Useppa Catboat Rendezvous Regatta 2010: Sailing on Island Time

Herding catboats and relaxing island style

Useppa catboatsCatboats tacking near the starting line buoy.

As owners of a Com-Pac Sun Cat catboat, we wanted to participate in the 2010 Useppa Catboat Rendezvous, a biennial gathering of catboats and owners featuring races, fun and beach games over a long weekend. Unfortunately, we could not arrange to spend the whole weekend down there, but went down on Friday, Feb 26, to spend the day and watch the fun.

Background History on Useppa Island

Useppa is a private resort island located in Pine Island Sound on the SW coast of Florida with a rich and interesting history. Archeological evidence of paleo-indian inhabitants dating back 10,000 years has been found, and the island was near the center of the Calusa civilization, which thrived in this area for several thousand years, dominating southwest Florida until the arrival of Spanish conquistadors and conflicts with the Creek and other native tribes decimated their numbers. The Calusa called themselves "Escambaba" in their language, which means "The Fierce People." They built pyramids and whole islands from shell mounds, and had an advanced system of government and religion. John Worth, former Assistant Director of the Randell Research Center, characterized them this way: “Most people live on the edge of the land, but the Calusa lived on the edge of the water.”

That description also captures later Useppa occupants, such as the Spanish fishing ranchero Jose Caldez, who ran his mullet empire from Useppa island, shipping dried fish and smoked roe back to markets in Havana in the 1700s. After conflicts with the Seminole indians over territory and the US government over import/export taxes, Caldez left the island and went back to Cuba in 1835. Various stories trace the name of the island to a corruption of "Uncle Zeppa" as Jose Caldez was called, or to the name of his wife and also his schooner, Josefa. Others say the island was named for a Spanish woman named Josefa de Mayorga, supposedly kidnapped by the famous pirate Jose Gaspar, aka Gasparilla, who murdered her and then regretted his actions and named the island for her. That myth is unlikely, considering that the pirate Gasparilla never existed.

Useppa more or less fell into disuse for a period of time during the mid nineteenth century, with the US military establishing a base there to interdict blockade runners and protect Union sympathizers during the Civil War, but abandoning it shortly thereafter. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the island first began to show its potential as a modern resort, with the railroads to Punta Gorda and Boca Grande bringing wealthy vacationers during the winter season. Useppa owner and businessman John Roach built the Roach House, and later Barron Collier bought the island and created the Collier Inn resort. Edward vom Hofe invented his practical tarpon fishing reel, and came to Useppa each year to use it.

The Useppa Catboat Rendezvous

Useppa Islanders today are, like the Calusas before them, living more on the water than on land. With no bridge to the mainland, access to the island is by boat, and the large fleet of Marshall Sandpiper catboats fit right in to the traditional, laid-back Useppa attitude. What better place for the Sandpiper World Championships? The Useppa catboaters approach this momentous event with their typical reverence, exemplified by the name of the PIGG club, which stands for "Previously Important Geriatric Gentlemen" and by this figure of Useppa Sailorman, a reference to Useppa Man, a Calusa indian whose remains were excavated on the island in 1989.

The "championship" race is still a fun race, and all boats, including the various catboats other than Sandpipers, start at the same time and race without ratings to correct for their different speed capabilities. The fleet is expected to behave in a gentlemanly way, and stay clear of Sandpipers in their quest for the World Championship. Confused skippers are urged to call the race committee on the VHF for directions, which is the opposite of the way things are handled in most sailing regattas. In tribute to the spirit of the race, I plan to attend in 2012 and do whatever it takes to come in last place in each and every race.

This year we could only find time to go out for the day on Friday in our 15' Boston Whaler. There was frost on the cars and on the ground that morning, so we got off to a late start.

It was around noon by the time we trailered the boat down to Pineland Marina and got out near Useppa, and a few catboats were starting to come off the beach for the afternoon races.

With no catboat racing activity in Pine Island Sound as yet, we decided to go around to the Useppa Marina and try to find some internet buddies, when we saw some of them coming out the channel and unfurling the giant mainsail on their Alerion catboat.

A peek around the corner at the mooring ball inside Whoopee Island revealed one of the Sandpipers preparing to receive a tow out to the race course, so we decided to go back out and watch the catboat races while eating some sandwiches we had brought along for lunch.

