Sailors on shore: Radio-controlled sailboats race at Mackle Park

Lance Shearer

For many decades, the classic America’s Cup sailing competitors were known as 12-meter yachts, and popularized sail racing all around the world.

Marco Island is a mecca for another type of sailboat race, utilizing what could be called “one-meter yachts.” This weekend, the biggest names in radio-controlled sailing brought their remotely operated Laser boats to Mackle Park, for the 15th annual Mid-Winter Radio-Controlled Laser Championship Regatta, going gunwale to gunwale with the stiffest competition the sport has to offer.

Race Director Dave Brawner instructs skippers. The Marco Island Model Yacht Club held their annual Mid-Winter R/C Laser Championship Regatta this weekend at Mackle Park, attracting radio-controlled sailboats from all over the country.

Their boats are one-meter vessels because that is approximately the length of the identical sailboats each captain races, with LWL or length at the waterline just under 38 inches. After a couple of heats, the skippers pluck the boats out of the water with specially designed poles hooking onto a fitting amidships, pick them up and carry them to the grass at the water’s edge.

The boats are identical, with no customization or tweaking, not even sanding or adding a nonstick finish to the bottom to add a little speed, so that the competition should come down to the skill of the individual helmsman. This is classic one-design racing, just on a smaller scale.

“This is the longest-standing RC laser regatta in the country,” said race co-organizer Rocky Cale. “Marco Island is one of the biggest races on the circuit.”

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.

The skippers, safely on shore, control their miniature boats, which are 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 Saturday’s races, the typical boat was carrying its B rig, with wind out of the northeast ranging from eight to 12 mph. Most of the sailors don’t even bother with a D rig, the smallest sail used for the strongest winds.

Whereas in Florida real estate parlance, any body of water that does not dry up on a sunny day is called a lake, the skippers refreshingly referred to their venue for the local races as “Mackle pond.”

The first series of races on Saturday morning sorted the 24 entries into a gold and silver fleet, with the top finishers in the early going competing in the gold fleet. Competitors came from as far away as Park City, Utah – Roger Baldwin, who made cut into the gold fleet, but finished at the bottom of those rankings – to Maine, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Jim Kaighin, from Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas’ Abaco Islands, swept the competition in the Gold fleet, repeating his victory in last year’s regatta. Finishing in sixth place, Marco Island’s Cale was the top local finisher. Richard Flach of Bonita Springs came in eighth, and Marco’s Terry Naylon finished in ninth.

The group rendezvoused for dinner Saturday evening at the Marco Island Yacht Club, and had an informal get-together at Stan’s in Goodland after the competion of racing. While the annual regatta is the MISYC’s big event, the club meets and sails every Thursday and Sunday afternoon at Mackle Park.