Shark racers hoping for best at world’s

Rory Gardner, Rod Gardner, James Gardner and Tara Cabrera

Shark racers hoping for best at world’s

Shark 24 sailboat racers are part of the largest one-design, keelboat fleet in Canada and are hopeful that as pandemic restrictions wane that they can gather and race in the world championships to be held this year in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Sailor Peter Van Rossem, who races with fellow Kingston Yacht Club member Matthew Fair and his son, James, is ranked No. 1 in Canada in the class and says he’s hopeful that they can hold the Worlds this year.

Racing was initially scheduled for August but was to be changed in the spring by race officials at the host club, Niagara-on-the-Lake Sailing Club (NOLSC) to later in the season, in October, in hopes a delay will see a lifting of pandemic health restrictions.

“I’m optimistic but also realistic,” Van Rossem says about a possible lifting of restrictions on larger gatherings like a regatta, which is dependant on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout that began slow in the spring in Ontario.

“I think for the government to allow social gatherings we would need herd immunity,” where upwards of 70 per cent of the population gets the vaccine, he says. “The only thing going for us is the event (the Shark 24 Worlds) will be held in late October.”

Van Rossem has been on top of the fleet for a few years, and placed second in world championships that were held in Germany in October 2019, prior to the start of the pandemic. Most events for the class, like those in other fleets, were cancelled in 2020.

It was his last major race in the Shark 24 fleet before major regattas were cancelled, although some club racing went ahead later in 2020. The Shark 24 Worlds was set for Montreal last year but was cancelled because of the pandemic. The event is held in alternate years in Canada, the U.S. and in Europe.

The Shark North American championship is only held every third year, and only when the Worlds is held in Europe, with popular spots being Germany, the headquarters for a company that makes new Shark 24s, Austria and Switzerland.

Regatta organizers for this year’s Worlds at NOLSC had not posted a notice of race in the spring because officials are still trying to determine whether the event can be held this year because of the pandemic, says Van Rossem.

NOLSC organizers are monitoring local public health warnings to see if they can get the green light to go ahead with the regatta this year.

Sail Canada, the governing body for the sport in this country, sanctions events like world championships, and is involved in training some regatta officials like judges and umpires, but doesn’t grant permission for races, based on health restrictions during a pandemic. Neither does World Sailing, the world governing body for the sport.

Van Rossem says Shark 24 Worlds organizers are trying to get the fleet split in two to decrease the number of competitors who would come into contact with each other, as a way to get around government restrictions on larger group gatherings.

There are usually about 50 boats that show up to the Shark 24 Worlds, with up to nine major races held in Ontario and Quebec through the year. There are active fleets in various locations, including Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Whitby, Sarnia, Belleville, and Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Rod Gardner, the regatta chairman at NOLSC and a Shark sailor, says they have been monitoring the Niagara health department’s colour-coded system on health restrictions to determine whether they can go ahead with racing. In March, things looked bleak.

The Niagara region was in a red zone, meaning that large gatherings at a regatta would not be allowed, he says. And even if the region moved into a less-restrictive Orange or even Green zone, they still couldn’t run the Worlds properly.

Gardner, who’s sons and step-daughter also race Sharks, says under a Green zone, only about 13 Shark three-member crews would be allowed to race because the rest of the gathering would consist of volunteers, judges, umpires and other race officials.

The last time NOLSC hosted the Shark 24 worlds was in 2009 and that event drew a whopping 72 boats, with Gardner saying more “fringe” racers like to show up in Niagara-on-the-Lake because it’s where the Shark 24 sailboat was first designed and built.

He’s expecting less boats this year, because of quarantine regulations and closed borders, but the event could still see upwards of 50 boats, provided the regatta is allowed.

The Shark was designed in 1959 by the late Canadian boat designer George Hinterhoeller (who would later merge with others to form the successful boat-building company C&C Yachts) in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He made the first Shark sailboat for himself, and then others wanted one of their own. A relative of the designer, Richard Hinterhoeller, is based out of NOLSC and races regularly in the fleet.

The 24 ft. three-crew sailboat has proven popular over the years because of its light weight and flatter hull aft that can lift the boat on a bow wave, allowing the boat to plane, making it faster than other sailboats of a similar size.

“Bang for your buck, it’s a great boat,” says Van Rossem, adding there are not many one-design fleets that can draw 50 sailboats to a start line, locally. Racing other popular boats, like the J24 or J70, means travelling to Annapolis, New York or Chicago for big events.

“The best thing about the Shark fleet is it’s an inexpensive boat,” he says. A good, used boat may cost $2,500, Van Rossem says. It’s easy to transport by trailer, with a three-foot fixed keel, and is appealing for youths graduating from racing a 420 or other dingy.

Cameron Smith, a racer based out of the Whitby Yacht Club (WYC), has helped to build the fleet there, which now numbers more than 20 crews. Three years ago, there were only about five Sharks at the club.

He used to race a Tripp 33 sailboat and a J22, but found that travel to and from major events often held in the southern U.S. became onerous. “You’ve got to book two days on the road there and back to do the regatta,” he says, while Shark 24 events are held within three- or four-hours of driving time, in cities from Montreal to Sarnia.

Smith appealed to WYC club officials and got a separate race night for Shark racers, a day earlier than the regular Wednesday night, and began posting about the fleet online. “One-design is great racing and handicap racing is a pain,” he notes.

“I convinced the club to do a separate race night. That’s what drives the fleet.”