We came back out the Useppa channel and said a brief hello to Mark & Tammy, owners of the Alerion catboat "Summer's Breeze" before they motored off to join the rest of the fleet, now starting to sail off the beach in greater numbers.

A Dorado inshore and tarpon fishing boat towing a daisy chain of two Sandpipers out of the marina harbor passed by.

The other "big" catboat participating in the races this year was a really neat looking blue Sharpie cat ketch.

Even the light little Sandpipers were not moving very fast in the light winds that afternoon.

We were tuned in to the VHF radio frequency being used by the racers and race committee, and were treated to various reports of little to no wind from the sailors, when I heard one of the Marshall Sandpipers named Dolphin calling, saying they were becalmed behind the marina and might never make it out to race at the rate they were going. With nothing better to do, I called them back and told them we would be there in a few minutes to tow them out to the race course. They seemed ready to have a good time racing the Dolphin.

The fleet was starting to assemble, but still waiting for some wind. The weather forecast called for the wind to diminish throughout the day, and as the water turned from rippled to glassy, we decided it would be more interesting to go to the island and explore and see if we could find our other internet buddies and fellow Com-Pac Sun Cat owners, Charlie and Isy.

Before heading to shore, we took a pass through the fleet to take a few closer pictures.

The Alerion catboat sailing with her cajun crew.

The Sharpie cat ketch built of wood and sailed by the Ball brothers.

Look at how narrow that Sharpie cat ketch is!

One of the few catboats with a cabin in the regatta.

A few of the Marshall Sandpipers and one of the race committee boats.

The pink Sandpiper struck me as a particularly funny color, especially with the owners both wearing pink hats and shirt.

We brought along our junkyard dog, Libby, and her little sidekick, Luke the Cowdog, both of whom seem to enjoy watching sailboat races.

Catboat Spirit making her way downwind to join the group.

The Sandpiper named Black Pearl had a really sharp black paint job with red lettering on the stern.

Later on, we found the Black Pearl's little sister on the beach, the Quack Pearl.

As we turned toward shore, the fleet was assembled, all dressed up, but no wind to go!

On the way back in, we saw a nice looking Acadia 21 with blue hull coming out to observe the races. A classy way to go!

But not as upscale as this group, out to watch the catboat racing fun on a classic 1925 wooden Elco 56' motor yacht named Hermione.

They had a nice view across Pine Island Sound at the catboat races!

When we pulled up to the dock, this nice homebuilt wooden sailing skiff was on the other side.

We saw Charlie and Isy's Com-Pac Sun Cat at the Useppa marina dock, and found them out on the beach watching the catboats sail.

A Morris 29 came out to sail, reaching along nicely in the light winds under main and asymmetric spinnaker.

Finally, the wind came up enough to hold a proper catboat race, and the show was on!

A fleet of Marshall Sandpiper catboats tacking toward the upwind mark.

And all the Useppa catboats running back to the downwind mark

When half of them have rounded the mark and turned back upwind, and the rest are still running for the downwind mark, it's quite a messy herd of cats!

Mark and his cajun crew were starting to figure out how to make that Alerion catboat go fast, and were leading the fleet in this shot. Who dat?

Meanwhile, we saw one of the Sandpipers getting a fairly rapid tow back toward the beach from one of the powerboats. Why would they be doing this during a race? Especially the World Championships!

Looks like it was time for a little emergency repair. I think they broke the block that holds the peak halyard.

A few minutes later, they were headed back out to rejoin the races.

The crews of the Sharpie cat ketch and Alerion enjoying a friendly rivalry, sailing close together upwind.

And the duel continues on the downwind leg.

But then as they rounded the mark and headed back upwind, the Sharpie pulled away while the Alerion luffed her sails. What were our cajun friends doing out there? The answer appears at the end of the video below...

The error at the mark opened up quite a gap between the two boats, and the Sharpie went on to win that one.

Contrary to the weather forecast, the wind actually increased as the afternoon wore on, and the boats were all moving nicely in the final lap around the buoys.

Walking back across Useppa Island from the beach to the marina as the boats come back in from the races, a nice Useppa Island scenery shot.

Some video of our day at the 2010 Useppa Catboat Rendezvous:

(Watch the mainsheet on the Alerion catboat closely at the end...)

Share Your Thoughts: