Turkey Shoot Regatta

By Tom Neale, 10/6/2005


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30 Poe Bird overall winner 2005, 2001 1996
We’re all going to pass on at some point; it’s a part of life. Sometimes the biggest issue is how well we do it. The good news is that we can usually do it well with a little help from our friends and there should be plenty, since we’re all in the same boat. There were 85 different boats in the Turkey Shoot Regatta this year, representing many different classes, types and vintages. But the people in the boats had a lot in common. They were pursuing their passion of having a good time on the water; and they were contributing to Hospice—helping friends and neighbors.

The Turkey Shoot Regatta began 15 years ago as nothing more than a fun sailboat race among a few friends. The waters were the Rappahannock River between Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula—in the heartland of what used to be the great Powhatan Confederation, the loosely knit Indian Nation of Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. John McConnico then owner of Yankee Point Marina and a fun loving serious offshore sailor, was the culprit behind it (and he still is). A friend, Chuck Harney also helped to get it going. He’s now deceased, but his Cheoy Lee “Pleiades” raced this year, crewed by his wife and friends. Thanksgiving was the time, hence the name “Turkey Shoot Regatta.” (A turkey shoot usually occurs around Thanksgiving and is often for a charitable purpose. The participants shoot at targets or engage in some other type of contest, and the winner gets a big turkey.) But blustery cold late November was too much like “not fun.” Soon it was moved to early October and participation rapidly grew from the original 9 or 10 boats. Some years back, John and others decided to do more than just have a good time. They set it up to make money to give to the local area Hospices. This was already being done in other sailing areas, but they had a different idea: limit the race to boats with designs of 25 years old and older. Now almost 100 boats race and people and businesses all over the Northern Neck and surrounding areas donate so that the participants have a great time and 4 area Hospices are better able to serve. It also helps to preserve the heritage of many beautiful old boats. Some of the boats racing had been previously abandoned, even sunk, and had been purchased at local Kiwanis used boat auctions (for charity) and refurbished and revised, with blood sweat and tears, by their new owners.

Having Fun and Doing Good

1. There are many opportunities to organize boating events that benefit others.

2. There is a National Hospice Regatta Alliance. You can get information about this and other regattas benefiting this cause at www.hospiceregattas.org

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Lots of things define this regatta. The special spirit of the race is well exemplified by the story of the “Poe Bird.” A few years ago, eighty(ish) year old Lee Williams sleighed across the line in his 40 year old 24 foot Raven sailboat. He’d bought it for $1,000 in the early 60s and this day was racing single handed. The rest of the fleet was far behind. “Have I won?” he yelled up to the committee boat. “No,” they said. You’re supposed to go around twice; you only went around once.

He yelled back without pause, “Well OK then, I’ll go around again if that’s the way you want it, but which way is the next mark?”

Obligingly, they gave him the compass bearing.

“No, I mean point which way. With your finger. I don’t have a compass.”

They did, he took off, and was soon back at the line, the winner by far. Next year he was back with a compass: a fold-up Boy Scout pocket compass with a needle that bounced around like a grasshopper in a sand storm.

He won again a later year, and yet again, for the third time, this year, even though he was weighted down with two crew and a “real” compass. He’s the first to win three regattas. Now he’ll represent the Turkey Shoot Regatta in the national sailing regatta for Hospice in Annapolis next year.

Different years have been marked by different things. Last year one of the skipjacks capsized. Skipjacks are shallow draft wooden beautiful sail boats, built for commercial dredging and fishing. Some are still in the trade, most are quite old. Others are in museums or preserved privately. (The Chesapeake is one of the few places in the world where some people still do commercial fishing under sail.) Being wood, this skipjack didn’t sink, but it wasn’t exactly what most people would call “floating,” either. Maybe “wallowing half submerged and full of water” would be a good description. There were two different opinions about the event. The people on the 65 foot long Skipjack were wishing it hadn’t happened, or at least that they hadn’t carried their cell phones with them. The other people in the race were wishing it hadn’t happened in the middle of the finish line. When you see a lot of canvas at the water’s surface ahead, you have a tendency to think that somebody’s really tacking hard and really heeled way over, especially when you’ve got your hands full trying to keep from hitting that boat a few feet away whose skipper can’t figure out what “starboard” means.

On Saturday, the triangle race has boats starting in classes and the winner isn’t known until the PHRF formulas have been applied. Sunday is a Pursuit Race. Boats start according to their handicap, so whoever gets over the finish line first wins that race. The main rules are to try like hell to get ahead of everybody who’s in front of you and to try like hell to keep anybody behind you from passing you. The overall scores from the two races are totaled for the overall winner who gets the boat’s name engraved on the Virginia Spirit Cup trophy. (In the first regatta they had 2 classes. The “Virginia” and the “Spirit” won their respective classes.) It’s displayed each year in a public place; this year they plan to keep it in the lobby of the Tides Inn. The winner also gets an engraved tray to keep.

28 1953 Hinkley Owens cutter Desperado Miss Anns Choice Award

But there’s yet another prize, unique to the event. The Miss Ann is an elegant 126 foot long motor yacht built in 1926 at the height of the “Great Gatsby Era.” For years she’s been a loved landmark as she’s taken guests of the famous Tides Inn in Irvington VA on cruises around the mouth of the Rappahannock River. For the Pursuit Race of the Turkey Shoot Regatta, around 100 people board her and, after cruising around a bit, she anchors near the finish line. These people see first hand the winners of that race. There’s a narrator aboard, because many of the passengers are unfamiliar with boating and, particularly, racing. This year Mel and I had the fun of doing that. After the participants cross the finish line, they sail around the Miss Ann, whose passengers vote to award the coveted Miss Ann’s Choice Award. It’s a tray engraved with a likeness of the winner and name, which the owner keeps. The Miss Ann passengers simply vote on the boat that they think is the prettiest and nicest, as they see it. They buy tickets for the ride and for the privilege of participation in the selection of this award. As with other aspects of the event, all the proceeds from this also go to Hospice, because the trip is sponsored by Tides Inn and the Bank of Lancaster.

All races are different, but all years are marked by some of the same things. Like the very large pig roasted at Yankee Point Marina and served up to participants, or the two rock fish, each around 4 feet long, smoked on the premises and served up to the participants. Like the 1,400 eggs and gallons and gallons of sausage cooked for the sailors’ breakfasts Saturday and Sunday, and more food and more food and more food. Like the helo and planes circling over for photos. Like the often whispered prayer, “Please don’t let anybody hit the Committee Boat this year.” But most of all, there’s an experience that’s repeated and savored each year by everyone involved. It’s the joy of being on the water, the joy of living, and the joy of helping others, if they need it, when their lives are sailing on.

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Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale