LAKE MURRAY SC — America’s top sailboat racers are preparing for a showdown on Lake Murray.
The series of races Oct. 25-27 is the “Super Bowl” of the sport, said Jan Jernigan of Lexington, chief organizer for the event. “This is a contest to see who is the best of the best.”
It’s the first time the 37-year-old regatta — officially known as the Championship of Champions — has been held at Lake Murray, brought in by the Columbia Sailing Club.
Tourism officials say it’s another milestone in their quest to burnish the reputation of the 47,500-acre lake as a draw for top recreational events. The races will be followed next summer by the Forrest Wood Cup, one of the nation’s premier fishing tournaments that will bring in 92 top anglers.
“Any time you can bring focus to the lake with activities of this caliber is going to pay off,” lake tourism director Miriam Atria said.
In the upcoming regatta, crews of three led by sailors who have won other matches nationwide will sail 19-foot Lightning vessels picked for the competition over dozens of other types.
The challenge for all will be adapting to a watercraft most are unfamiliar with amid unpredictable weather and a lake few know, said Liz Walker, championship director for US Sailing. The Rhode Island-based organization oversees the sport nationwide, including Olympics training.
Only one of the 20 crew skippers is from South Carolina, with the remainder from 13 other states.
“It’s very, very competitive,” John Potter of Beaufort said. “It’s definitely a tough crowd. It’s for some pretty good braggin’ rights.””
Columbia Sailing Club members won their bid to host the contest on their first try, with Lake Murray selected over 32 other sites.
The races seldom have been in the Southeast, but the lake “fit the bill” for the setting and amenities wanted, Walker said.
About 100 sailors and supporters are expected to spend up to a week in the Midlands preparing for the races and relaxing afterwards, officials said.
It’s impossible at this point to estimate the economic impact of the new event, Atria said.
The sailboat competition is much smaller than the return of fishing competition next August — televised on sports cable channels — that officials say generates more than $16 million primarily from hotels, dining and shopping.
But the race will help spread the word about the quality of sailing on the lake, Atria said. “It can lure other events to come.”
Dave Parshall of Lexington is excited to be on one crew, with daughter Amber on another. “It’s neat to be sailing in this at our home club,” he said.
It’s the first time the Parshalls are in the competition after attempting to qualify on their own.
He will handle the spinnaker and other sails in the middle of his boat
Mother Nature influences the race but the skill with which crews react to weather ”definitely plays a big part,” he said.
For the 225-member club, attracting the race is a cause for celebration as well as much preparation and work so it’s smooth sailing.
The 56-year-old organization has held several regattas but this one is “on a higher level,” club commodore Richard Leaphart said.
For club leaders, bringing it here is a salute from leaders of their sport.
“It puts us on the map as a world-class sailing venue,” Leaphart said.
If you go:
The races will be held daily Oct. 25-27, from about 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Each will last about an hour, depending on wind. The layout and length of courses will change for each match.
Crews switch boats – all similar in style and equipment – for each race.
The winner is the crew with the best total finishes.
On land, the best site to watch the race is the walk atop the Lake Murray dam and areas on each side. The Columbia Sailing Club is not open to nonmembers.
On water, boaters can sail near the course but shouldn’t anchor in a spot that could interfere with the race.
Practice runs will occur Oct. 24 before races commence the next day.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.