milk carton provides four pounds of flotation. Adhering to or ignoring that simple law of physics has instilled some hands-on insight in maritime engineering for competitors in the event through the years. "If your crew weighs 600 pounds, you'll need 15 0 milk cartons," advises the how-to-build-a-milk-carton-boat website ( "The next step is vital, one many first-timers ignore. Put a bow on your boat! And a stern! You'd be surprised how fast your boat will be once you put a point on the end of your boat. This step separates you from the Huck Finn set—it turns your raft into a boat! With a bow and stern you will be far more hydrodynamic. The difference is startling."

"The next step is vital, one many first-timers ignore. Put a bow on your boat! And a stern! You'd be surprised how fast your boat will be once you put a point on the end of your boat."
Just what is life like aboard one of these creations? "Waves, wind and water can make life miserable for your boat," say participants. Many boats aren't rock-solid on the water; and organizers caution that you're likely to momentarily dip under if you have but one row of cartons underneath you.

"There can be a lot of shudder on a milk-carton boat, with the paddling and movement. Long boats can also twist in the water, or bow up in the middle or ends, depending on where your people are. You will want to secure the item on your craft, unless you are certain you have enough floatation for your floor to stay above water, or you have built a wall around the perimeter of the boat. Water coming over your freeboard often happens."

Some design rules exist, but mostly this is a free-for-all. Boat frames and decks can be made from other materials, but flotation must come solely from whole plastic or cardboard milk cartons that are taped or glued together. Shrink-wrapping is prohibited, although oar locks, under current regulations, are now back. No orange juice cartons or ice cream cartons are permitted, but plastic milk jugs are fine. And lest you think these dairy deacons are joking, just remember that throughout the years boats have been disqualified from prizes because they failed to follow these rules.

The largest entry ever in the event was the 100-foot aircraft carrier TetraPak, which raced in 1991. Constructed from 24,000 milk cartons, the double-decker craft reportedly carried 128 people. While their were no such giants in this year’s event, the prize for creativity ($500), went to Cootie (named and modeled after the children’s game), which handed a crushing defeat to Poop Deck, a giant toilet. And this year Spirit of ’71, with 70-year-old Dudley Flamm at the controls, went on to win the speed contest, fighting off a spirited challenge from much younger crews. Spirit of ’71 actually competed in the 1971 event, and was literally moth-balled in the attic for some 30 years. 

Fly 100 meters, collect $35,000. While lifejackets are required in the Birdman competition, common sense can be temporarily put on hold.

Much Further Afield    If that strikes you as out-of-the-ordinary, hold on to your hat and put on a helmet. Taking "sailing" to the extreme, 27 wacky fliers congregated at Bognor Regis in England last month, attracted by the chance to win a 25,000-pound (that's roughly $35,000 US) bonus for becoming the first person to break the 100-meter barrier. Called the Birdman competition, this unusual undertaking happens just once a year when entrants, wearing everything from Leonardo di Vinci-styled wings to little more than a diaper to hide their modesty, jump from a platform 35 feet in the air and attempt to fly 100 meters. Pretty much anything man-powered is permitted. Some entrants use helium-filled balloons to hold up their hopes—for at least a second or two—as year after year they brave ignominy and the icy waters of the English Channel for a crack at fame and fortune.

The challenge has remained unmet for 28 years, but that doesn’t seem to discourage entrants whom come from across Europe to test their luck. Despite the Birdman’s pan-European appeal, in almost three decades the closest competitor, however, is Bognor-born-and-bred David Bradshaw who flew 90 meters on his first attempt back in 1992.

Bradshaw was back again this year with a sophisticated set of wings, but managed only 40.65 meters. He was beaten on the day by Ron Freeman (44) who has competed in every event since 1997 and has posted the greatest distance for the past four years. This year Freeman covered 52.6 meters before splashing down ignominiously short of the magic distance.

One competitor soars toward the mark, only to splash down ignobly short. There's always next year.

Held on only one day of the year off the end of Bognor's Victorian pier, the contest requires that the flyers make the most of what conditions they get. David Bradshaw, recalling his 90-meter flight nine years ago said: "That year the wind was just right, and conditions were excellent. It was a near perfect flight."

While the barrier remains unbroken for yet another year, there was plenty of action on hand to amuse the 25,000 or so spectators thronging the beach. Robin Reeves, the winner of the Comic Category for the past three years, finished a lowly tenth after recording a flight of 4.72 meters and dropping into the sea in just 1.27 seconds! Last year he won with a flying broomstick and a costume he says was inspired by an ex-wife!

But there is always next year with a date set for Sunday August 11 when the 25,000-pound prize will be brought up from the vaults once more for the first man—or woman—to fly 100 meters! Of course these aren't the only nutty events out there, so stand by and we'll keep you posted.

The piece on the Birdman competition comes courtesy of world-renown yachting photographer Barry Pickthall and the Pickthall Picture Library.

Suggested Reading:

Docking with Grace and Humor Michelle Potter

Strange Contraptions in Foreign Ports by Gary Kirpatrick

Hard Lessons Relearned by Dan Dickison

Buying Guide: VHF Radios

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