It was all smiles 30 minutes before the boats went into the water. Friends shook hands and caught up on one another’s lives. Some navigators even shared wild berries in what could only be described as a nautical utopia, but then when the Hobie Cats hit the water, it was a different story. Father shouting at daughter, Friend yelling at friend, and that was just the conversations between crew members.
Last weekend, the Hobie Class Association Division 4 held the Pacific Northwest Area Championship at Lake Quinault on Saturday and Sunday. A Hobie Cat is a small sailing catamaran (consisting of two hulls). The Pacific Northwest Area Championship consisted of sailors from Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Western Montana and British Columbi,a and was one of only four area championships across North America. Around 40 boats participated in the two-day championship, making for stiff competition even if the wind wasn’t so stiff the first day.
The brightly colored sails livened up the sometimes gray surroundings of the lake, but even before the boats left shore it was almost as if a family reunion was being conducted as skippers and crew from different boats shared pleasantries, asked about children and jobs and chewed on the occassional Cliff bar.
For most of the participants from Grays Harbor, their linage in the sport can be traced back to Al Jones of Montesano. Jones, who skippered in the event with his 16-year-old daughter, Kailey, as crew, has been sailing for decades now.
“When I was in high school, the YMCA used to have boats at Lake Aberdeen and when the wind was blowing a friend of mine and I would go out and grab these little sailboats and start sailing,” Al Jones said. “I always wanted a Hobie Cat. They were colorful, they’re fast.”
Jones bought a 16-foot version of the catamaran in the early 1990s and ever since he has shared his love with his friends and relatives. In addition to instilling a love of sailing in Kailey, Jones piqued the interest of Mike Gross of Central Park, who was also skippering a boat last weekend. Gross had his daughter, Kortney, as crew, but his son, Andrew, was skippering his own boat. One of the former crew for Jones, Dana Ballou of Montesano, was crewing one of the 18-foot boats competing in the championship. Ballou has shared Jones passion for sailing for several years.
“It is pretty exciting, especially when it is windy,” Ballou said. “When it gets really windy, you can hike out on one hull and it is really an adrenaline rush.”
Ballou competed as crew on a Hobie Cat at the youth North Americans last year and he knows full well how tense it can be sailing at times. Windy conditions make for fast racing and a strenuous environment as one wrong move can throw a crew member off the boat or, even worse, cause the boat to tip over or crash into another boat. While the wind makes for a hectic race at times, little wind can be even worse.
“When the wind is light, it becomes a real mental game,” Al Jones said. “When the wind is heavy, it becomes a real survival game.”
Saturday was the most mental of games as the wind barely swept through parts of the lake and puffed heavily in other parts, But, overall, there were many moments with little boat movement. With each move meaning more and more, the tense comments may have seemed like yelling, but in the end each quick, curt comment was followed by an apology back on the shore. The sailors were only able to finish three races in more than five hours on the water Saturday, but came back to finish five races in about the same amount of time Sunday.
When the waves settled after the weekend of racing, Ballou finished first in the 18-foot class as the crew for Jerry Valeske. Peter Nelson of Seattle won the 16-foot class that Jones, Mike Gross and Andrew Gross were competing in, with Laura Sullivan also of Seattle as crew. Nelson and Sullivan finished first in four out of the five races on Sunday to recover from a less than stellar day of racing Saturday. Will Nelson of Seattle finished first in the 14-foot class. The father-daughter team of Al and Kailey Jones had a hard time rebounding from the tough conditions Saturday, but still managed to finish in the top half of the 16-foot class in seventh place.
Last year the competition quickly took a back seat as some of the racers were involved in a crash that damaged a couple of boats. Competitors put aside competitive spirits and woke up at 6 a.m. to help make sure that none of the boats would miss the start of the first race.
The tough competition caused many to strive to reach the flag first at all costs, but for some sailors just getting on the lake again was a win in itself. It is hard not to laugh when you first see Andrew Gross’ Hobie Cat. The hulls are painted orange, but what gets a chuckle from most is the skull and cross blades on the yellow part of the sail. Andrew started sailing in 2005 and was given his own Hobie Cat four years ago. He enjoyed being on the water, but the last two championships have had new meaning. Not long after the 2012 competition, Andrew Gross had a relapse of Hodgkin Lymphoma. He spent two and a half months battling at the University of Washington Medical Center, and through the time in the hospital he received letters and cards from fellow sailors telling him to get well. It was also a hard time for Gross’ longtime friend and crew member Daniel Hargrove of Hoquiam.
“It is hard to put into words when something like that is going on,” Hargrove said. “You walk into the hospital room and he looked like death. It was like getting hit in the chest with a sledge hammer. Not only being able to do this, but play football and rugby, everything that he comes back to do after going through that is a blessing. Every experience is a new blessing to have him around.”
When Andrew Gross made his return to the championship race last year the other sailors agreed to dedicate the event to Gross.
“I gained a lot of perspective from the whole experience,” Andrew Gross said. “I enjoy sailing even more. The people are special. It is a really neat community. For how far apart people live, we have people from Canada here and Oregon and Spokane and Seattle, it is really close knit.”