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Entering The World Of Radio-Controlled Sailboat Racing

A weekend boater gets hung out to dry when she joins the enthusiastic fray of Radio Control Sailboat Racing.

Several white radio-controlled sailboats on the water

The Soling 1M is among 32 classes of remote-controlled sailboats governed by the American Model Yacht ­Association.

I don't know why I'm here. As I stand bundled up on the banks of the Genesee River among my Rochester Yacht Club pals, fingers frozen from snow and sleet, I am suddenly struck by the unfairness of it all. As competitors in the "Soling Series" regattas, we all start with a 1-meter remote-controlled sailboat, a controller, water, and wind. That's where the equality ends.

Most of my Soling buddies are serious sailors, and although I spent earlier years sailing on Lake Michigan, I haven't been at the helm of a sailboat for any length of time in the last 30 years. These sailors live to push both full-sized and meter-long hulls to their utmost. A few of the other club members spend their time on thoroughbred powerboats, zipping past me on Lake Ontario for a day-jaunt to Canada and back, treating it like just another rum run. Both groups are accustomed to speed, whether it be from wind or by means of fossil fuel. Wherever they go, their hair blows behind them in the breeze. I am a tugboat captain. At a top speed that seldom exceeds 6 knots, my hair does not "blow in the breeze.'' It stays perfectly straight. I don't "zip" anywhere.

I get chided, advised, and admonished pertaining to my handling of No. 70, a.k.a. Scout, my Soling craft. I swear I hear chuckles whenever my maneuvers don't match the task my vessel is supposed to perform. Cries of "Starboard, Angie!" ring in my ears as I desperately attempt to keep out of the way whenever I'm actually near other boats. I feel the smirks as I futilely try to keep No. 70 on a straight course when the wind picks up over 15 knots. I try to ignore the sidelong glances when I pull her out to tweak my stays and vang, as they all know I'm just pretending to know how to tune it. Each week I say a prayer to the Soling gods that my boat doesn't have to be fished out of the water by the Crash Boat (our series' version of the Coast Guard) on account of low battery or, God forbid, some type of damage. Each time I finish a race, I wonder if I'll ever claim a win for coming in first, or at least, not last. Scout did notch a first-place win once but, alas, I was not at the helm. Due to an embarrassing low-blood-sugar moment, I felt faint and relinquished my controller to friend Doug, a more capable RC sailor who showed me how to tune and sail Scout. Doug ensured the win, gallantly proving it's me ... not the vessel.

Woman standing next to a radio-controlled sailboat on a blue cinder block in the snow

Despite being out of her depth in the world of RC sail racing, the author came away a convert who embraced the camaraderie among competitors.

Nonetheless, for whatever reasons, I have been accepted into this group. It's occurred to me more than once this might be because 1. I am no threat to their quest for a trophy, 2. for political reasons, they hoped a woman would compete, or 3. every sport needs a mascot. Whichever it is, I'm here. Every Sunday. Coming in last. And today, after our boats are stored back in our vehicles, after we make our way to the RYC Burgee Bar to regale the tales of the day's shenanigans, and I take my first sip of Mount Gay and Coke, it hits me. It's the camaraderie that exists with all of us — winners, runners-up, and losers alike. I am included in the bantering and feel a kinship that comes with sharing a common love of a sport that requires thumb reflexes, patience and, at times, considerable layers of warm clothing. We meet, we race, we celebrate. This is why we come. Now I know why I am here.

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Angie Killips

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine

Angie Killips lives in the Rochester, New York, area and can often be found piloting her 26-foot Nordic Tug Julius along the southern shore of Lake Ontario.