Creole Speed: Racing in New Orleans

Southwinds Magazine

Published: June 1st, 2005

New Orleans is known for many things including its laissez faire attitude, but don’t expect this out on the water.

With a serious tradition of racing that dates back to 1849 with the formation of Southern Yacht Club and to 1850 with the first running of the Race to the Coast (New Orleans to Pass Christian, MS), this tradition has continued unabated over the years and recently the victories have been mounting.

In 2004 alone, New Orleans’ sailors chalked up a silver medal in the 2004 Olympics Tornado Class, US Sailing’s Lloyd Phoenix Trophy, the Seawanhaka Cup, the Rhodes 19 National Championship, The Regatta del Sol and a class win at Key West Race Week.

Broaden your search criteria and in the last few years you can add a UBS Challenge (amateur), a Mallory Cup, Charleston to Bermuda, another Lloyd Phoenix, three more Rhodes 19 national championships, another Key West Race Week class win and two J/30 National Championships.

There’s definitely a pattern of success developing here and one that Richard Sackett, the Commodore of New Orleans Yacht Club attributes to “A full race schedule, our tradition of racing, lots of serious competitors, a fluky Lake and you total the best training ground on the planet.”

The 630 square miles of Lake Pontchartrain, actually more of a tidal lagoon, is an integral part of this success.

Johnny Lovell, the 2004 Athens Olympic silver medallist describes his training ground this way, “ I think the lake is one of the most challenging places to sail in the US. You never know what conditions you will encounter on any given day. You can have a strong north breeze with steep chop or a light shifty southerly. Also, course placement can change the dynamics of racing on the lake because of the land effects. I guess the biggest quirk would be the fact that the lake is so big and yet so shallow creating choppy conditions that are difficult to sail in, especially in light air.”

“Sailing on Lake Pontchartrain teaches sailors to be aware of their surroundings, look around to see where more favorable conditions exist, and likewise teaches the sailor to be patient.” States Ewell C. Potts, the Commodore of Southern Yacht Club which has had four members over the years bring home Olympic sailing medals including the first US gold in 1936, “The conditions found on Lake Pontchartrain are not unusual to conditions found in international areas, for the lake could be as slick as glass and as rough as many ocean conditions.”

Richard Sackett adds, “It’s a perfect training ground for competitive sailing. The East and West coasts have predictable coastal wind patterns, but not Lake Pontchartrain. In one afternoon you could go from calm to gale. Wave patterns, wind direction, you get it all on any given day. You learn how to sail in any condition and develop sail changing, trimming and helm techniques for any environment. When you travel to race in other’s waters you are ready for anything they throw at you.”

According to Charlie Ogletree, Johnny Lovell’s teammate in their successful medal run in Athens in 2004 and who has traveled to train and race in New Orleans several times, “You’re forced to learn how to deal with changing weather conditions, be adaptable, remain calm and be patient. New Orleans racers are very good in tough sailing conditions. Lake Pontchartrain is a difficult place to sail and if you can master the Lake then you can sail in any condition, anywhere.”

With year round racing programs afforded by New Orleans’ geography, including 30 annual lake-based PHRF and one-design regattas, the 50-60 boats racing Wednesday nights from April to October and the access to Gulf Coast regattas from Texas to Florida the local sailing community is steeped in racing.

According to David Bolyard, the winner of numerous Mallory Cups as well as having a few southern California Lipton Cup and PHRF Championship wins, states, “With so many national regattas in the winter within reasonable driving distance of New Orleans, we can practice against other people from around the nation as well as the people we sail against all the time. We have so many local and national champions in our area that the level of competition is always challenging.”

The trophies are starting to mount and with that, area sailors are earning an equal amount of respect. Andy Lovell who along with his crew of Stephen Murray, Jr. and Watt Duffy took home to Southern Yacht Club the Seawanhaka Cup explains his experience, “At the opening ceremony a past winner mentioned that this cup could end up in New Orleans. My performance in the Star Boat and UBS Challenge seemed to give the host confidence we would be a tough challenger. What was surprising to people was that we rebounded from our dismal start. After day one they had written us off and we had an amazing comeback to win. What was very memorable was that after defeating Seawanhaka in the Semi Finals their support was 100% behind us to keep the Cup in the USA. Tide Charts came out and the spectator boats were overwhelmingly in support of the Coonasses.”

“New Orleans is respected.” Richard Sackett answers. “Check out the names that dominate in their class. The ones you mentioned plus John Dane III, Benz Faget, and others now out there pulling National Trophies. Don’t forget our history, Buddy Fredricks, Gene Walet, O.J. Young. Tommy Dreyfus. Remember the heyday of the SORC? New Orleans sailors dominated. I’ll probably get in trouble for not mentioning all the stars in the New Orleans sailing galaxy, but those who lose to them know those names well.”

After taking into effect the five yacht clubs and numerous sailing associations on the Lake and the geography, one of the biggest contributors to the growth of this racing excellence can be directly attributed to SYC’s Optimist Junior Sailing Program started in 1980 by Andy and Johnny Lovell’s father, John Lovell, II. Since its inception, SYC’s Opti fleet has grown to number its current 60 boats and the yacht club has strongly promoted the Opti along the Gulf Coast.

Mamsie Manard, commodore of Lake Pontchartrain Women’s Sailing Association states, “The SYC junior program grew by leaps and bounds and is now considered one of the premier junior programs in the country, as evidenced by the success of these kids as they move on to high school, college and, eventually the Olympics.”

Johnny Lovell agrees, “I think the SYC junior program is one of the best in the US, specifically the Optimist program. At the Olympics most of the competitors I talked to started in Optimist. Two sailors that I met in Greece actually sailed against me in the Optimist Worlds 24 years ago.”

This forward thinking in the early 80’s has helped produce the current sailors out there making a name for themselves, and the next generation is beginning to look for some clear air. Cardwell Potts was named College Sailor of the year for 2004, and there are more names rising. Pay attention for Kiel Killeen, Julian Richards, Becca Denney, Margot Provensal, Baker Potts, Patrick Ryan, and Jackson Benvenuti who are out there on the water trying to make a name for themselves.

Commenting on the future on New Orleans racing, Richard Sackett states, “Its bright, but it could be brighter. We need new marinas to make room for new boats. We need to get the Americas Cup back to excite the American public. We need to publicize our junior programs. We need to develop a central funding council and a plan with participation from all Lake Clubs to support faraway travel for our future champions. But even if we don’t do these things we will still have the best on the water. If we do these things we will have more. Our future is always bright because we have the geography, weather and competition to spawn winners. We are not just the sportsman’s paradise, we are the sailor’s paradise as well and the food down here isn’t bad either.”