He also encourages others at WYC to buy a Shark 24, and offers some used equipment at discounted pricing to fellow racers. He bought a half interest in his Shark 24 along with a racing friend in 2018 and by that summer the WYC fleet jumped from five boats to 12.

Smith says they are one of only a few WYC crews who travel to regular Shark events. He is planning to race at the Worlds to be held in Switzerland next spring.

A new set of sails for his Shark cost about $1,500 instead of about $8,000 for his Tripp 33 sailboat. He goes through a set of racing sails in one season, and uses them for a season of club racing before selling them for about $500 to a fellow local racer.

“This helps everyone out,” says Smith, who joined WYC in 2002 and pushed for the club to hold a major event like the Shark 24 Gold Club, which it did in 2019. That Shark race now alternates between WYC and National Yacht Club in Toronto.

“We wanted to do a regatta in Whitby. It helps drive the fleet, too.”

He says when he bought his Shark and joined the fleet he was impressed with the skill level of the racers. Some in Ontario have been racing their Sharks for decades. And the fleet has grown because of the reasonable costs for a boat, with a decent Shark costing about $5,000 in ready-to-go condition, Smith says.

New Sharks are no longer built in North America, and are now built in Poland, with the moulds owned by a German firm. A new yacht can costs upwards of 30,000 Euros. Masts and other rigging and supplies are available in Ontario.

“The Shark 24 is the largest one-design keelboat fleet in Canada and is the perfect choice for competitive sailors and cruisers alike,” says the association’s website.

“The Shark is fun, responsive and affordable. Shark sailors past and present are the heart and soul of most sailing clubs in Canada. The Shark makes high performance one-design sailing available to everyone.”

The racing boat is popular with youth graduating from the various Olympic dinghy classes, and the Canadian Shark Class offers to pay the entry fee for two “counter” or major regattas each season for boats with crew members under age 28.

“The Canadian Shark Class is a friendly community passionate about sailing, whether cruising or racing.” The boat can accommodate three for day sails or overnight cruising.

Many race the boat, and its appeal for boat owners is getting out to regattas, whether at the club or regional level. Keeners like to circle the Worlds on their calendars.

It usually takes many months to organize a top-flight regatta and, the more the pandemic stretches on, the less likely organizers can pull off an event and may be forced to cancel again, Van Rossem says.

Gardner confirmed that the NOLSC committee will probably decide in late March to postpone the decision on the regatta until early to mid-summer, which still gives them a few months and enough time to organize and host the visiting racers.

He says the regatta may be pared down a little because of the pandemic and time crunch for organizers, and things like boat measuring, which is time consuming, may be curtailed. All entries need a certificate which indicates boat weights, anyways.

“The fleet is pretty tight,” and the top contenders all know each other, which lessens the chance of someone trying to skirt the rules, Gardner says.

With the one-design, the Shark 24 must be raced with a minimum weight of 2,300 lbs, which includes sails and safety equipment, but not the crew or personal items.

“There is no way we could see hosting a regatta in August,” Gardner said in an interview with Ontario Sailor Magazine in mid-March. “That’s why we moved it to October.”

He said he’s been watching closely the loosening of some government restriction like the number of people who can attend an outdoor wedding or funeral, and says maybe there could be some exemption for sports like sailing, where isolation is assured on the water.

“I’m hoping that sports like sailing will get special guidelines but I don’t see that happening, to be honest with you.”

Gardner says his priority is keeping both visiting sailors and club members safe, and if the racing event proceeds they will have to follow all health protocols that are in place and required by local government officials.

It may mean limiting use of the ramp to one boat at a time, having a wrist-band policy for the use of portable toilets in different locations, and even holding an awards ceremony virtually, with competitors going online from hotel rooms to take part in celebrations.

“A big part of sailing is always planning for hospitality and the social side” and those plans may change, too, says Gardner, who grew up racing a Mirror dinghy and joined NOLSC in 2009 after moving back to Canada from Australia, where he was working.

Because of uncertainly surrounding the race ahead of time, Gardner says he reticent to spend money too far in advance on souvenir t-shirts, trophies or entertainment, and pay for these at the last moment. He could even mail trophies to winners after the race.

“With the current (health) guidelines, I don’t think we will be able to play,” he said in March of the Worlds. “I don’t see a declaration that the pandemic is over until 2022.”

The Shark 24 fleet has been growing in Ontario and people are “dragging old Sharks out of the woods and rebuilding them,” says Gardner. “The Shark is currently the hottest selling boat in Ontario.” Even boats in disrepair are scooped up fast.

Van Rossem says he missed racing the Shark 24 during lockdowns in 2020 and hopes racing comes back in 2021. He picked up a Finn sailboat, a 14.9 ft. cat-rigged, single-handed, Olympic-class sailboat, and “self-isolated” for much of 2020 learning the boat.

Prior to the pandemic, he attended two Finn races in the U.S. in 2019, and came second in the 14-boat fleet in one of the regattas. He joked that the Finn sailors gave his a free ride so that he would go out and buy one of the sailboats, which he did.

Van Rossem, who also races DN ice boats during the winter months, attended one other Shark 24 Worlds regatta in Europe, but wasn’t helming and was added as a last-minute as a crew member. But he was hooked on Shark 24 sailboats well before that race.

And now he wants to defend his win at the 2019 Shark North American championships, held at the Pointe-Claire Yacht Club in Quebec.

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