Wind in their Sails -Spring 2015
by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Jim Powers
On a cool and foggy late-spring day back in 1972, four Cape Cod sailors were sitting around Baxter’s Boathouse in Hyannis when they decided to set out for Nantucket. As often happens in sailing, bets were placed, boasts were made and the leisurely cruise turned into a race. As the fog socked in somewhere over Nantucket Sound, one of the disoriented sailors uttered the phrase that has now become synonymous with the Memorial Day Weekend race that grew out of that first informal sail: “Where the Figawi?”
“The first year I was involved, I think it was the second or third year, 10 or 12 boats came over, and we met at Cap’n Tobey’s. I gave the owner $100, which was quite a bit of money in those days, and he gave us a little food and a couple of drinks,” said the late Howard Penn, one of Figawi’s original organizers, remembering the “old days” on the eve of the race’s 40th anniversary in 2011.
“In those days, Nantucket was empty, except for us. We laid over one night, and headed back Sunday. It’s a little different today.”
That it is. Over the next four and a half decades, Figawi grew by leaps and bounds, attracting boats of all sizes and sailors of all abilities. These days, entries are annually cut off at around 200, making it one of the largest sanctioned races on the East Coast. It brings more than 1,000 racers alone to the island, on top of the 20,000 or more revelers who descend on Nantucket for the long holiday weekend.
Through its charity ball, Figawi annually raises nearly $200,000 for nonprofit organizations on the Cape and Islands, provides a financial windfall to many downtown businesses – par-
ticularly bars and restaurants – and serves as an early incentive for sailors around the region to get their boats back in the water and ready for the summer racing season. Its signature bright-red Mount Gay Rum-sponsored hats are highly coveted and recognized around the world.
“I was in France, and had my hat on, and a French guy came up to me, recognized the hat, and said ‘ah, Figawi!’ We’ve gained an international reputation,” said Leo Fein, who with his wife chaired the charity ball for more than 25 years, and now plays a key role in running the race as well.
“But we never forget, the reason we do this is for the sailors. We try to make it a little different every year: different courses, different activities, so the sailors enjoy themselves,” he said. “At its heart, Figawi is a sailing race, and it’s a hell of a way to start the season.”
The first leg of this year’s race – the 44th annual – begins in Hyannis Saturday, May 23, with the majority of boats expected to round Brant Point by mid-afternoon. After a weekend of festivities on the island – including a clambake, awards, tent parties and the Figawi High School Invitational regatta – the return race to the mainland will leave the Nantucket Boat Basin Memorial Day morning, with the wrap-up ceremony set for the afternoon at the Hyannis Yacht Club.
The race attracts sailors from across the Northeast, although most keep their boats on the Cape, the South Coast and in Rhode Island. Figawi typically draws about a half-dozen to a dozen Nantucket sailboats, which must first make their way over to Hyannis for the start of the race.
Former Nantucket Boat Basin dockmaster George Bassett, who retired in February, has observed more than 30 Figawi races in his time on the island, and admitted that it took him awhile to get used to.
“It took me probably the first five to understand what the hell was going on and where these people were coming from,” said Bassett, who sits on the Figawi board of directors.
The race has evolved over the years, he said, as many of the original participants grew older and started raising families of their own.
“Twenty-five years ago, most of the clientele came in 25-foot boats to party and raise hell. The nice thing about the last five, six or seven Figawis, all those people now have 40-, 45or 50-foot boats. They bring their families. I’ve seen it turn the corner the way 90 percent of the people behave. Now more than ever it’s a sailing regatta, when it used to be an excuse to come and party.”
For many of the sailors like Nantucket’s Chris Magee, who has been racing off and on since 1996, Figawi is not about the parties. It’s an opportunity to get back out on the water after a long winter, and to race against equally competitive sailors.
“I’m a fan of the economics of it, and I’m a fan of what it does for sailing. I’m on the board of Nantucket Community Sailing, and for me, having a sailing tradition on the island is an important thing. Bringing sailboats out at this time of year helps to reinforce the fact that we are out to sea,” he said. “It’s a wonderful way to celebrate our freedoms on Memorial Day. It’s a celebration of life, what we’re doing.”
John Griffin, who has sailed in more than 35 Figawis, sees things much the same as Magee. “Why do it? It’s just plain fun. It’s a real race. Sure, some people just want to go to Nantucket and party. But in the upper divisions particularly, when they’re out on the water, they want to race,” Griffin said before the 40th anniversary.
“I don’t think Figawi ever deserved the bad rap it got. Plenty of people come down for Memorial Day weekend who have nothing to do with the race. The people who have these boats, they work hard. They’re professional, educated people. My skipper is one of the top radiologists in his field. For the most part, it’s a pretty good bunch of people. They may like to party hearty, but they spend money on Nantucket, and it’s a good race. On the water, it’s a serious race.”
It’s also a teaching tool for Community Sailing, whose J-105 keelboats are almost always among the participants. At least one is traditionally crewed by high-school students and Community Sailing instructors.
“Figawi marks the end of the sailing team’s spring season. This is a great opportunity for the students because they get to experience sailing on a 34.5-foot keelboat, competing against 200 other boats over a 20-plus mile course in sometimes challenging conditions,” Community Sailing executive director Diana Brown said. “This is usually their first time sailing a big boat in open water, and each student gets the opportunity to take the helm, trim the main and jib, and assist with the spinnaker. This is quite a leap from the 13-foot, two-person dinghy that they sail in Nantucket Harbor,” she said.
The Figawi High School Invitational, which typically attracts a dozen or more high-school sailing teams from around the region, grew out of the effort by organizers to keep the love of sailing alive in the younger generation. The race takes place on Sunday, and is easily visible from the Nantucket Boat Basin docks.
“When I was 25 or 30 years old, I could afford to buy a boat, but (with the increase in cost) the younger generation is often locked out financially. We’ve been one of the prime instigators to get high-school sailing going and funding going on Cape Cod,” said Charlie McLaughlin, who stepped down in 2013 after more than 30 years with Figawi. “Not exclusively, but we’ve provided seed money to start high-school sailing programs. There weren’t any high-school sailing programs on the Cape and it was kind of ironic since you’re never more than a mile or two away from the water, but it’s one of our better accomplishments. We’ve gotten a lot of kids out on the water.”
Charity and giving back are a large part of Figawi’s mission, to the tune of more than $13 million since the race was formally organized. It has supported more than 50 Cape and Islands charities, including A Safe Place, the African Meeting House, Nantucket Boys & Girls Club, Nantucket Community Sailing, Nantucket Cottage Hospital, the Nantucket Police Department, Nantucket Whaling Museum and the Nantucket Anglers’ Club Pete Guild Scholarship Fund. During January's cold snap, it donated 100 winter jackets that convert into sleeping bags to organizations around the Cape & Islands that aid the homeless.
“We focus on making sure the money stays on the Cape and Islands, and sailingand youth-related activities get top priority,” Fein said. “We carefully review the requests to make sure the money is doing good.”
Two years ago, Figawi began partnering with Nantucket-based Holidays for Heroes to bring injured servicemen and women to the island. They and their families participate in the race and take part in Nantucket’s Memorial Day ceremonies. Figawi plans to financially support the organization again this year, Fein said.
“You’re going to see more of that kind of stuff,” McLaughlin said. “We have an enormous amount of interest in exposing folks to the water who for one reason or another don’t have access to it. That’s also what Nantucket Community Sailing is about. There’s an organization over here, Sail Cape Cod, that with leadership assistance from Figawi, is based in Hyannis, to work with the disadvantaged, the disabled, etc. It’s great to be able to bring more people to the water.” ///
Joshua Balling is the associate editor of Nantucket Today and assistant editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821. He doesn’t spend nearly as much time on the water as he would like.