Thursday, July 20, 2017  

America's Littlest Yachts: Cape Dory Typhoon Racing


For a sailboat model, a name like Typhoon could easily suggest a sleek, no-frills and no-nonsense racer, but the 19-foot Cape Dory Typhoon doesn’t fit that image. This boat is impressive for different reasons—its handsome style, now defined as classic, and its versatile “sailability.” Carter’s Creek is home port for over 40 Typhoons (“Tys”), and 20 more, including the Piankatank fleet, are near enough to grow the number of boats at every sailing event.
The Typhoon was designed by Carl Alberg, a Swede whose career in the United States built a lasting reputation for producing beautiful boats. Built from 1967 to 1986, Typhoons were not meant to form a racing class. Their lines spelled elegance more than speed. “But in one-design racing, the boats are rigged under strict rules. All the boats are basically equal, so success in racing becomes a reflection of boat preparation and the racing skills of the captain and crew,” says Ned Crockett, who races Ladybug with his brother Stan.
Participation in this type of one-design or class racing can be more rewarding than competing in larger-boat regattas, where different boats are rated according to a handicapping system, and the first boat to cross the finish line is not necessarily the winner.
Typhoon racing on the Rappahannock is often described as a family affair. Says Crockett, “Ty sailors are an interesting group of very competent two-person racing teams made up of father and son, father and daughter, spouses, siblings, and many good friends.”
How did such a large group of Typhoons get to this area? The initial interest was prompted by a few owners who started racing them casually as afternoon enjoyment and a prelude to evening socializing, not too different from what sailors often do, particularly when they see another boat like theirs. The more they raced, the more attention they garnered, convincing more people to join the fun. “A lot of people who saw the boats became intrigued by what was going on. The enthusiasm just spread—everyone had to have a Ty!” says Ron Mihills, top Ty racer in 2015, racing Anthem with his son Brent.
Acquiring the boats wasn’t easy. Production of the model had long ceased, so there was no possibility of ordering a new boat. One by one, boats were found, purchased, brought home, and restored. “Some of the boats had been well kept, mainly needing new sails,” recalls Mihills. “Others had been ignored for years, requiring lots of effort to restore. Fortunately, two really good yards, Rappahannock Yachts and Custom Yacht Service, are here. Both have worked on multiple Typhoons.” As each restoration was completed, one more little yacht took its place on the creek and on the starting line.
Some owners like to handle annual maintenance chores themselves. Most important for sailing is a smooth hull, to achieve every bit of speed. Most important for pride of ownership is freshly varnished wood trim and perhaps an occasional hull-painting.
It’s obvious Typhoons are attractive, but the design is also known to be sturdy, stable, and safe, a good teacher for basics and just plain fun to sail. “The boats are stable in many kinds of wind,” says Tom Watkins, Typhoon fleet commander, who owns and races Radio Flyer with Mike Kennedy. “They’re not that difficult to sail and to sail competitively. You don’t need to do a lot of gymnastics to sail one.”
As the Typhoon fleet grew, the Rappahannock River Yacht Club (RRYC) added its support to the races, providing the committee boat, chase boat, and race-course markers. Club members also served as the race committee, and eventually, the club became the sponsor for Typhoon racing. “All Ty owners are invited to all racing events,” says Crockett. “Club membership isn’t required, although the majority of Typhoons in the area are owned by RRYC members. The yacht club has been the social hub of Irvington for years, offering sailing and social activities for countless families.”
Race photos reveal that the fun of sailing Tys gives way to competition often and seriously. A long list of rules governs what actions are allowed, including the specifics of who has the right of way in what conditions. Occasionally, collisions occur. “With any sailboat racing, it can be a contact sport,” smiles Watkins. “We are within inches of each other, especially at the start. But racing is a rules-based game, so it’s obvious who’s at fault. There can be no disagreement about penalties or repairs, should they be necessary.”
The Typhoon racing schedule now includes Wednesday night races in spring and fall, Sunday women’s racing in spring, the Typhoon National Championship Regatta every two years, and a Mid-Atlantic Regatta in the off years. Typhoons are the largest fleet in the October RRYC- sponsored Hospice Turkey Shoot Regatta for classic boats. Add regattas sponsored by neighboring clubs, and Ty racers can have a full schedule. And just for fun, a group of Ty owners may organize a day cruise, sailing together to a local waterfront restaurant or to a friend’s waterfront yard for a picnic.
Stephanie Chaufournier, women’s Typhoon fleet commander, crews aboard Ty Affair with captain Danielle Kuper. She describes the women’s racing series. “Our races are unique in that we have a coach on board, not as active crew, but only to advise. Winners from the regular Wednesday night series volunteer to coach, and they move from one boat to another with each race, so that all the women sailors learn from all of the coaches. We also rotate crew, so each boat might have a different team for each race. The women bring a mix of sailing levels but all are excited about the series—it gets very competitive, but in a fun way.”
For more formal learning, seminars are held at the yacht club. Well known for sharing racing tips anytime, Mihills presents one of the seminars. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “Helping others improve their skills is good for competition. There are a lot of good sailors in the Ty fleet, and all are willing to share their knowledge. That’s another pleasure of Ty racing---seeing how the level of racing skills has developed over the last ten years.”
Arabella Denvir owns Premier Sailing School, and she races with Dr. Sissy Crowther, Ad Astra’s owner. “Sailors may buy a Typhoon just for the fun of it,” says Arabella, “but it’s so easy to go from daysailing to racing. I do promote the boats to students—Tys are relatively simple, yet they can sail in very strong winds. They take weather amazingly well. When the interest in Tys started, Ned Crockett and Ron Mihills were instrumental in promoting them by helping others find boats to buy. Later, others did the same.” Arabella conducts sailing clinics, all focused on improving sailing and racing skills.
Jerry Latell adds his expertise to the list of seminar topics. As owner of Latell Sails/Ullman Sails Virginia in Deltaville, he discusses the finer points of sail trim, sailing tactics, boat speed, and more. “There are two Typhoon models,” he notes. “They may look a bit different, but their overall sail area is the same. The intent with Ty racing is really to keep all boats the same. The talks are aimed at helping all Ty sailors become more competitive.”
Area sailors (or wannabes) don’t have to belong to the yacht club to sign up for crew positions, but these will more likely be available for the larger-boat races. A two-person Typhoon team requires a lot of together practice to hone their teamwork. Those wishing to learn to sail or to improve existing skills can contact Arabella Denvir at Premier Sailing School in White Stone.
Competition and camaraderie, fellowship, fun, and focus on family—all define the appeal of Typhoon sailing. Ron Mihills offers a more telling summary: “I can’t imagine NOT doing it.”

The Rappahannock River Yacht Club hosts the Cape Dory Typhoon National Championship June 3 – 5. Guests can attend the Friday night welcome party, or watch the races from a spectator boat.  Races take place on the Rappahannock River off the mouth of Carter’s Creek. Contact the yacht club to make arrangements.  804-438-6650    rryc.org