Sailboat Racing on Portage Lake
The information presented here is derived from an article by Jan Davis that appeared in the Huron Portage Yacht Club publication Scuttlebut. The original title was HPYC at 25 and was written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Club. The material has been augmented to reflect more recent history of racing on Portage Lake.
The first suggestion of organized sailboat racing occurred when Tom Lott had contacted Tom Ehman, Senior. Tom and Jane Lott spent much of their summer at the Cadwell cottage on the west shore with Jane’s parents, Ruel and Florence Cadwell. Tom Ehman had read an article on handicapping under the “One-of-a-Kind Rule” in an issue of Yachting Magazine. This rule provided a formula in which different kinds of boats could race competitively with one another. The Toms split up the lake and contacted sailboat owners to meet at the Cadwell cottage to get measured using the One-Of-A Kind handicap rule.
In 1953, a few races were held in late July, and Tom Ehman, Sr. was the overall winner. He was awarded a trophy which was a child’s potty painted around with sailboats and the words “Portage Lake Perpetual Sailing Race Trophy – August 9, 1953”. There were about 5 boats participating, most of which were Snipes. By 1954, word had gotten around and the racing was getting serious. The fleet was divided into two classes: “Big” and “Small”. Tom Ehman, Sr. again won the “Big” boat class and Lew Barstow tied with Red Richards for the “Small” boat class. They flipped a coin to determine the winner, and Red won.
The races were conducted from the dock of the Cadwell cottage, about 5 cottages north of the bluff. Ruel Cadwell started the races and signaled the finish with a shotgun and live shells. The starting line was set straight out from the end of the dock so the “race committee”, mainly Jane Lott, could keep track of the goings on from her vantage point on a lounge. Dick Jackson would pedal out to the starting line on a water bike to recall premature starters.
After the race, the boats were tied to the Cadwell’s and some neighboring docks while the sailors enjoyed a meeting with refreshments of pop and beer. At the end of the season in 1954, everyone made a $3.00 donation to reimburse the Cadwells and Lotts since they had provided the refreshments. There must have been at least 9 boats that year because $27.00 was collected. In 1955, dues of $3.00 were collected from each of 10 member families; in 1956 there were 11: 1957 saw a jump to 15 and l958 to 25. The dues had been raised in 1956 to $4.00, most of which was designated for pop and beer; $10.02 was spent on trophies in 1955.
Tom Lott was commodore, albeit somewhat informally at first, during the formative years. Each year saw a little more organization and a greater discipline in the racing. In l957, the Club was incorporated and also joined the Inter Lakes Yachting Association (ILYA). Racing rule books were purchased, and the racing rules were studied in earnest. The protest hearings were not unlike Supreme Court hearings and sometimes lasted as long. Later, as rules were tightened, protest hearings became shorter, but a lot of Sunday dinners were served cold, if at all, in silence, after dark.
Most of the boats in the late fifties and early sixties were Snipes and Lightnings. A few Rebels had appeared and were leaving the other boats behind - The Rebels had an uncanny way of ghosting along in what appeared to be no air, as well as being able to take a rough blow. More and more Rebels appeared; at one time, the club had the largest Rebel Fleet in the country! Many trophies were brought home to Portage Lake by Rebel sailors. By then a few Interlakes had shown up and a Flying Scot fleet was chartered in 1962.
In 1963, Tom Ehman, Sr. and Jack Bartlett formed a company called "T-J Sales." Since they were unable to purchase the rigging and fittings they needed from the boat builders, they bought the boats “stripped” marketing them with rigging and fittings they added. Needless to say, the company outgrew Tom's and Jack's garages and eventually became a thriving business.
In 1963, the Big and Little Portage Lake Association (now Portage Base Whitewood Owners Association) was revived, in response to need for community action to control water levels. Tom Ehman, Sr. and Peter Thomassen were active, with Tom serving as president. The level of Portage Lake had been maintained by HPYC sailors by placing a rock dam with a four foot opening across the river behind the Trading Post and another at the outlet by the DNR launching site. This labor was performed by annually because the river ice damaged that dam and lake residents took out the Launching site dam because spring flooding waterlogged their septic fields. This naturally resulted in a measure of conflict – and aching backs!
Lake level was erratic: spring flooding was frequent. Often residents would row or paddle to their cottages at lake level; septic systems didn't respond well either. After several dry years in the early 60s, lake levels were extremely low, and by 1963, boats and docks were suddenly left high and dry. This was the impetus that led to constructing the dam. The dam was financed entirely with local funding, which was a matter of some pride to property owners.
Also in 1963, a borrowed float boat was used to start the races. This revolutionary method for race handling was greeted enthusiastically. In 1965 the club purchased its own float boat. The race season started on June 19 that year, rather than July 4 as in previous seasons. There were forty-seven resident members, two non-resident, eight juniors and one honorary member at that time. The initiation fee was $20; dues were $10; and a racing fee of $15 was assessed for each yacht. The need for a boat to set course marks had been evident for some time, and $1,800 was designated for this purpose. Huron Portage Yacht Club moved its base of operations to what was then the Newport Beach Club, but remained as separate entity.
By the beginning of the seventies, the HPYC’s influence had reached great heights. Many of our junior sailors had distinguished themselves in collegiate sailing. Tom Ehman, Jr. had won the Sunfish Junior Nationals, as Rick Lyons was to repeat a few years later. Several other youngsters from the Club were winning junior championships in national classes as well as other regattas. Rick Lyons was the first HPYC member to win a USYRU Championship when he brought home the Smythe Cup. Tom Ehman, Jr. won the Championship of Champions, bringing to HPYC small-boat sailing's most distinguished award. The club has also had a significant impact on the Rules of Racing. It initiated a penalty system for rules infractions that avoided being disqualified from the race. That system has been adopted for the international rules of yacht racing.
HPYC pioneered the practice of a small club hosting national championship regattas. The Rebel, Interlake, and Flying Scot fleets hosted national championships at larger lakes where there was enough room for such an undertaking. In 1983, HPYC hosted the National Windsurfing Championships on Portage Lake and in 2003 and 2014, the Interlake National Championships were held here.
In 1995, HPYC merged with what had been Newport Beach Club to form a new entity, Portage Yacht Club. PYC had just completed a new building to replace the former Beach Club structure which was variously described as “quaint”, “rustic”, “primitive” and … you get the idea. The sailing program continues unabated with racing on Tuesday and Thursday evenings as well as Saturday or Sunday.