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Allure of the Figawi

Our writer recalls his favorite moments from 18 Figawi races across Nantucket Sound

Photo by Blake Jackson

There sits on the wall at Baxter’s Boathouse a modest little jug. Few notice it in the corner of the venerable Hyannis Harbor restaurant. The jug was the first Figawi trophy in 1972, now under the same roof where the famous race had its beginnings as a simple bar bet. The particulars are lost to the rum-scented mists of history and the accretion of legend, but the crux of the conversation reportedly went like this:

“I can sail to Nantucket faster than you.”
“Oh yeah? Care to make it interesting?”

Three boats sailed that Memorial Day weekend. Bob “Red” Luby raced first to the island, with brothers Bob and Joe Horan nipping at his heels. The next year they drew 15 boats. Now, hundreds of boats, thousands of racers and many thousands more spectators follow the festivities. The little jug at Baxter’s is immemorial, and now winners in the various classes are presented with gleaming silver platters and torso-sized trophies.

Most sailboat races, from the Olympics to the America’s Cup, are buoy races—sailors follow a fixed course around floats. But the Figawi joins the ranks of the Newport-Bermuda and the Sydney-Hobart as races that actually go someplace.

It’s a timelessly enchanting notion, to pack a bag and sail for unseen shores.

I chanced into the 1994 Figawi on a negligible invitation. A friend kindly lied about my sailing credentials, and suddenly I was crewman on a boat that would take a fourth-place trophy. My rampant under-qualifications were mostly hidden by my assigned job, that of “rail meat,” which is what they call the guys they stick up on the windward rail whose main job is counterbalancing the boat on upwind legs. You basically get soaked with cold sea water for five hours.

Between the thrills of racing and the social scene we found once we hit the docks, one Figawi was all it took. Excepting my own college commencement, I haven’t missed one since. I’ve crewed on five different craft. I’ve gone on boats that won silver platters, and I’ve been on boats that nearly sank. It’s never dull.

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