YOUNGSTOWN – He found his lifelong hobby at age 9 on the Niagara River, and 56 years later, Don Finkle of the Youngstown Yacht Club still believes “there’s nothing else in the world like sailing.”
And as much as he enjoys sailing – and has built a life around it as a partner in RCR Yachts with five locations in New York and Pennsylvania – he further relishes “the competition of racing against other sailors.”
That love of competition led Finkle to start the Youngstown Level Regatta 40 years ago. And while he admits it was his idea to establish the legendary race that would put Youngstown on the map, he is quick to credit the many volunteers these past four decades who have helped carry it off, as well as the yacht club for its support.
This weekend marks the final level regatta in Youngstown, and Finkle recently took a look back and a peek at what the future holds.
“It’s time to change things up,” he said. “Whatever we come up with to replace the level regatta, remember, we’re racers, and we know what racers want to do.”
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get hooked?
My family moved to Youngstown when I was 8, in 1955. My Dad and I tried fishing, but we didn’t catch anything. Youngstown was full of sailboats, and the next year, my Dad bought an 18-foot sailboat, and we converted from fishing to sailing. I lived close to the water, and I’d come home, hop on the boat and go sailing. We didn’t have formal lessons back then in the mid-’50s, we taught ourselves. Now, we have an exceptionally good instructional program at the Youngstown Yacht Club.
What do you enjoy most about sailing?
I love the fact that when you turn the motor off, you only hear the wind and water, and propel yourself without any mechanical power. You harness the elements. It’s the feeling of the wind on your face. You either get hooked or you don’t … But I also enjoy experiencing it with family and friends. My wife, Heather, likes to sail, but she doesn’t like to race. We have three grown sons, and they all went to sailing school and were also instructors. I love to see new people get the bug and see their excitement. I guess I just like spreading the word.
When did sailing become your life?
I graduated from college and joined the yacht club in 1969 – before that I had been part of my family’s membership. Then I went in the Army for two years. I came back and started working at the Youngstown Boat Company. I was in my mid-20s, and Bob Reese was working there, too. In 1972, he bought it and renamed it RCR Yachts. In 1975, I became his partner. Our territory is western Pennsylvania and most of upstate New York, and we not only sell boats – even through the Internet now to people in foreign countries – but we also run several boatyards and have storage, docks and repair.
How did the idea for the Level Regatta happen?
Bob Reese and I were racing together at the time, and we had a quarter-tonner, which you could race without a handicap. You raced with a handicap so that slower boats could keep up with faster boats, to make it more fair. But there was a new philosophy at the time, that if you had similar-sized boats – not exactly the same, but similar – you could race against each other and forget the handicap. But you had to travel to Rhode Island and Florida to find this type of racing. I decided we could do that here.
What was it like in the beginning?
It was my idea, but the yacht club started the race. They said to me, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ So, I got my sister and my girlfriend at the time, who became my wife, and they helped me. We had two levels at first, for 24-foot and 30-foot boats, and we had 20 boats enter. The next year, we had four levels and 40 boats, and it just kept growing and growing.
We had over 400 boats three times in the history of the race. We had a peak of 466 boats in the mid-1990s. But that was back when there were more boats racing because there were just more boats out there. The decline in entries is not because it’s not a popular event. It’s a long story, and it involves family dynamics and the economic environment of the Rust Belt.
Did you ever envision it becoming such an enormous success?
I had no idea. I wasn’t thinking beyond the present. I never thought this would last 20, 30, 40 years – it wasn’t even on my radar screen. We do a lot of other races out of Youngstown for other classes, but this was the biggest and had the most longevity. It is still one of the largest keel boat (20-foot and over) races in North America.
How did you juggle family, business, sailing, racing and producing this big race for four decades?
I like to organize, to create, to make things happen. When my boys were growing up, I coached hockey and ran leagues because I like to get involved. But I always give credit to the volunteers who have kept this going. Credit has to be shared by the whole yacht club. I’m just one of many volunteers. This is not the Don Finkle Regatta, it’s the Youngstown Yacht Club’s Level Regatta.
What does the future hold?
We have a replacement event in mind, but we’re deliberately not announcing it yet, until this regatta is over. It will be something different, but it will be the same time of year and the same place. We’re not getting out of the business of running regattas, we just need some change … It’s time to freshen things up ... We’ll go public with the idea probably this fall, because sailors will be planning their 2014 calendars well in advance.
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