There's a Race in Here Somewhere : Having Fun Is Paramount When They're Wetting Their Thistles

Folks at the Mission Bay Yacht Club were buzzing in anticipation of this weekend's big event, the 1988 Thistle Midwinters West Regatta.

For Thistle racers on the West Coast, this was about as big as it gets. The top three finishers earn a trip to the National Championship Regatta this summer.

Outside the yacht club, some of the West Coast's finest sailors arrived a couple of days early to begin preparing their 17-foot boats for racing on Mission Bay Friday through today.

Inside the yacht club, it seems, the really important preparations were being made.

Fred Nagel, director of the event, was telling one of the racers about the band he had lined up for Saturday night's dinner-dance: Nick Kent and the Border Patrol.

"One of the ladies in the club knew somebody," he said. "I heard they're good."

At the registration desk, there were lengthy discussions about which color tickets to hand out for box lunches and dinners. Crew discussions were often more oriented toward who would have the best time than who would have the fastest race. Presumably, the beer kegs for the first post-race party have been lined up far in advance.

Racing is important in the regatta, but not as important as this:

"Somehow," Nagel said, "it always works out, and everybody has a great time.

"Some people come down here to race, and they are really competitive and want badly to win. Others come to race more for the enjoyment of seeing everybody they met last year or whatever. There's a good cross-section of people."

On every Thistle, there is a crew of three; sometimes the cross-sections meet in the same boat.

Veteran racers remember a race three years ago when a skipper and his wife got into an argument. It went something like this:

Husband: "You don't know anything about racing one of these things!"

Wife: "Well, I do know one thing, and that's how to jump off!"

"She just jumped right off the boat during the race and started swimming back to shore," Nagel said.

In Thistle racing, those who start on the boat must be there at the finish. "But she never got back on the boat," Nagel said. "In fact, one of the other competitors in the race stopped to pick her up."

The stories keep things lively when the contestants gather around the keg by the shore and chat about good old racing days.

But don't be completely fooled. There are some who take Thistle racing seriously, although most of them might even admit that having fun is important.

Gordon Douglas built the first Thistle in Ohio in 1946, and through the years, the design has remained virtually unchanged. The idea is for better racing tactics to win over better technology.

In fact, the first boat ever built finished third in the 1986 National Regatta.

"It's a great feeling when you win, because you know you've charted the best course and had the best day sailing," said Mike Gillum, 28, who recently purchased a once-used $8,000 boat.

Gillum also was the first-day leader, winning one race Friday and placing second in two others in the Championship Division. He has placed in the top five here four times, three times as a skipper. He also competed in the National Regatta in 1980.

Since then, he has spent much of his time concentrating on other things, such as his canvas business in Sacramento. Still, he always has found time to come back to San Diego for this race.

"You get caught up doing other things, and you find that you don't have enough time to sail as much as you would like," Gillum said. "But my priorities are back with racing, and it would be nice to win here. It might help justify some of the expenses."

Not that he's going to get any prize money this weekend. There is none of that, only trophies and satisfaction.

For most, it is enough.

Tom Goodwin, 62, has been sailing Thistles since 1959, the year Gillum was born. That's when he bought his first Thistle and, along with the four or five other sailors who owned Thistles in the Sacramento area, helped start a fleet.

The Sacramento fleet is more than 30 boats now, a fairly large number for a western fleet. In Ohio, where the sport is still more popular, fleets are well more than 100.

"The sport is just popular enough for me," Goodwin said. "It's kind of an exclusive class. But at the same time, almost anyone can get involved because it really doesn't cost that much."

That's the reason Thistle racers have decided not to alter their boat design. Changes would mean spending more money to keep up.

"This sport is all about fun," Goodwin said. "I've been in it my whole life, and I've won some races and lost some races. But what I remember most is the friends I've met along the way."

Nagel, who moved to San Diego from Sacramento a few years ago, became involved in racing Thistles through Goodwin.

"He's the kind of guy who can get people excited about it," Nagel said. "I used to crew for him, and one day he found out about a boat for sale, and he told me I should buy it."

Nagel told Goodwin he didn't want to, but a few minutes later, Goodwin showed up at Nagel's house, honking the horn.

"He said, 'Let's go take a look at it,' " Nagel said. "We got there, and I would up getting it."

Nagel, 37, has learned a lot from Goodwin, from the tactical aspect of Thistle racing to the relationships.

Goodwin has taught him that competitiveness should go only so far in this sport.

"He's won a lot of races and lost a lot of races, but racing with Tom is always a good time," Nagel said. "I remember one time, I crewed for him, and we won this big race and the big trophy that goes along with it.

"It was his boat and his trophy to take home, but he told me that he had plenty of trophies at home in a box. The trophy just wasn't that important to him."

So what happened to it?

"I went home and put it on my wall," Nagel said, smiling. "Can't let a perfectly good trophy go to waste."

Much like this weekend. Nobody could let a chance to see some old friends or do a little racing go to waste.

"I've been coming to the regatta here for 15 years," Goodwin said. "And I haven't had a bad time yet."

And he's never won.

But, here, winning isn't the only thing, it's just one thing.

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