Board of Directors
Vice Commodore - Jack Giba
Treasure - Jeannie Gallo
Secretary - Dennis Gallo
Social Director - Cindy Giba
Co Fleet Captain - Ken Schroeder
Original Club Charter from 1941
The first Fish & Weeds Regatta
The 1968 Wonder Lake Regattas
I write this from Alaska, where I have never raced a sailboat. Some years ago, a friend of mine bought a fine sloop and, knowing of my yachting background, asked me to instruct him in the art of sailing, which I did, with my heart in my mouth. We were in Kachemak Bay and Alaska’s waters are notoriously cold, with strong tides to boot. I told him that falling overboard in a Midwestern lake was a not unpleasant experience, but here we would have to be very careful.
My Dad, Robert W. Bird, was a sailor from his boyhood days on the Rock River in Beloit with a sailboat-canoe, to his college days on Lake Mendota at UW Madison, where he crewed on an E Scow. In Wonder Lake, our first sailboat was a Rebel, a slower sloop designed for Lake Erie. In the mid-60s, the WLYC had an “Open Class” race along with the C’s, but aside from our Rebel, all the others were the loose-footed Lidos 14s, a wonderful boat. Our 16-ft Rebel, however, took heavier winds better than they, and we had a spinnaker to boot. If we won a race at all, it was only in strong winds.
At last, my Dad saved up for a new Melges C Scow, built in Zenda, of course, in 1968. It was state-of-the-art at the time, wooden hull, masts and boom. It was a joy every time we got into it. We won our fair share of races, but nobody could beat Don Coumbe very often, who also had a ’68 Melges, and was the club’s ace for many years. I only briefly knew his son Gil, of tragic memory, and am glad to see that there is still a memorial trophy in his name.
In 1968, Wonder Lake hosted the Midwest Invitational Regatta(MIR). I believe Rock Lake, Brown’s Lake, North Lake and Wonder Lake were represented. There were perhaps 60-70 C’s on hand. In those days we were just transitioning from a roundabout course (we positioned eight buoys from the dam to the south end of the lake) to Olympic and Triangular courses. No one was quite sure how to do it. At least, in our club.
There were at least three races in the regatta, and on the final one, Don Coumbe, WLYC’s finest, was out in the lead. It was a tremendous showing, and while my Dad and I, in our W-18 Hedda “C”, were somewhere else in the pack, we were glad for him.
But, somewhere towards the end of the race, Don took the course buoys in the wrong sequence and direction, leading perhaps half the pack of boats with him! All were disqualified, and it took hours to sort out the mess of protests and procedures. It was a tragi-comedy for the ages.
The next day, someone had gone at night to Don’s shore lift and posted a placard where the name of his boat, the XTC, was on the stern. Layed over the name XTC, it read, “Follow At Your Own Risk”. Someone from the weekly Wonder Lake newspaper, The Party Line, took a picture and put it on the front page.
But W-9 Don “Wrongway” Coumbe’s troubles were just beginning.
That fall, the Illinois Department of Conservation convinced the property owners to poison the fish with Rotenone, not only in the lake, but far up Nippersink Creek, to get rid of the carp, which were about 98% of the lake’s population. They promised that lake clarity would improve and that they would re-stock it with pan and game fish. I was all for it, and the process was to begin in September, at the end of the summer season, so that our summer months would not be ruined with the olfactory attack that dead fish would create.
As it was, the Brown’s Lake Yacht Club was scheduled for a one-day, three-race regatta that September. Since Brown’s Lake was notorious for its Sargasso Sea-like weeds, and our lake was loaded with rafts of dead carp, the Regatta was named “The Fish & Weed Regatta”.
I can’t begin to describe how bad those dead carp smelled! Rafts of them poured out of Nippersink Creek into the western area of the lake. Many had died days before, and their decayed, paper-like bodies were constantly being fouled into the bilge boards and rudder, affecting the scow’s balance and navigation, requiring the “pleasant” task of removing them during the race. I did note, however, how clear Wonder Lake was becoming!
Now, to the race: my Dad and I finished 4th in the first race, among about 25 boats, then flat-out won the 2nd race, held immediately afterwards. We all broke for a lovely shore lunch.
We realized that we were in the “catbird seat” at this point, but alas for our dreams! After lunch, we were floundering somewhere in 16th place in the third and final race, hopelessly out of any chance of winning the regatta. And who was leading the pack?
Why W-9, Don Coumbe, in the XTC.
You can guess what happened. I believe the course was a 2 Triangle, then a Windward-Leeward-Windward course, but Don just couldn’t figure it out. Once again, he led the pack of fifteen C Scows in the wrong direction. My Dad was the first to notice. Of course, being 17 years old at the time, I had no idea of what was going on, but when my Dad said, “Bobby, what have we got to lose?” I instantly agreed.
We went off on a different tack. The rest of the trailing ten or so boats began to follow us.
And when we came to the finish line, I asked the Official Judge, “Are we the first boat to properly complete the course?”, he replied, “You certainly are!”
The cannon went off, I did a sailor’s jig on the bow deck, and my Dad whooped and hollered like I had never seen him! We had won the first-ever Fish & Weed Regatta, finishing 4th, 1st and 1st, literally snatching victory from the jaws of defeat!
And what of “Wrongway” Coumbe? To this day, he took it with magnificent grace and aplomb. But being a teenager, I could not resist a little dig. That night I took our dinghy and affixed a cardboard placard that read, “Well, folks, he did it Again!” But someone else showed up later in the wee hours, and had a simpler message:
“Not Again”. Which, once again, made the front page of the Party Line.
Our family moved to Minnesota in 1970, and we raced that entire decade with the Upper Minnetonka Yacht Club. Nothing, however, ever compared to the thrill of winning the Fish & Weed Regatta. When I saw that it was still a going item, I thought you would need to know some details of the very first one.
From Kenai, Alaska.