Club Spirit and the Congressional Cup
Ready for Congressional Cup, 2007? Neither is the Long Beach Yacht Club, but they will be. The dust has yet to settle on Congressional Cup 2006, but LBYC’s race management system is already in gear for the next one. Probably, your club’s signature regatta does not have an endowment fund, or need 300 volunteers to run it, but still there’s much to be learned from how LBYC went about inventing invitational match racing as we know it, and making the regatta a banner event for club spirit.
That’s not even an overstatement.
In the mid-1960s the movers and shakers at LBYC were looking for a way to cook up a signature event. That left open the question of, what should a signature event be? Today it’s easy to see the fruits of their inspiration. Gavin Brady came up a winner on April 15, and the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner happens on May 12, and the key officers are in place for Congressional Cup 2007. This event is at once international, home-grown, and unique, and it belongs to the Long Beach Yacht Club. That is, the club is still bigger than the event. As veteran regatta chair Kate Banks notes, “The Congressional Cup is funded by member dues. We have sponsors, but sponsorship is an enhancement. If a sponsor leaves (Acura is the presenting sponsor and will be back in 2007), the event goes on. And yes, we’re building an endowment.”
Before we take a look at LBYC’s race management, here are a few clicks of back-story.
As of the mid-1960s, in the words of Bill Dalessi, “There was a group of us that wanted the club to have a major event, and nobody anywhere had done anything yet to take match racing beyond the America’s Cup model. We decided that if we went into match racing, we wanted lots of boats and lots of races. The immediate, strong response told us we were onto something.”
The inaugural Congressional Cup was sailed in 1965 in a bring-your-own Cal 40 format won in straight races by San Diego’s Gerry Driscoll, who had spent time in the America’s Cup Intrepid campaigns. Driscoll won again in 1966 (besides match racing experience that no one else had, he owned a fast Cal 40).
Dalessi continues, “We could see that a bring-your-own-boat system wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to go. In 1967 we started borrowing Cal 40s and lending them to the participants. We dictated how much weight a crew could carry and how much sail. Even while we were still hearing off-the-water protests at the end of the day, we benefited by having top judges—the likes of Harry Anderson and Arthur Knapp—from what was then the North American Yacht Racing Union [now US Sailing]. The sailors knew they weren’t going into the protest room with a bunch of yahoos for judges.”
Over the years the big silver trophy that was dedicated by an act of Congress has been won by the likes of Dennis Conner, Ted Turner, and Dick Deaver, from the old school, and new-school guys including Gavin Brady (2006), Dean Barker, Ed Baird, Ken Read, and so on. Along the way, the club went from merely borrowing boats to owning sails and then owning a dedicated fleet, and they led the way in assigning boats to opposite ends of the line, then led again in putting umpires on the water for instant calls (so much for going to “the room”). Their model of invitational match racing that has since been copied world-wide. Better yet, they developed it through an all-volunteer event that now is part of the soul of the club.
HOW THEY DO IT
Each year Long Beach Yacht Club elects a Port Captain, and in their system, that is the first rung on the ladder to becoming Commodore five years later. One of the first tasks of a new Port Captain is to choose the person who will serve as Regatta Chair during his/her year as Commodore. That selection launches a five-year training cycle in how to manage the Congressional Cup.
“People don’t get picked out of the blue,” Banks says. “I think I was chosen because I had volunteered so many times in the past. It’s an honor to be chosen, and from that point on, you are two people who are mutually dependent.”
In your first year on the road to running the Congressional Cup, you serve as Secretary to the regatta committee. In your second year, you serve as Chair of all aspects of the event ashore (all those volunteers, all those committees, housing for racers and 17 umpires). In your third year, you are in charge of all events afloat (spectator boats, support boats, race boats, backup boats and gear and flags , and five days of racing for 10 teams; 18 races per team). In year four you are Vice Chair, handling invitations and logistics. And finally, in year five, flush with experience, you as Chair are ready to give “your” commodore a Congressional Cup to be proud of.
Bud Scott, who edited LBYC’s 75-year history book, points out that the club’s 300 volunteers a year go all-out. “Each skipper gets two hostesses,” Scott says. “The hostesses take care that water and sandwiches make it aboard. They bake cookies, they drive their people around, they fuss over ‘their’ teams, and all the committees that make the Cup happen are like than. People are passionate. Everybody’s an actor on a brightly-lit stage. It’s a total buy-in.”
“Member satisfaction goes up,” Banks says, “because we have so many different groups, and this is what brings people together. You don’t have to be an expert sailor to find a place and a purpose, and everybody’s wearing a name tag, so all those people you ‘sort of’ knew, you can finally call by name. Having our volunteers in uniform helps too in building a common spirit—and I get a thrill every time I see the boats lined up with their battle flags flying.”
For a time, the Congressional Cup was part of the international match race tour, and there was concern at the time that the spirit would be diluted, or the club would lose control of something unique and special. It’s clear from what’s said above that nothing dire happened, and the club has since separated itself and gone its own way again. Having an independent event with “only” $41,000 in prize money doesn’t maximize the draw for international celebrity sailors, but apparently it doesn’t have to.
For the sailors, going to the Congressional Cup is a different feeling, being housed and transported by club volunteers. It’s not the biggest money in match racing, but it’s nice to be a pampered guest. Another thing the Congressional Cup does is create ways to keep everybody sailing, right up to the last day. In 2006 there was fleet racing for teams already eliminated from the match race ladder (and a $1,000 prize for first). People come to sail, they get to sail. And it matters that the club makes its own decisions, outside the framework of international rankings. Brady is an international star today, but going to Long Beach and winning for the third time in 2006, what was on his mind was how, “This yacht club gave me a break when I was a kid, so to me the Congressional Cup is special.”