This time of year, it’s the only way to sail

Group of friends race radio-controlled, scale-model Lasers every week

By Jim McGaw
Posted 2/8/24

PORTSMOUTH — Mike Zani used to compete in the winter Frostbite sailing races, but he’d much rather be controlling his sailboat from the comfort of a dock than in the frigid waters.

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This time of year, it’s the only way to sail

Group of friends race radio-controlled, scale-model Lasers every week


PORTSMOUTH — Mike Zani used to compete in the winter Frostbite sailing races, but he’d much rather be controlling his sailboat from the comfort of a dock than in the frigid waters.

“This is much more civilized,” joked Zani, who’s part of a group of mostly adult men who gather to race RC Lasers at a different site every Sunday.

“It’s a scale model of a Laser sailboat,” explained fellow racer Rick Bassler, who traveled from his North Attleboro home to Sunset Cove in Island Park on Sunday, when about 15 competitors carrying radio controls crowded onto the pier jutting into Blue Bill Cove behind the restaurant. “They’re approximately four feet tall, about three feet long.”

On that particular day Bassler actually had a different job than racing. He was tasked with using a rowboat to hunt down any stray sailboats that had escaped the range of their owners’ remotes. At one point, he rowed out almost as far as Spectacle Island to retrieve one such entrant.

“The range of these boats is a good 100 or 200 yards, but if your batteries aren’t fresh it’s an issue. We use AA batteries, but it’s always best to use a lithium battery. Any time you put electronics near water, you’re gonna possibly have some technical problems,” he explained.

The boats had different-sized sails, ranging from “A” (the widest) down to “D” (the narrowest). “It’s difficult to sail in these wind conditions with a big sail,” said Bassler while pointing to a boat with a “C” sail, which offers better maneuverability. “I don’t know anyone who has a ‘D’ sail. To get really get set up with three different sails and the boat, it’s about $400.”

Most members of the group are acquainted with one another through membership in the Barrington or Tiverton yacht clubs. “We all got to know each other and we get together every Sunday — sometimes Saturday if Sunday looks bad. We start typically around November and we don’t stop until late March,” Bassler said.

Dick Waterman, who on Sunday acted as a one-man “race committee” — explaining the route of each race, counting down the starts and making note of how everyone finished — said about 30 people are signed up for the races. About half of them showed up Sunday at Sunset Cove.

One of them was Mark Schneider of Barrington, who been doing this for about six years.

“In the past it’s been just a few people — like five. But this past year has really changed, with a big influx,” said Schneider, adding it was a safe outdoor activity during the height of COVID. “We did it and we kind of had some rules about not being near each other. It was actually quite nice.”

“It’s a lot of fun; we try to pick some different venues,” added Bassler, noting this was the first time the group had raced behind Sunset Cove. Although the wind was blowing and the water was choppy in Blue Bell Cove on Sunday, the site has a big advantage over some others.

“The tide is a big to-do with us, especially over in Barrington. This is very good; it looks like we’ll be back again at some point. There’s virtually no tide here to worry about; that’s the big factor,” he said.

Added Zani, “It’s great of (Sunset Cove) to let us use this facility. We’re always looking for the right location depending on wind directions. We’ve got like five or six locations, and this is a great one. There’s no tide, and the dock is big enough that we don’t sink in, which is nice.”

Going after ‘strays’

You do have to get wet sometimes, however, as Bassler knows from going after stray boats. So does Jon Buonaccorsi of Barrington, who came with his two twin daughters: Rosie and Winnie, both 10. One of them “lost” her boat, which ended up against some seagrass near the shoreline.

“The wind can get pretty intense,” said Winnie, a sailor herself who has been racing the RC Lasers since last fall. Rosie, who doesn’t sail, tried her hand with the smaller boats for the first time on Sunday.

As their dad carried a large tree branch while making his way over to free the boat, Bassler watched and shook his head. “He’s not going to get it unless he gets his feet wet,” he said.

That’s exactly what Dad did, however, as he successfully snagged the vessel.

“This is my second year doing this. It’s nice to have something to do in the off-season, and the kids have fun — when they’re not crashing their boats,” Buonaccorsi said with a laugh.

Biggest challenge?

When asked the most difficult part of racing the RC Lasers, Bassler said “winning.”

“Not hitting each other is another. Sometimes we consider this a mild form of demolition derby. A heartfelt ‘I’m sorry’ sometimes gets you out of a penalty,” he said.

Although no one’s been yet pushed in the water due to a rules dispute, “we did have someone walk off the dock years ago,” he added.

The results after 10 races doesn’t matter as much as camaraderie shared among the participants.

“As long as it’s not 20 degrees and raining, it’s a lovely way to spend the day,” said Zani. “Everyone gets along real well.”

Bassler agreed.

“It’s a good bunch of sailors,” he said. “When it’s too cold to run the bigger boats, we run the smaller boats. This keeps us out of trouble.”

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