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Sailing Away at St. James: Radio-Controlled Sailing Catches on with Retirees

Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

There seems to be some truth in that old (slightly modified) adage, “You can take the boy out of the boat, but you can’t take the boat out of the boy.”

Or so it would appear if you stop by the St. James Plantation Sea Side pond on any Tuesday afternoon. That’s when you’ll find at least 12 to 15 grown men racing their brightly colored radio-controlled (RC) model sailboats.

This newest sport in St. James is the result of Brad Wells’ quest for some way to use the pond in his back yard.

“I’m not a fisherman,” Wells says, “so I Googled ideas for what else to do on a pond, and I found RC boats. I knew I couldn’t get a motorboat because the neighbors would complain about the noise, but a sailboat doesn’t make any noise, so they wouldn’t object to that.”

As Wells was sailing his boat one day in October of last year, someone stopped his car and came over to watch. The visitor was immediately intrigued; he bought his own boat and suggested they form a RC sailboat club.

In November the club formed the St. James Plantation Model Yacht Club and got permission from the community’s developer to use the pond for their races. The club now has up to 27 members.

Each member has a different story to tell about how and why he got into RC sailing. One new retiree sold his full-size boat and then regretted it. He told his wife he was going to buy another one and it was either going to be a $30,000 full-size sailboat or a $300 RC model. The choice was hers. A week later he had his new model boat and presumably a much relieved wife.

The club races Nirvana Class boats made by Megatech International and sold primarily through SailRC, a family-owned business located in Ohio and Florida. According to Wells, now commodore of the fleet, the Nirvana was chosen because it is “out of the box, into the water.”

“We didn’t want to mess around with assembling the thing,” Wells says. “It’s also a quality boat with molded ABS plastic, and the price was right — about $300.”

The boat measures 32 inches in length and 64 inches in height and weighs 5.5 pounds. There are two motors — one controls the set of the sails and the other controls the pitch of the rudder. In a good wind, the boats can go about 20 mph.

The only problem with the Nirvana is that they have become so popular that they are currently out of stock. According to Megatech, they should be getting a shipment from their offshore manufacturing facility by mid-June. But for those of you who would like to have one sooner, used ones are available on Ebay and Craig’s List. And used models soon will be listed on SailRC’s website.

The Nirvana is only one of 30 different classes of RC sailboats. The club at Plantation Village in Wilmington races Fairwinds, both the 900s and the newer 3s. According Commodore Bob Bennett, “We race every Sunday, weather permitting.” Bennett’s group is mostly in their 80s. Bennett is 92.

The RC Laser is another popular choice for model yacht clubs. This class is a little larger, quite a bit faster and nearly twice the price. But it has a devoted following.

Theresa Rae Gay, the sales and marketing guru at SailRC, says model racing is largely the sport of the retired set, many of whom sailed full-size boats once upon a time. However, according to her, it isn’t hard to learn how to sail, it’s just difficult to be good at it.

“Beginners can watch the more experienced sailors and copy what they are doing to take advantage of the wind,” she says. “But the guy with the most skill who understands the wind patterns and control of the sail and rudder and has a strategy will win out every time.”

For those tempted to try this new sport, SailRC sponsors an annual “Geezer ‘Gatta.” The reference to “geezer” and implication that this is a “for men only” sport is not entirely correct. It is just that male skippers outnumber women by about 12 to one.

Here’s what Steve Lang, SailRC’s founder and owner, says about the “Geezer ‘Gatta” on the company’s website: “Leave your boat at home (you will sail ours), forget the hotel bill (you will lodge with us free), and forget about qualifying, you do that with age (55 or better).”

The 2013 event was held in late April in Nashville, Tenn. All participants were hosted by families in the Del Webb Community and thoroughly enjoyed the ambience, camaraderie and competition.

Radio-controlled sailboat racing is not a new sport. It has been around since the late 1940s. What is new is this sudden burst of enthusiasm for forming clubs and building up fleets of class boats for local competition, especially in retirement communities. In order to compete, each boat must be in the same class. Each class of boat has its own specifications for design, size, weight, materials used, electronics, etc., and the owners are not allowed to modify their boat in any way to enhance its performance. The specifications and rules are clearly spelled out on the American Model Yachting Association’s website (www.theamya.org ). The website also lists a directory of clubs, tutorials, suppliers and just about anything else you need to know to get started.

SailRC is promoting this fleet idea by giving a big price break for multiple orders at one time. The buzz around the RC sailing world is that SailRC is going to introduce its own boat this fall. It was designed by Jon Elmaleh, the same engineer who developed the Nirvana, and has had extensive prototype testing. It is reputed to be a little larger and a lot faster than the Nirvana, but it will still be priced about the same. Keep checking SailRC’s website for updates ( www.sailrc.com ).

The Kettering Model Sailing Club in Ohio lists several advantages to RC sailing — it’s very relaxing, it’s easy to learn (though much harder to be good at), it produces no noise, it can involve the whole family, and it’s inexpensive. But perhaps Commodore Wells of the St. James Plantation Model Yacht Club sums it up best when he says, “The way I look at it is, these are 25 nice guys I never would have met if it weren’t for this club.”

Sounds like reason enough to buy a boat and join a club, especially when you are an old geezer!

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