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Le Mans sailboat race a well-loved and wacky local tradition

Posted on November 13th, 2023 By: Chapin Day

“All hands below deck!”

Weather permitting, that strange command should echo around Gig Harbor next Saturday morning, Nov. 18, just five minutes before one of the world’s wackiest sailboat racing starts.

Even the most committed landlubber ashore, ignorant of sail racing’s rules or which side is port and which side is starboard, can enjoy the ensuing, often beautiful, scramble and spectacle. Bring a camera.

The occasion: The annual Le Mans Race, sponsored by the Gig Harbor Yacht Club but open to anyone equipped with an anchor, a qualified sailboat, a competitive streak, a sense of fun, and a $45 or $50 entry fee.

Fee for watching the entertaining start from vantage points ashore or afloat: $0.

Sailboats will crowd Gig Harbor again on Saturday, Nov. 18, for the Gig Harbor Yacht Club’s annual Le Mans Race. Photo by Chapin Day.

Inspired by a car race

“Even people who do not sail love to look at sailboats,” says Chris Neely, a former club commodore and experienced sailor.

The unique event draws its name from the French 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race, a highlight of European car racing since 1923.

Originally, Le Mans drivers would line up on one side of a starting area with their cars lined up — engines off — on the other side.

At the starting signal, the drivers would dash across the pavement, jump into their cars, start ’em up and roar away. It was exciting, messy, accident-provoking and replete with fan-luring danger.

In 1970, spurred by safety concerns, Le Mans officials abandoned the method. However, in Gig Harbor three years earlier, the technique had inspired a chat between two yachtsmen.

LeMans a tradition for 55 years

As club member Erik Carlson, one of this year’s race organizers, tells it, the two were his dad, Dick Carlson, and noted boatbuilder Ed Hoppen.

Their chat — perhaps beverage-fueled — yielded a question: Could there be a Le Mans start yacht race?

Sailboats will crowd Gig Harbor again on Saturday, Nov. 18, for the Gig Harbor Yacht Club’s annual Le Mans Race. Photo by Chapin Day.

In answering, that year they launched a tradition, an annual race that for 55 years has begun with the boats literally stuck in the mud, their anchors down, their skippers and crews huddled below deck, their sails lowered.

To realize how unique that is, it helps to know that most sailboat races begin with the boats already under full sail, maneuvering behind a starting line with the goal of arriving at the line at top speed just as the starting gun — or horn — goes off.

To enjoy watching Saturday’s event, spectators have no need to know all or any of the rules, but a few notes culled from the club’s racing instructions might help in deciding where to watch as the yachts start and work their way out of the harbor.

Where to watch

Starting horns will sound from Ancich Park, off of which two starting areas will be set — one for smaller yachts, one for larger, all at anchor.  The smaller boats start first at 10 a.m., followed at 10:10 a.m. by the usually faster large yachts.

For each group, a horn five minutes before their start triggers those orders: “All hands below deck!” By the time another horn sounds one minute later, all crew must be out of sight.

When the start horn frees them from four minutes of forced confinement, sailors scramble from the hatches to raise the anchor, deploy the sails, and begin their dash to the nearby starting line, then on to the narrow hourglass of crowded water at the harbor entrance.

Publicly available viewing area suggestions, gathered from several experienced sources, include Ancich Park, piers at Skansie Park and The Tides, the eastside boat launch, the “lighthouse” sand spit (accessible only by water), and, of course, the old ferry landing park at the end of Harborview.

Sailboats will crowd Gig Harbor again on Saturday, Nov. 18, for the Gig Harbor Yacht Club’s annual LeMans Race. Photo by Chapin Day.

Wind in their sails?

Club member Jamie Storkman, says the ferry park is the choice for many.  Fans and families of race sailors often gather there “to cheer on their favorites,” Storkman says.

He should know.  He has sailed in the Le Mans event for over 40 years.

“What kind of weather has cancelled the race in the past?” Gig Harbor Now asked. “Snow? Rain?”

“Lack of wind,” Storkman said.  One year, he recalls, the fleet was not able to capture enough breeze to get out of the harbor.

Last year as the race began, a cooperative breeze inside the harbor allowed crews to raise their spinnakers, those colorful, powerful, ballooning sails seen in the adjoining photos.

Once out of the harbor, Saturday’s racers will proceed up Colvos Passage before rounding a floating mark for the return trip to the finish line in the harbor.  On the morning of the race, officials say, they will choose between a 10-mile or 14-mile course.

The course

The latter would place the turning mark just 400 yards off the Olalla Bridge, creating yet another vantage point and photo opportunity for spectators.

Although the fleet likely will be spread out by the time yachts return Saturday afternoon, swift and quirky currents created by tidal change at the narrow harbor entrance could create entertaining challenges for boats engaged in close battles for position in the push for the finish.

For the winners: Trophies and bragging rights.  For all crews: Welcoming hot food and drinks at the club.

For spectators: As former commodore Neely put it, an opportunity to witness “the beauty, skill and tradition in our little harbor town.”

LeMans Race

Registration for the race remains open. For race registration or information, contact Gig Harbor Yacht Club website or Jaime Storkman (253) 224-906-8402 or Gary Cousins (253) 312-6440)