An afternoon of sailboat racing from Bristol’s 111-year-old yacht club.
The boat: Black Pearl. The flag: Jolly Roger skull and crossbones. The goal: Set sail on the Delaware River from Bristol’s ancient Anchor Yacht Club.
This was the situation as family friend Wynne Wert and I boarded the 10,000-pound, 31-foot-long sloop with a 52-foot-high mast. The plan was to cast off on a recent Tuesday afternoon. I envisioned a leisurely parade along the Bristol waterfront. Not exactly. It was a regatta. As in race against other sloops from Anchor Yacht on the north end of town and the East End Yacht Club based across the river at Curtin’s Marina in Burlington City, N.J.
There are 36 clubs on the river estuary stretching 110 miles from Trenton to the Upper Delaware Bay. Anchor Yacht, founded in 1906, is one of the oldest, exceeded only by the Riverton (N.J.) Yacht Club (1865) and the Yapewi Aquatic Club (1892) in Bordentown, N.J. Anchor Yacht sailboats and those from host East End compete in a regatta off Bristol every Tuesday from 5 to 7 p.m. through September.
With a gathering storm to the south, Wynne and I joined others in downing a dockside ceremonial shot of courage from a bottle of British Navy Pusser’s Rum, courtesy of club member Rich Hart. Accompanying us would be a three-man veteran crew under the command of our own Calico Jack, Bruce Goulet, a Bucks County electrician. He named his boat Black Pearl after a treasure he found on a beach in Hawaii long before Johnny Depp became a Walt Disney pirate.
Bruce, looking much like a bearded Ernest Hemingway with a gravely voice, is a master of racing in any weather, having done so since a teenager and having won various regattas over the years. From the ship’s wheel that he secures with his feet when needed, he helms the boat while monitoring depth of the river, the boat’s speed and how the main and genoa sails respond to shifts in the wind. He barks commands to sheet handlers to loosen or bring in lines from a series of winches and cranks that adjust the sails in split seconds. It’s frenetic and noisy, the boom anchoring the sails moving side to side while navigating the regatta course between marker buoys in the river basin between Bristol and Burlington City.
Our captain was determined to win Tuesday’s race. As we bore down river, crewmen Bruce Bartron, James Britland and Sam Hellings unfurled the sails just as lightning crackled from a looming thunder head. Wind intensified. We heeled over 15 degrees and gained speed. Suddenly I was looking steeply down on Wynne on the far side of the open cockpit, white water within her grasp. Minutes later, she was looking down on me as the boat shifted course. River white-caps whipped by us. From the yacht club, someone radioed to all boats about the lightning: “Stay away from the Black Pearl and you’ll be OK.”
It was a joke of course; the lightning was too far off. Still, Capt. Goulet pointed to a cotton knot wound about one small portion of the ship’s stainless-steel wheel. If lightning intensified, he said, grabbing the knot insulates you from a strike on the mast. He cautioned in such circumstances it’s important for all hands to avoid contact with any metal aboard. Wynne removed her watch. We envisioned fighting the captain for the knot if the worst occurred.
As we tacked tightly around a river buoy, Capt. Goulet scolded that the scallywag sloop Hot Canary was pulling away, us in hot pursuit. Sailboats tacked to and fro all around us. A red-hulled boat passed uncomfortably close to our bow – “his fault”, declared our skipper. Wynne and I became moveable ballast, scampering side-to-side in the cockpit to enable Black Pearl to gain a slight speed advantage. We also assisted pulling in lines to the genoa sail aft of the main sail.
All was going well after 90 minutes as we rounded the final bouy and headed windward for the clubhouse, closing on Hot Canary. Then the breeze died. Completely. All contestants were adrift. We soon were traveling stern first, born by incoming tide within view of Bristol’s new docks. Capt. Goulet broke into a wide grin. “The Black Pearl may be the first ship to win the regatta going backwards,” he chortled.
But it was not to be. With no one near the finish line and the sun about to set, the shriek of a boson’s whistle sounded over the radio. Two hours had elapsed. No wind. No winner. We furled our sails and motored back to the anchorage and a joyful landing.
What fun! Good luck to all – next Tuesday.
Information about the Anchor Yacht Club can be found at www.anchoryachtclub.org
Carl LaVO, a retired Courier Times editor, will appear on Sept. 9 from 2-4 p.m. at the 3rd Annual Authors Expo at the Free Library of Northampton Township, 25 Upper Holland Road, Richboro. Carl is the author of five hardcover books including the newly published coffee table book, “Bucks County Adventures.” He can be reached at email@example.com.