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Little Dutch Shoes

2011 October 3

Navy security boats may race around you at 40 mph with machine guns at the ready, but don't worry." This was part of the racing instructions at a recent San Diego Yacht Club skippers' meeting for nearly 200 Sabot racers. The young racers had gathered from throughout Southern California to compete in the 42nd Annual Dutch Shoe Marathon.

Two thirds of the fleet were veterans of the Dutch Shoe Marathon in past years. This is known as a traditional rite of passage in San Diego for young racers, and they just keep coming back as long as they are able. It's certainly not your average junior regatta.

Racers move their small Naples Sabots almost 7 miles from deep inside Shelter Island Gulch, out into San Diego Bay. The trick is that they must cross a busy commercial and military shipping channel, sail past security zones of a major naval installation, navigate under the span of the Coronado Bridge (where winds gust in opposite directions) and then beat into Glorietta Bay toward the Coronado Yacht Club.

Rite of passage did we say? It's often a grueling marathon that tests the racers both physically and mentally. And every year, as though someone with a sick sense of humor had prearranged it, a large ship arrives at the fleet crossing point just as the Sabots emerge from the Gulch.  This year was no exception. A 648-foot, San Antonio-Class LPD transport dock, capable of doing 22 knots, merged with the Sabots as they sailed out from behind Shelter Island.  "Lucky it was one of ours," said a retired naval officer watching from shore. Uncharacteristically, the military ship kindly slowed to make room for the fleet.

Panic? You betcha. But it's all part of the fun for these kids. Past racers have had to deal with large automobile carriers, cruise ships, tugboats pulling barges, a 100-foot antique steam yacht, visiting tall ships and even dueling America's Cup boats.

This year winds were light at 8 to 10 knots-manageable for most, even in a Sabot. Over the years winds have gusted to 30 knots on occasion, causing the majority of the fleet to capsize at least once en route to the finish line. Unlike a Laser, the Sabot fills with water and is difficult to right after a knockdown.

In 1999 there were 106 knockdowns. Needless to say everyone survived, but race committee boats were kept busy all day. If you accept help your race is over. Many of the determined young racers waved off would-be rescuers and rejoined the race (tiller in one hand, sponge or bucket in the other).

Early in this year's race, B Fleet's Ian Brill was crowded into the first weather mark and hit the buoy. Racers seem to all agree the start is the toughest part of the Dutch Shoe, as everyone heads for the first mark hoping to establish position and right of way quickly.

"I was pretty sure no one knew I hit the mark," said Brill after the race. "But I knew. So I did my penalty circle right there. That was the honorable thing to do even though I figured my race was over."

As fate would have it the fleet of tiny wooden shoes spread out on the long leg past North Island Naval Air Station, leaving Brill to do his best to keep up. By the time they passed through the shadow of the Coronado Bridge Brill was doing a pretty good job of covering the other boats.

"I realized I was in the top five of my fleet just before the leeward mark at the bridge," he said. "I could see the finish line at that point and then, all of a sudden, I was leading B Fleet."

Brill was speeding toward victory, just four or five feet away from the finish line. He was about to defy all odds and become first to finish in the Dutch Shoe Marathon. "That's when I saw her," said the young racer from Mission Bay Yacht Club.

Bearing up on him from behind was Helen McCarthy in C Fleet. As she began to pass him she became so excited that she stood up in her boat. "I did everything I could do," Brill said. "But she caught a nice puff and went right past me. It was a good race."

The crowd went crazy. It was one of the most exciting finishes in the history of the regatta. But the story at the 42nd Dutch Shoe Marathon was about an honorable decision made by a conscientious young racer at the first weather mark. --Joe Ditler