Cooper was a master mariner, a barnacle-back, and an old sea dog — a fitting description, considering his status of seasoned sailor and a Jack Russell Terrier who frequently accompanied his owners, Linda and Joe Waters, aboard his boat during sailboat competitions. Cooper, full name Cooper Lunchmeat Waters, loved the wind in his fur, the spray in his muzzle, and tennis balls.
Unfortunately, Cooper had never heard the expression “loose lips sink ships,” and consequently, news of his weakness for tennis balls quickly spread throughout the world of competitive sailing.
As Joe was waiting for the sounding gun to signal the beginning of a race while carefully maneuvering his sailboat into prime starting position, sailors on a rival boat drew near, whistled at Cooper, and dumped an entire bucket of tennis balls into the water.
The lure of that winning trophy may have been strong, but the appeal of those bobbing yellow orbs was stronger. In a split second, Cooper was over the side, determined to retrieve as many beloved balls as possible, forcing Joe to turn back and fish his soggy dog out of the water. The premier position was forfeited, and the race lost.
While the prank might have momentarily taken the wind out of Joe’s sails, he quickly regained his sea legs.
“It’s funny now,” says Joe.
A native of South Carolina and the founding owner of Water Sails, a company that designs and manufactures customized sails, Joe started sailing in 1962 and has been racing ever since. He is keenly aware of the sailing community’s sense of comradery and high-spirited, communal good humor. They are a tight-knit group that knows one another’s strengths and weaknesses, including a certain crew member’s fondness for fetching.
Cooper notwithstanding, Joe has been extremely successful in countless sailboat competitions, including the 2018 Catch-22 Sailboat Regatta, held annually on lovely Lake Murray and sponsored by the Lake Murray Sailing Club. With nary a tennis ball in sight, Joe and his two crewmen were the reigning champions of that three-day contest.
“We were paying our dues up front in the race and didn’t start off too fast,” says Joe. “But we finished up strong. We were extremely tickled at the results.”
Fran Trap, the 2019 regatta chairman, originated and captains a local band of boats, Ensign Fleet 83, as part of the National Ensign Class Association. The biggest class of full keel sailboats in North America, the Ensign was, until recently, predominantly popular in the Northeast and northern Midwest. While always held in the spring, the first regatta of the Ensign racing season is referred to as the “midwinters,” presumably due to the frigid temperatures most Ensign racers experience in March. Fran persuaded the National Ensign Class to move this event to Lake Murray.
“South Carolina is a perfect place to dust off the snow, come south, and race,” she says. “We have a wonderful venue. These are great people coming in, and we really enjoy sailing with them. It’s a party as much as anything.”
The 2019 Catch-22 Regatta, the fourth such race held on the clear, cool waters of Lake Murray, will be March 22 through March 24.
The name “Catch-22” refers not to the classic novel by Joseph Heller but also is a catchy title that pertains to the size of the sailboats. The first two years of the regatta, both the 22 1/2 foot Ensign and the Catalina 22 sailboat were eligible to race. However, when two or more different types of sailboats are simultaneously competing, this “handicapped race” requires special mathematical calculations to determine the winner. Currently, the Catch-22 is a one-design race allowing only Ensign sailboats to enter.
“It was awkward having two kinds of boats,” says Fran. “We had two starting lines, two of everything. Now we all have the same little boats and the same interests. It’s a lot of fun.”
With everyone competing in the same type of boat, the playing field is leveled. Extra gadgets and rigging are not allowed, so the mettle of the sailor rather than the technology of the boat is tested.
“It is the most fun type of sailing,” says Fran. “That’s what drove me to get together the fleet, and the Ensign is a wonderful family boat. The cockpit is really large, and you can take all your family and friends sailing. It races with four people, but you can put six in this boat easily.”
Weighing 3,000 pounds, the Ensign sailboat was first built by Pearson Yachts in 1962. Since 1995, Ensigns have been manufactured by Ensign Spars Inc. using the same hull molds as the original sailboats. Each hull is given a number based on the order in which it was produced, with any number below 2000 a Pearson Ensign and any above called a Classic Ensign. Being such durable and stable boats, they are frequently remodeled and passed from generation to generation. This past year’s Catch-22 included a boat with a hull number of 11.
Racing an Ensign typically requires a crew of three to four individuals, each with a different task, but all with the ultimate goal of getting their boat across the finish line first.
“It’s like a football team,” says Joe. “We have the quarterback, we have the running back, we have the lineman — everybody has a job to do.”
After their success at this past year’s Catch-22, Joe took his crew to the Super Bowl of Ensign racing: the National Championship Race. As a sport without experience divisions, professional Ensign sailors frequently race against newcomers.
“You can go to a race with 30 boats,” says Joe. “One guy goes home with the trophy — he’s the winner. But that means he taught 29 people a lesson. And so many times, people are so busy fretting that they don’t take the opportunity to accept the sailing lesson.”
When asked how he and his crew fared at Nationals, Joe laughs. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I’m extremely educated.”
It is clear that finishing at the back of the pack does nothing to dampen the spirit of these enthusiastic Ensign sailors. Ryan Gaskin, current vice commodore of the Lake Murray Sailing Club and original Catch-22 Regatta chairman, is a tremendous advocate of one-design sailing.
“It breeds excitement,” he says. “There’s no handicapping system, so wherever you are in the race, there you are. It becomes not about how much money you spend or who has the best designer, but about who are the best sailors.”
