Bound by Victory

The sailors who compete in the Leukemia Cup and other charity regattas are making a difference, and their common denominator isn't racing expertise. "Passage Notes" from our November 2007 issue

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Jim ferguson and his granddaughter, Katie, sail aboard his Celestial 48, Maggie, off Dana Point, California.Courtesy Of Jim Ferguson

There are many reasons to race sailboats: the challenge, the competition, the opportunity to interact with the elements. Here's another one that's become popular in the last 15 years: racing for charity. In fact, the only time many sailors race is when it's in support of a charity event. The Leukemia Cup series, the Hospice Cup, the MS Regatta, the Jimmy Fund Regatta, and Sail for Sight are several examples of worthy charities that receive support from sailors.

It's been my honor to chair the Leukemia Cup series since 1993. We've grown to nearly 50 events annually, and I've attended 211 events over the years. Collectively, the Leukemia Cups have raised more than $22 million for blood-cancer research. In 2007, more than 18,000 sailors and 2,000 boats participated in a Leukemia Cup event. The sailing community can take a lot of pride in this accomplishment. If you haven't sailed in one, I urge you to do so. They're a lot of fun, and they benefit a fantastic cause.

Each event has its own personality. There are prizes for the top fund-raisers, great parties, auctions, and the satisfaction of helping people in need. Actually, I'm one of those people. Recent advancements in science and research helped me in my two-year battle with lymphoma, which is now in remission. Like many others, I'm mighty grateful for all the support. Over the years, I've been very fortunate to meet many of the sailors who do so much with their time and efforts. Let me introduce you to a few of them.

Jim Ferguson, of California's Dana West Yacht Cub, is a long-distance cruising sailor who races exclusively in charity events. "When my wife, Kathy, and I returned from a two-year cruise aboard Maggie, our Celestial 48, it was obvious that cruising boats were underrepresented in our event," says Jim. "Having lost my dad to leukemia, we wanted to participate, but it's not that much fun doing windward/leewards in a boat like ours." With that in mind, Jim made sure the racecourses were fun for sailors of all stripes, with more reaching legs and other cruiser-friendly ideas.

"Our club has done an amazing job, raising over $1 million," Jim says. "It's been my experience that cruisers will raise more money than racers because they're more focused on the event as a fund-raiser."

Through it all, Jim has kept a refreshing outlook on the sailing side of the event: "Even though we sail a liveaboard cruising cutter, we enjoy sailing our boat to her potential. Let's face it, we like to pass as many boats as possible, just like the real racers. The Leukemia Cup gives you another reason to leave the slip, improve your sailing, and have fun. Yes, the emphasis is on raising money, but getting a trophy every now and then is fun."
Longtime Star sailor Jack Filak of Cleveland, Ohio, retired from one-design racing several years ago, but he returns to competition once each year for the Cleveland Yacht Club's annual Leukemia Cup. "My participation gives me the opportunity to race once again against longtime friends," says Jack, who sails aboard an S2 7.9, Upstart. "My crew and I contribute to the fund-raising aspects of this regatta, especially in the last few years, when a close friend was diagnosed and treated successfully for multiple myeloma."

Jack gives high marks to the CYC for its administration of the event. "For the past three years, the CYC has combined the Leukemia Cup with its club regatta, thereby attracting a huge fleet of racing boats that sail on two or three separate racecourses," he says. "The regatta is very well run."

Each year, Michael Cichon, from Tampa, Florida, travels to Chicago to race, as a member of Team Jahazi, aboard his uncle's J/120, Jahazi, in honor of his grandmother, who died from leukemia after a 10-year battle. In what he described as "unfortunate irony," his uncle, Frank Giampoli, was also recently diagnosed with lymphoma. "We're hoping Frank's treatments go as planned and that he can be sailing again soon," says Michael. "A whole lot of generous and caring people helped us raise more than $30,000 this year."

Frank's wife, Lori, is also up for that challenge. "There's an electricity in the air at our Leukemia Cup Regatta that's not present at any other race," she says. "For us, it's really not so much about the racing, although it would be fabulous to win our section and be the top fund-raiser. The competition really comes in the amount of money that each boat has raised."

Like myself, Travis Wilhite, of Chicago's Columbia Yacht Club, is another cancer survivor who understands both sides of the Leukemia Cup equation. "I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2004," he says. "Six months of chemotherapy and a year of recovery led me to remission."

Today, Travis and his wife, Honore Woodside, are active Lake Michigan racers aboard Veloce, a Beneteau 36.7 on which he calls tactics and serves as crew chief. At this year's Leukemia Cup in Chicago in August, the couple raised $53,000. "The atmosphere at the Leukemia Cup is completely different from other events," says Travis. "There's a sense of unity that comes from supporting a cause. I'm very passionate about these regattas. Sailing is my peace."

Bob Davis of Niantic, Connecticut-he sails In Dreams, an O'Day 28-is yet another sailor with a special incentive to participate. "Three years ago, at the age of 55, I was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia," he says. "In the beginning, not knowing much about the disease, it literally took the wind out of my sails. My oncologist turned me on to the Leukemia Society and the regatta. I knew I had to do something. Not just for me, but for the thousands of less fortunate. This became my calling."

The 2007 Leukemia Cup was Bob's fourth consecutive event, and he's been successful on and off the racecourse, having won the cup in its last two runnings. He also believes it's an event that's like no other. "The bonding for the common cause is very much apparent," he says. "The competition, tempered with the camaraderie, is very moving. Everyone instinctively knows it's not about winning. It's about living!"

David Branning, from Annapolis, Maryland, also tells a moving story. His Tartan 3800, Shannon, is named after his granddaughter, who was born with leukemia and died just three weeks after her birth. "The Leukemia Cup is an extension of my relationship with her," says David. "Here's an event that's focused on a cure for a disease that was extremely significant to our family. We, as a regatta-entry yacht, have raised a lot of money for this event over the past three years."

As with many people who race in one of these regattas, the event becomes more relevant, and more personal, as time passes. "Any day on the water is a great day, but the Leukemia Cup has special, personal meaning and makes us more aware of the need to raise money for a cause," David says.

"In 2005, Dick, one of my high school classmates, developed leukemia and got better after extensive treatment. He and his wife, Bonnie, jumped at the chance to become involved, so they joined us in 2006 at the Leukemia Cup Regatta in Annapolis. They knew why we were so focused on the event. That was very satisfying."

Clearly, you don't need to be a racer to get a lot out of a Leukemia Cup or any other charity regatta. Everyone who gets involved is victorious. So please come join us. After all, who could imagine a more important boat race?

Gary Jobson, author, TV personality, and America's Cup winner, is a Cruising World editor at large. For more information on charity regattas, see the Leukemia Cup website (www.leukemiacup.org).