Meet the group that races scaled-down yachts on Lake Crabtree

by Ayn-Monique Klahre | photography by Travis Long

At the blare of the horn, eight-foot-tall remote-controlled sailboats speed past each other around Lake Crabtree, tacking left and right to finish a course marked by buoys. These boats are not toys, and their pilots aren’t kids: these are to-scale models of Olympic-caliber yachts, steered with all the finesse you’d find in a full-size race. “It’s the same kind of racing you see at the regattas around the country, except scaled down—and of course, the sailor is not on the boat!” laughs Rick Ferguson, a former commodore of the club, who’s been a member for about 12 years.

On Sunday mornings from March through November, you’ll find Ferguson among about a dozen others setting sail on area lakes as part of the Triangle Model Yacht Club. It’s actually one of the older clubs in the country—the most famous one meets in New York City’s Central Park—and it attracts mostly middle-aged-to-older men, tinkerers and ex-athletes. “We welcome new members of any age or gender—since most of us are of retirement age, recruitment is important!” says Ferguson. “And we are more than willing to help a total novice learn the ropes if they want to race.”

The spirit is one of friendly competition and camaraderie, the kind that builds over years of spending Saturday mornings shoulder to shoulder with like-minded folks. “It’s a test of skill and strategy,” says current commodore Michael Roberson. “Everybody has a similar boat, the same lake and the same wind, so the winner is whoever does the best job of getting to the starting line first and racing around the course the fastest. It’s mentally challenging.”

There are two ways to win: by sailing faster, and by using the wind to sail a shorter course. Most participants have raced full-size boats in the past—Roberson grew up sailing on Kerr Lake—and say that model yacht racing is surprisingly similar to being on the boat itself. “If it’s going really right and everything’s good, you feel it, if it hits a wave or slows down, you feel it,” says Roberson.
The club is not about modeling or boat building—though some members do that, too—it’s about competition. “If there wasn’t racing involved, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much—it would be just sailing around in circles,” says member Chase Thomas. “Racing gives you a reason to be there, it accelerates learning, and it scratches a competitive itch,” Ferguson says. The club races four classes of boats: EC12, Star 45, Victoria and RC Laser. In a two-hour session, they’ll usually have eight races, each about ten to 15 minutes long. “That’s one of the coolest things—that you can have a ton of races,” says Roberson. Beyond the weekly races, the group hosts regional and national regattas, and travels to other clubs for regattas.

The club races three seasons a year, with the best sailing in the fall (“Summer is sort of a drifting contest,” says Ferguson). “If you’re interested in sailing, it’s an easy and inexpensive way to experience all the intricacies of racing without spending thousands on a boat,” says member Gerry Cobley. Beyond that: “It’s a fun way to spend a morning,” he says. “Even if you don’t understand it, it’s a beautiful sight to see these boats moving across the water.”

View video footage of the race here