Attracting the best sailors to the Catch-22 is a huge part of the plan, and Fleet 83 has put together an impressive program to ensure that participants have a spectacular time while visiting South Carolina.
“Most people arrive the Thursday before the race, and they’ll come in with their boats covered in snow,” says Fran. “The first thing they do, typically before they eat or do anything else, is wash their boats.”
Friday morning, with the boats lined up in the water, a few blasts from a horn signals that the race will begin in five minutes. Even before the race has officially begun, each boat begins to jockey for the best spot on the starting line.
“During those first five minutes, we are actually racing, but we cannot go across the line,” says Joe. “This is where you need good crew work. You want to get yourself in a favorable position and force the next guy into a bad position so that you are ahead of everyone and in clean wind. You cannot sail directly into the wind; will you go left or right? You have to make decisions even before the race begins.” And hope that no one drops a bucket of tennis balls next to your boat.
At the end of five minutes, the last horn blares, and the race has officially begun. The course typically runs one or two times around a set buoy, with the boats finishing on the same line on which they started. Scores are recorded as each boat crosses the finish line, with the first boat getting a one, the second a two, and so on. The race is then repeated.
Over the course of the three days, approximately 10 races will take place. Scores from each race are totaled, and the team with the lowest number at the end of the regatta wins.
“Generally we have first, second, and third place winners,” says Fran. “If we get 15 or more boats this year we may go deeper.”
Local woodworking artist Ray Grisham has handcrafted the 2019 awards, gorgeous mahogany trays that, along with bragging rights, will be bestowed upon the winners. All participants receive a gift bag, and this past year’s inclusion of an Ensign insignia cap was especially popular.
Charles Henshaw, a relative newcomer to the Ensign class, sailed in the 2018 regatta. He found the 2018 caps to be the crowning touch to the weekend’s festivities.
“Fran had the caps made at a place where they distressed the fabric,” said Charles. “They looked like something a Southern farmer would wear out on a tractor. People from up north, Massachusetts and New York, just loved them! It gave some Southern authenticity to our regatta.”
Charles, whose law firm Furr and Henshaw, is a proud sponsor of the Catch-22, has recently acquired a beautiful, teak-trimmed, previously owned Ensign that has yet to be named.
“There is a real issue with renaming a boat,” says Charles. “It’s sailor’s lore. You have to go through a whole process, un-name the boat and then rechristen the boat; otherwise it’s really bad luck.” Charles pauses for a moment, then laughs and adds, “I’m not a very good sailor so I’m trying to avoid all the bad luck that I can.”
The glossy teak boats, the racing, the rewards, and gift bags are just a fraction of what really draws sailors to the Catch-22 regatta. The magnificent natural location, comradery of friends with a common interest, and outstanding Southern cuisine make this event a not-to-be-missed affair.
“We go out there, compete, and have fun, even if we aren’t winning the races,” says Ryan. “It’s really more of the support of the people who are involved. It becomes a culture.”
The 2017-2018 Commodore of the National Ensign Class Association, John Cutler, lives in Houston, Texas, but made the 1,000 mile drive with his Ensign, “the other woman,” in tow to the 2017 regatta. He believes that the Ensign Mid-Winter Championship Regatta is only going to grow in popularity. The largest percent of racing Ensign members reside north of the Mason-Dixon Line, so any prospect of an early escape from winter weather is a major enticement.
“Hospitality, the beautiful lake, and certainly the food — those three things are just outstanding, and well worth the 2,000 mile round trip from Houston,” says John. “Oh, my gosh, I would go just for the food! It is amazing.”
When conversing with any past attendees of the Catch-22, much of the conversation is devoted to the delicious food served at the Friday and Saturday night regatta dinners. While other racing events might hire a caterer or corral volunteers to cook the evening meals, Catch-22 is enormously lucky to have its very own culinary artist as member of the fleet.
Tommy Kasperski, executive chef for the Columbia Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, also owns an Ensign and is an integral part of Fran’s crew.
“Fran and I come as a package deal,” he says. “It’s almost like a family thing.”
Those fortunate enough to be at the 2018 regatta were treated to a legendary St. Patrick’s Day themed dinner, complete with corned beef that, with curing and preparation, took six weeks to make. It is still one of the most talked about components of this past year’s Catch-22.
In addition to an as-yet-unannounced theme for Saturday night’s dinner, Tommy is planning on treating attendees to a South Carolina-style barbeque Friday night. “I’ll smoke pork, chicken, and then have all the traditional fixin’s of mashed potatoes, Southern fried green beans, pecan pie. The traditional Southern fare.”
Tommy is as passionate about the world of Ensign sailing as he is about food. The closeness of the friendships made with other sailors keeps him enthusiastic about the sport.
“When you ask, ‘What’s the draw to Ensign racing?’” says Tommy, “98 out of 100 people will tell you it’s the camaraderie. I sail in a bunch of different classes of sailboats, but this is my primary one, and I’ve never seen a more family atmosphere in a class of sailboats. And when I say family atmosphere, I’m saying, we are like a big family.”
That feeling of family and fellowship was evident in the winter of 2018 when Cooper Lunchmeat Waters, the tennis ball loving terrier, departed this world after a long and happy life of Ensign sailing and ball retrieving. The outpouring of love and support to Joe from his sailing companions was overwhelming and included hundreds of Facebook condolence messages and contributions made to rescue shelters in Cooper’s name.
“It’s that sense of community,” says Tommy. “That’s what brings us all together.”