For Liam Zsolt, sailing started with a dream. Half a dozen years later, and Zsolt is one of five skippers who competed for the Alaska Cup this weekend in Seward.
The William H. Seward Yacht Club was founded in 1975. And while the club has maintained a strong membership of cruisers, racing at WSYC has sustained long periods of relative dormancy. But in recent years, a new generation of skippers, including Zsolt, has gravitated toward sailboat racing, helping reinvigorate Alaska interest in the sport.
“I had a dream that I was living on a sailboat like five or six years ago, and I woke up and I was thinking about it, and I just started Googling where you could learn to sail in Alaska,” he said.
That investigation led Zsolt to the Alaska Sailing Club, an even older organization that operates on Big Lake. While the ASC held plenty of dinghy regattas, he yearned for a bigger adventure and started sailing in Prince William Sound.
That led to his eventual purchase of his boat the Wild Thing in Seward, where the WSYC is based. When he joined, the club hadn’t organized any serious racing in nearly a decade. In the few years the number has steadily grown with nine boats participating in the summer racing series. That has generated more competitive racing.
“There’s definitely a lot more energy to the racing lately,” said skipper Peter Knape. “The level of sailing has gone up and up and up the last few years.”
Knape, who grew up in Michigan among a family of sailors, went to his first Alaska race in Seward in 2009, sparking his interest in getting back on the water. After being the youngest member in the club for some time, Knape has transitioned into the older guard.
In many ways, the boom has been a generational shift, with younger skippers buying boats from older or outgoing members.
“We just had turnover and new people coming in and buying these boats and introducing them to the racing,” said Sam Steele, the club’s vice commodore. “One thing led to another and all of a sudden we get all this momentum because we have a great time racing around in the bay and come back to the club and have a barbecue.”
That was the case for Zsolt, who bought his boat from a couple who raced during the ’80s and ’90s, the era considered the racing peak within the club.
“As soon as I bought the boat I was running into younger people on the docks who had also just bought boats,” he said. “The timing just worked out and everyone said ‘We need to bring back racing in Seward.’ ”
The season’s racing culminated this weekend with the Alaska Cup, the club’s variation of the America’s Cup. While the number of racers may seem modest, each boat carries between 5-7 crew members. Being a crew member is also an opportunity to get exposed to the sport without a major investment.
“A lot of people come in who don’t have boats or are just interested in participating,” Zsolt said. “Some people just come off the street looking to get on a crew.”
After spending a lot of time sea kayaking, Steele came to sailing as a way to expand his range. Another racer, Patrick Stinson came from sailing lineage. His dad Bob Stinson was an early club member and despite Patrick’s early passion for skiing, he found his way back onto the water as well.
“Patrick basically grew up in that club, and grew up on sailboats in the club,” Zsolt said. “And he left and went to go work for a tech company in the Bay Area for a while and I think he actually lived on a sailboat down there while he was doing that.”
On Saturday, a lack of wind during the race window forced the Alaska Cup races to be consolidated into Sunday. Patrick Stinson won the Alaska Cup in his boat Mambo. There was a points tie after two races and just four seconds separating Stinson from the rest of the field after three races. Gary Fung, skippering the Maniac and Zsolt in the Wild Thing rounded out the top three.
“There were super exciting finishes,” Steele said. “Post crossing within seconds of each other. Spinnakers were up and flying, it was great racing.”
The course setup in Resurrection Bay sends racers to head toward a mark, generally sailing into the wind and zig-zagging until they arrive. The return trip is with a tailwind, and the standard course is around a mile-and-a-half.
The club is typically Alaskan — high on utility and low on the pomp you may expect from a big East Coast or West Coast club.
“It’s a very informal club,” Knape said. “It’s like a potluck (on race day), everyone is bringing snacks and food. It’s very laid back. For the most part it’s a lot of cruisers and people stopping by to use the showers or store food before they head out on trips.”
While the club and sailing action is based in Seward, most members are from Anchorage. On Friday, club members got news that they would be able to remain in the space for at least another three years.
Interest in racing has gained enough momentum that members believe the club will continue to grow.
“People are already making plans for next year’s race schedule,” Knape said. “There are a lot of young sailors and families that are getting into sailing down in the Seward area and there’s a lot more energy around the club than there has been for years.”