Lake Pleasant plays host to Tall Cactus Regatta

The Flying Fish, captained by Chris Picknally, finished two minutes after Dreamline to place second in the 2023 Tall Cactus Regatta. (Brevin Monroe/Cronkite News)

The chorus of Christopher Cross’s 1979 chart-topping hit, “Sailing,” perfectly encapsulated a day of sailboat racing on April 22 on Lake Pleasant in the 2023 Tall Cactus Regatta.

“Sailing takes me away to where I’ve always heard it could be,” Cross sings in the popular song. “Just a dream and the wind to carry me, soon I will be free.”

The sailors lived out the lyrics on a dreamlike day with the wind making for excellent sailing conditions in the Valley, a part of the country not as well known for the sport.

But don’t tell that to winning captain Joshua Newland.

“In terms of numbers, it’s surprising, at least in my experience,” Newland said. “It’s not like California where everyone knows someone who has a boat, but in the Phoenix area whenever I wear a Yacht Club T-shirt there is always one or two people that will say something to me.”

The Arizona Yacht Club (AYC) was founded in 1958 to create sailing opportunities for residents and currently has 294 registered families, according to racing captain and former AYC Commodore Mike Ferring.

Ferring, 79, has been sailing for nearly his entire life. Twenty-two of those years were spent on the water with his wife, Maryellen, and the two still sail together competitively and recreationally in local outings and across the country in a 26-foot J/80 sailboat known as the Melissa Kay, named after their granddaughter, who drew the decal on the boat’s hull.

“I think the best part about sailing is that it’s something we get to do together,” said Maryellen, 72. “We are a great team.”

On race day, the couple was aboard one of the two boats docked by the marina as part of their duties as race directors. This included checking in all 33 registered boats, sounding the starting horn and recording the final times.

The Lake Pleasant course requires competitors to begin at the start/finish line hundreds of feet from the marina, make a full turn around a yellow buoy, and sail for miles across the lake and around two islands before making a final turn back to the start/finish line.

“The five-and-a-half-mile course should take roughly two hours for a majority of the boats,” Mike said. “It could be shorter or longer depending on the wind, boat size and things like that. People also may drop out midrace or not finish in the three-hour time limit.”

Held for over 40 years, according to Mike, the Tall Cactus Regatta has no regulations on sailboat size. Saturday’s field ranged from 30-foot boats with crews of five to 10-foot boats easily manned by one person.

This size difference leads to some discrepancies in the time-based scoring due to boat quality. Plus, the handicap system in place is shaky at best.

“One time we had a boat finish 30 minutes before anyone else came across the line,” Mike said. “And after the final scoring and handicapping, they ended up only winning by three seconds, so it is not a perfect method by any means.”

Although crossing the finish line first doesn’t automatically mean victory, the team that did so Saturday was declared the winner. Dreamline, a 30-foot J/92 sailboat captained by Newland, finished the race in 1:23:33. The crew included his parents, aunt and girlfriend.

Newland has been sailing his entire life and made his first attempt at leading a crew in a race setting Saturday in place of his dad, who serves as Dreamline’s full-time capitan. The younger captain got his crew off to a blazing start when he found the correct wind line at the start and sent them toward the first buoy.

“We started off really strong, one of the only boats that had good wind through the start,” Newland said. “Going downwind it was a little bit rocky to get the spinnaker up, but there was enough space between us and the rest of the pack, and we ended up having a fantastic day.”

After getting their spinnaker up, and with the wind now at their back, the Dreamline crew swiftly cruised toward the debris-filled north side of the lake. Despite the logs in the course path and changing winds, Dreamline’s crew adjusted and rounded the islands before sailing home and coming across the line two minutes before the second-place Flying Fish, a G-Cat catamaran captained by Chris Picknally.

“Sailing in Arizona is different. Definitely with lakes like this you never get consistent wind like you do off the coast,” Newland said. “It’s always shifting, and not small ones either; full 180-degree shifts. That makes things a little more fun and challenging because it requires more strategy.”

Post-race, the sailors removed their boats from the water and congregated near an area of the marina known as Spinnaker Point to clean their boats, hear results and celebrate the conclusion of the race.

The dream had come to an end.

“There’s no better feeling than being out on the water with just the wind guiding you. It’s just so relaxing,” Maryellen said.

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