A Born Again Whaler at HarborFest

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The John K. Ott Cesspool team just barely edges out the crew of C's Home and Office Management to win the women's championship race on Sunday.
The author with his daughter and future whaleboat racer, Ella Menu. Michael Heller photo
The author with his daughter and future whaleboat racer, Ella Menu. Michael Heller photo

By Gavin Menu

For starters, and in the interest of full disclosure, I was raised a Bonacker. And despite being the co-publisher and sports editor of this newspaper for the last four years, I have never truly felt connected to old school Sag Harbor in any substantive way. Two short days at HarborFest last weekend and that all changed, at least in my mind’s eye.

I got a healthy dose of what it means to be a Whaler over the weekend, what it means to truly celebrate at HarborFest and what it means to love Sag Harbor with every ounce of your being. Bryan Boyhan, our partner at The Sag Harbor Express, stood on Windmill Beach as a commissioner of sorts for whaleboat racing since he helped bring HarborFest back to life nearly three decades ago. He planned a vacation the week after Labor Day this year, which opened the door for me to join the team and I sit here today feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity.

While helping run the races over the weekend, I met six-year old Gavin Page on Windmill Beach. After making it clear that I was the original Gavin, I learned that he is something like the 10th generation of his family to be raised in Sag Harbor, a direct descendent of a real whaleboat captain. Standing on the beach on Sunday, young Gavin kept a close eye on the much smaller recreational “whaleboats” we use today and I couldn’t help but think that we will be hearing his name in these races in the years to come.

I heard Gavin’s story from his great uncle, Dave Thommen, who is part of the whaleboat committee and shoots off John Steinbeck’s old cannon at HarborFest every year. Mr. Thommen’s family goes way back in Sag Harbor as well. He works in maintenance at the newly-renovated and rebuilt Watchcase condominium complex in the old Bulova building on Division Street, where many moons ago his grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the watch-making business. I got a sense listening to Dave’s stories that we were only scratching the surface of his knowledge about Sag Harbor history and it left me yearning for more.

For several weeks leading into HarborFest I picked the brain of Dirk Early, who led the charge alongside his friend Roy Schoen to build the model whale that has floated off Long Wharf at HarborFest for the last 25 years. It floated again last weekend, but not without a lot of love from Mr. Early, his brother, Joey, Russ Nill, Rick Pickering and the entire crew at Ship Ashore Marina, which generously houses the whale and the whaleboats 51 weeks of the year. A special thanks to Dirk and Charlie Laspesa for one of the coldest and best beers I’ve ever had on the back of Charlie’s truck after a long afternoon on Championship Sunday.

The John K. Ott Cesspool, women's team won the championship at HarborFest on Sunday.
The John K. Ott Cesspool women’s team won the championship at HarborFest on Sunday.

You hear the names over the loudspeaker every year at HarborFest as whaleboat races get underway. Martin, Pettigrew, Mott, Schroeder, Nill, Ward, Mitchell, Cotrell, Garypie, Daniels, Miller, Bramoff, and the list goes on and on. Most of today’s participants grew up watching their parents and grandparents row whaleboats at HarborFest, and now their kids are getting ready to do the same.

With all this Sag Harbor history rattling through my brain, my favorite part of the festival, aside from the amazingly close finish to the women’s race, won by four women rowing for John K. Ott — Hillary Schroeder, Shawn Mitchell, Shelly Cottrell and Karin Schroeder — all who have rich family histories in Sag Harbor, was the youth races held on Sunday afternoon. With a helping hand from Eric Bramoff, a longtime whaleboat participant and the current athletic director for the Sag Harbor School District, seven youth teams comprised of 28 children took to the water representing the future of whaleboat racing in Sag Harbor, a tradition we should fight to keep alive. The youth race division was won by Team Whalers with rowers Kristin Pettigrew and Maddie Martin, whose fathers are Billy Martin and Ray Pettigrew, the real Team Whalers and perennial men’s champions who reigned supreme once again in 2016.

The truth is that without whaleboat racing, there will be no HarborFest, or at least not the HarborFest we’ve all come to know and love. Which is why I plan to be back again next year, standing on the beach while I soak up every old story that comes my way. Perhaps we should start a new division for old timers — 60 and over — to bring back some familiar faces from championship teams gone by whose legs might be a little too creaky to go up against the big boys. Most importantly, let’s continue to grow the youth division and for the really little ones add some cruises out to the whale and seminars about the boats and equipment. Let’s be sure to groom a new generation of whalers so they, too, can tell their children about how they once harpooned a mighty whale in the waters off Long Wharf. A cause for celebration indeed.

The John K. Ott Cesspool team just barely edges out the crew of C's Home and Office Management to win the women's championship race on Sunday.
The John K. Ott Cesspool team just barely edges out the crew of C’s Home and Office Management to win the women’s championship race on Sunday.
Team Whalers were the winners of both the men's and juniors whaleboat races.
Team Whalers were the winners of both the men’s and juniors whaleboat races.

 

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