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The Sugar Bowl Football Classic has been a part of the national sports scene for over 78 years, welcoming fans from around the country to the city of New Orleans each New Year's season. However, there is another Sugar Bowl event which has been in existence for just as long, and within its own arena, it's recognized as one of the premier national yachting events - the Sugar Bowl Regatta.
"The Sugar Bowl Regatta has always been one of the premier yachting events in the United States," said Barton Jahncke, Olympic Gold Medal winner and multiple Sugar Bowl Trophy winner. "It has given young sailors, from the Optimist class through high school and intercollegiate levels, the opportunity to learn how to compete at a very high level. The Regatta is extremely well-organized and is held in high regard by national and international competitors alike."
Established in 1934 by the Midwinter Sports Association to be part of a winter carnival of sports offerings in conjunction with the football game, the Sugar Bowl Regatta is the only non-football event that has continued for the entire 77 years of the organization. Track and field (see sidebar) has always been a part of the bowl activities in various forms, but not with the same format as 1934.
The "Race of Champions" (ROC) has been a premier Sugar Bowl Regatta event involving competition among Gulf Yachting Association one-design boats since Davis Wuescher of the host Southern Yacht Club (SYC) captured the first title in 1934. Since that time, the regatta has expanded to its current form that includes many additional classes such as Performance Handicap, Rhodes-19s, Finns, Lightnings, Flying Scots, many Board Boat classes, and several J-Boat fleets. The Sugar Bowl also sponsors the Optimist Mid-winter Championship, the Great Oaks Regatta, and high school and intercollegiate sailing competitions.
The ROC began as a Gulf Yachting Association inter-club competition sailed in the then-popular wooden-hulled gaff-rigged Fish Class. Over the years, boat designs changed and eventually the ROC organizers adopted the Flying Scott, a new fiberglass design that remains the boat of choice today.
As reported in 1949, "Mid-winter visitors have often expressed surprise that yachting and rowing are part of the Sugar Bowl sports carnival. In most parts of the world, these are summer sports, but with New Orleans' mild winter climate, they are year 'round recreations. The yacht races, conducted by the Southern Yacht Club, America's second-oldest yachting organization, [and now the New Orleans Yacht Club as well] are staged on the waters of Lake Pontchartrain. To witness events of this type in many cities, it is necessary to travel miles by auto or rail, and then board a yacht in order to reach the race course, but in New Orleans, a few minutes' drive from the heart of the city brings one to a grandstand seat on the lake front, where races are in plain view to all.
As a staple of the Sugar Bowl's repertoire, focus was given to the regatta events immediately after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. The 2006 Sugar Bowl Football Classic was moved to Atlanta for the year and through strong efforts and dedication to tradition, the Regatta Committee was able to hold the intercollegiate races on Lake Lanier in the Atlanta-area thanks to the Lake Lanier Sailing Club and the Georgia Tech Sailing Team. The balance of the Regatta was miraculously held on Lake Pontchartrain.
"The regatta has been an integral part of the Sugar Bowl's activities since its inception in 1934," the organizations chief executive officer Paul Hoolahan said. "It was a very symbolic victory for us to keep the event going even with all of the difficulties resulting from Katrina."
The Sugar Bowl Regatta has featured multiple Olympians, including Gilbert T. Gray, a Southern Yacht Club skipper who captured Olympic Gold in the STAR class in 1932. In 1968, G. Shelby "Buddy" Friedrichs, Jr., with crew Barton Jahneke and Click Schreck brought home the gold from the Mexico City Olympics in the Dragon class. Johnny Lovell, who took silver in the Tornado class in the 2004 Athens Games is quoted as saying, "I think Lake Pontchartrain is one of the most challenging places to sail in the United States. You have a strong north breeze with a steep chop or a light shifty southerly breeze, or both in one race. Also, placement [in the fleet] can change the dynamics of racing on the lake because of the land effects."
The Sugar Bowl Race of Champions trophy has become a nationally-prestigious prize in sailing. The aforementioned Gilbert T. Gray won it in 1941, 1946 and 1947, becoming the first sailor to win it three consecutive times (the regatta was not contested during World War II). That record nearly fell in 1989, however, when John Dane III took top honors from 1986-88 and was poised to win another in 1989. Dane, in addition to all of the talented skippers, had to battle intemperate weather conditions which may have played as much of a role as seamanship in the outcome.
While the Sugar Bowl Regatta can usually boast of the mild New Orleans climate, 1989 will always be remembered as "The Year the Lake Froze Over."
"All I remember about it was how bone-chilling cold it was," recalled Dane. "That experience always made me aware of my clothing every time I go on the water again, even now."
That, in other words, means frequently. Dane has sailed all over the world, and almost two decades after his uncomfortable episode, Dane became America's oldest Olympian, sailing in the Beijing Games at age 58 in 2008.
Lake Pontchartrain is 630 square miles with a mean depth of 10-16 feet. "The winds out on the lake are shifty," Dane said. "And because the lake is so shallow, the water conditions can range from flat to rough and choppy, which all forces one to adapt."
With the 1989 sailors battling the challenging weather conditions, Scott Sonnier of Southern Yacht Club, was trailing Bay-Waveland's Rod Stieffel when he decided to split from the fleet just into the final leg. The move opened Sonnier to the wind and he and his crew of Michael James and Jennifer Lovell went to the lead over the swelling waters, snatching the Sugar Bowl Race of Champions with a score of 5.5 points and denying Dane his record fourth-straight championship.
"While we always have incredible competition out on the water for our event, we also always offer a taste of the great culture and hospitality of the city of New Orleans to all of our visitors," said John David, many-time participant and frequent Regatta Committee Chairman. "I think that combination makes the Sugar Bowl Regatta one of the most enjoyable events of its kind in the world."
Throughout the years of the Sugar Bowl Regatta, one thing has remained the same. Sailors from all over the country relish the opportunity to compete in a challenging New Year's event in the wonderful city of New Orleans.
Sugar Bowl historian Marty Mulé contributed reporting for this article.