By John Morris
After 40 summers, the Youngstown Level Regatta is done. Sure, there’s a nostalgia piece about all the great times we had, about Jeff Long Tarzan-ing his spar and setting his J24 on its side or about Don Allen’s bikini babes in Sailing News. I could write about the Whippet crew from Oakville sailing in Michelin Man suits or recall brushing my teeth with beer from B-Kwik, but that is only part of the story.
If lining up for a head at 6 in the morning after you emptied the beer truck at 5 is not the Youngstown story, what is? Here’s a synopsis in handy point form
1. Don Finkle turns out to be a genius, fueled by insight, spawned by love of sailing
2. The yachting establishment missed the grassroots appeal of this event entirely
3. If you’re going to have a regatta in a sleepy upstate town, it helps that it is just across the lake from 9 million people in the Toronto GTA
4. If you think that there’s a better boat than a C&C 29 you don’t get it
5. ‘One-design’ can be loosely interpreted, if you’re smart
6. Beer is a common denominator
In 1987 when the Youngstown Regatta was just 14 years old Robert Salfi wrote about the event’s phenomenal success for CY. As he explained, it all started when Don Finkle and his ¼ – ton crew schlepped their Cal T4 all the way to Florida in search of some non-handicap racing. When he returned, Don sold the idea of a “level” one-design regatta to the YYC hats and the Levels was born. At the time Salfi’s article appeared, the Levels had hit a whopping 250 boats, but that was still just the beginning!
One Youngtsown innovation made all the difference; while level racing is easy to stage for J24s and Sharks, Youngstown added one design fleets for everyone. Show up, get assigned to a fleet and race. Got a Goman Express 30? You’re in a division with a Kirby 30, a Pearson Flyer and a two J29s. Got a problem with that? We’ll discuss it after the race over a beer. Or not. And nobody did. Plus, Finkle discouraged protests and sea lawyers by charging fees for filing. Add in genuine big prizes for the winners in every division and a tradition was born that has lasted 40 years, essentially unchallenged by pretenders like NOOD, Royal Week and a long list of others.
Boats like C&C 27 and Laser 28 and especially C&C 29s were in their glory on the Levels race course and in its long rafts that tentacled off the seawall forming insane floating parties reaching out into the Niagara River. Onshore Don arranged a hi-flow Genesee beer truck to slake the racers, a concept unheard of and outlawed under every possible Puritan Ontario regulation, particularly in the 70s when this all began.
So the regatta grew peaking at 466 boats somewhere in the mid-90s and likely bringing more people to Youngstown than live there. Yankee Spirits on Lockport Road was emptied, wings were consumed by the poultry-farmload and adulthood was achieved in tents pitched to accommodate the crew.
Several factors contributed to the gradual tapering off of this juggernaut. Located right across the river at Niagara-on-the-Lake, C&C went broke and stopped supplying race boats like the C&C 29s, a distinctly ordinary and not particularly quick boat that had attracted so many active owners in the Youngstown-Rochester-Golden Horseshoe, that competition rose to high quality standards.
Racing declined everywhere. One-design owners got older and moved from the foredeck to the Bimini, or even onto the links. Crew, once fueled by beer and hormones no longer jones for racing – they’ve found other ways to meet those needs, I guess.
Small hot boats (like the Melges 24) are expensive and that keeps the numbers down, in these parts anyhow.
Don and his Youngstown pals have run a pretty fine regatta for 40 years, pushing YYC’s facilities to the limit, exploding his town and shanghaiing everyone in the community who can hold a clipboard onto the committee boats. Enough is enough.
The world will be a lesser place without the Youngstown Levels. It never attracted the attention of the international sailing community, or the other pretentious forces of racing and therein laid its appeal. Don and the Youngstown folks were just motivated enthusiasts who loved racing and fun. They turned us into believers. Alas, everyone is moving on.