Henry Thomas is the head of the United States Soling Association. He loves his sport and he knows pretty much everyone in it. He invited me to discuss the beauties of micro sports with participants in the recent national championship.
A Soling is a highly tuned three-person racing boat that can be winched out of the water and towed from place to place on a good-sized trailer. A used one costs about $15,000 with another $5000 or $6000 for sails. A new one would cost about $40,000-$45,000 if any were being made. They are not. Fortunately, according to Thomas, “Solings last a long time.” Otherwise, much that is good about sport would be lost albeit by a very small number of people.
There are 16 Soling fleets in the United States. Four of them are in the Pacific, five are in the Great Lakes, four are on the East Coast, one is on Lake Champlain, one is in Texas and the last is in America’s well-known sailing hotbed: Oklahoma.
The United States Championship took place in Annapolis Maryland in early April. Peter Hall, a Canadian and a two-time world champion, took top honors ahead of two other Canadians, Cookie Kanter and Blair Tully. Andy Dize was the first American finisher and the first with a female crewmember. Thomas finished 10th, just behind the Stu Walker, who wrote the only published account of the event. Walker is 90 years old.
Before racing began, the fleet paid tribute to Hans Fogh, a Scandinavian Canadian who had died since the end of the last season. A few months ago, Fogh taught his fellow club members How to Win.
If recognition, college scholarships or big bucks are your goals, sailing Solings is not for you. John Kennedy, the seventh place finisher from Illinois, posted his take on Why We Race on the website of The Sheridan Shore Yacht Club.
“Each of us climbs onto our boats on race day motivated by a variety of factors. Some are in our consciousness like competition (I want to win today), or commitment (I promised myself I’d sail today), or even escape (I have to get out of the house).”
“Whatever reason gets us to the harbor, let’s face it, getting a boat ready to race is no easy task. There is crew to coordinate, the deck needs cleaning, the sails have to be hoisted, and then there is getting out of the most tightly packed harbor in the world. Whatever your tasks, it certainly takes a lot more effort than driving to the ‘club’ for a round of 18 holes. So why do we do it? Here are some perhaps more subtle ‘reasons,’ starting at the beginning: the boat; physical conditioning; crew; sail shape; tactical; strategic; steering; awareness; adventure; respect; and humility” each of which he describes on the website with a snippet of detail.
Adding to that list, Tony Parker, another highly regarded international sailor, cites lifelong participation, the pleasure of being on the water, time spent on equipment, meteorology and hydrodynamics in describing sailing as “athletic chess.”
None of the participants objects to winning but nor do any of them seem to make it the top priority. The participants themselves do most of what many athletes would call refereeing under an honor system requiring the skipper to sail a 360-degree penalty circle for a rule violation.
Soling Association head, Thomas, seemed more interested in the visitors he had hosted and the boats he had arranged for them to borrow than in his tenth place finish.
And a female competitor cited a key feature of many sports: “cute guys.”
Maybe it is best that Solings are no longer being built. The delights of a micro sport might diminish if it got too big.
“The boat talks to you” is too much to lose in pursuit of more recognition.