Small boats, big wind: Radio-controlled sailboats compete at Mackle Park

Lance Shearer

If there had been little model sailors in the little model sailboats, they would have been dealing with some big waves.

Over the weekend, some of the biggest names in small boat sailing converged on Marco Island for the 14th Annual RC Laser Midwinter Championship Regatta. With competitors coming from up and down the eastern seaboard and one champion skipper from Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas, the competition was as stiff as the winds.

Contestants jockey for position at the starting line. The Marco Island Model Yacht Club held the 14th Annual RC (radio-controlled) Laser Midwinter Championship Regatta March 4 and 5 at a windy Mackle Park.

And that means something, as gusts were clocked over 40 mph on one sailor’s anemometer, with steady easterly winds blowing well up in the 20s. The lake at Mackle Park, even with limited “fetch” for the seas to build, developed sore serious wavelets, heeled the racing craft over till their sails were in the water, and regularly buried the nose of the boats.

The skippers, though, were safely on shore, controlling their miniature replicas of competitive Laser sloops with remote radio transmitters, allowing them to control the rudders and “sheets,” the lines that trim the sails. The serious competitors travel with a variety of sail sizes to use depending on wind conditions, starting with the A rig for calm days. For Sunday’s finals, the typical boat was carrying its C rig – and most of the sailors don’t even bother with a D rig, the smallest sail used for the strongest winds.

“Not many people own the D rig. I’ve never even used my C rig until this race,” said skipper Mike Campbell, down from Clementon, NJ for the race. He got into model sail racing after selling his 38-ft. Tartan sloop. “I got tired of doing the varnishing,” he said.

While the boats were regularly knocked flat by wind gusts, they popped up again, thanks to the long bulb keels under each one. While fine for the lake at Mackle Park, these would not work well for an actual sailboat in the “skinny water” surrounding Marco Island, which puts a premium on shallow draft to allow one to get in close to land.

The boats also recovered easily from collisions as they jockeyed for position before the starting gun for each race, or crowded each other as they rounded buoys on the course.

Freddie and Dorian Goldberg of West Palm Beach are a husband and wife team, or perhaps competitors, as they race his and hers boats. Freddie is a three-time world champion in the RC boats, and raced actual Lasers in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He said the thrill of sailing is the same with either type of craft.

“The only difference is at the end of the day, my legs and back don’t hurt” with the model boats, he said. Dorian Goldberg came from behind Sunday, winning her last four races to win the Silver fleet. She narrowly edged out Marco Islander Terry Naylon, who had been leading but ended up with second place.

Jim Kaighin, from the Bahamas’ Abaco Islands, swept the competition in the Gold fleet, said race co-organizer Rocky Cale.

“Everybody sailed 17 races, and he had 14 firsts,” said Cale. “Jim was unbelievable.” The Marco Island event was the culmination of the “Snowbird” or Southern Series, which includes races in Naples, Punta Gorda, the Villages and other Florida cities. The regatta was sponsored by the Marco Island Model Yacht Club, in conjunction with the city’s Parks & Recreation Department.