The Legends of Whaleboat Racing

Tommy Bock of the John K. Ott team dives into the water to retrieve an oar in the men's whaleboat race final during HarborFest in 2013. Michael Heller photos

Incredulous as it may seem, there was a time when Ray Pettigrew and Billy Martin — the perennial winners of the Whaleboat Races at HarborFest — were novices themselves. In the early nineties, the duo dropped a championship race to their rival boat, the Corner Bar, in a flurry of splintered oars, dislodged oarlocks and wounded pride.

Team Whaler’s Cleaners was neck and neck with Corner Bar halfway through the course. Looking back on that race, Pettigrew says “everything went wrong.”

“We came around the corner and the Corner Bar just turned right into us. Finally we got separated. Then we go to start rowing and there are no oarlocks,” Pettigrew recalls. “The Corner Bar had reached over and ripped our oarlocks out and threw them at the bottom of the boat.”

More than ten years later, Warren Bramoff and his son, Eric Bramoff, can’t confirm that oarlocks were removed. Dirk Early, who was also in that Corner Bar boat, claims that they didn’t touch the oarlocks — but maybe managed to pop one or two of the oars out of The Whaler’s oarlocks.

“We’re going to stick to that old written rule: what happens on the water stays on the water,” Eric Bramoff says, after consulting his dad, who admitted that “his memory is foggy,” when it comes to the alleged oarlock incident.

After that race, Billy took Ray aside.

“That ain’t never happening again,” they vowed.

The next year, Martin and Pettigrew went down to the beach every night to practice. They would do between 20 and 25 starts every night. He believes that they managed to get the whole process down to around 10 seconds. They took the 1993 race by a mile, and have won the coveted Whalers Cup, presented annually by The Sag Harbor Express, 17 more times since.

Team Whalers rowing in 2013.

The whaleboat races began as a friendly reminder of Sag Harbor’s whaling past, but they’ve become a proving ground for generations of whaleboat legends. From Team Whalers to John K. Ott’s Poo-Pee Nation, (Eric Bramoff’s team) to the Early brothers, they all relish the competitive spirit of whaleboat racing.

Teams from Sag Harbor Liquors and John K. Ott arrive on the beach in a virtual dead heat during a whaleboat race in 2012.

“My lifelong mission is to beat The Whalers,” Bramoff jokes — he is still one of the only members of his family who has yet to claim a title. “They just get better every year and I can’t understand how.”

The whaleboat-legend gene seems to run in families. Pettigrew’s daughter, Kristin, claimed her first whaleboat title rowing with Maddie Martin, Billy’s daughter. Pettigrew’s son, Ray Jr., claimed his first youth title several years ago and he will race against his father this year in the adult division. Eric Bramoff inherited the propensity for whaleboat racing from his father, but his cousin and brother-in-law have also claimed titles in the past. While Dirk and Joey Early remember their dad as “probably the strongest guy in town,” he wasn’t much of a rower. But the two brothers have been rowing against one another for as long as they can remember.

“I’m never going to stop,” Joey says.

Recently, Poo-Pee Nation has expanded to include a women’s team consisting of Karin Schroeder, Hillary Schroeder, Shawn Mitchell and Shelly Cotrell. They took the 2016 women’s race in the closest contest since the famous Whalers versus Corner Bar race of 1994. This women’s team has been known to “bring the heat,” as Hillary says.

“All of our fathers watched those whaleboat races,” Mitchell says. “They had classic stories, things that they would tell their kids. We’re making so many stories that we are going to be able to tell our kids.”

Poo-Pee Nation has grown to more than 20 kids on the sidelines. It’s about family roots — “Good, old, true Sag Harbor,” as Hillary puts it. She and her husband, Dave, have been rowing in the races before they got together. In their household, Whaleboat racing day holds the same esteem as birthdays or Christmas.

“It’s really just a celebration of us,” Mitchell says simply.

But it’s not all sentimental. The competitive spirit runs deep through Poo-Pee Nation.

“Once The Whalers are no longer racing, the Poo-Pee Nation will take it all,” she adds. “And you can quote me on that.”

Ray Pettigrew gives his daughter Kristin a hug after her Junior Whalers team won the junior division during HarborFest last year. Michael Heller photos

Since its inception in the 60s, the whaleboat races have been messy. Dirk and Joey Early insist that anything goes on the water — although that approach might get you disqualified, and there have been some rule changes in recent years — specifically adding a “no contact” zone at the start of the race — seem to have mellowed things a bit on the water.

In 1997 the Early brothers squared off in the final round. Dirk, rowing for The Corner Bar and Joey, rowing for Denny’s Marine, got tangled up around the first buoy.

“It was a close race,” Dirk remembers. “We get to the first buoy, and tried to push away.”

The Barflies including, from left, Dirk and Joe Early, Bob Scramm and Roger Meyer.

“Howie North was in the front of their boat and he’s pulling us back. We were starting to make headway. I was like, ‘Howie, let go of the boat.’ Then he grabs the boat one more time. I go to punch him in the chest, except the boat is going up and down, so I caught him right in the mouth.”

The Corner Bar ended up taking second behind The Whalers, but were disqualified for the dustup.

If The Whalers have an Achilles heel, the record indicates it is probably collisions. They try to get ahead and stay ahead. They train by lifting weights, and watching their weight before race day. Even the Poo-Pee Nation will admit that there is no competition for The Whalers when it comes to oarsmanship.

“Billy is a powerhouse,” Pettigrew says. “I’m just trying to keep up with him. I know if I am even a fraction of a second off with Billy, because I can feel the boat move a little bit. You get to know each other after the years.”

Team Poo-Pee, the self-proclaimed “bad boys of whaleboat racing,” own the whaleboat version of small-ball: picking the right line, dealing with collisions and recovering from broken equipment.

“Our strategy is that we want a very messy race. We want oarlocks popping, we want lots of stuff happening,” Bramoff says. “We’ve been known to rub boats on occasion, but it’s all in good fun.”

Describing whaleboat racing to anyone outside of the Sag Harbor community can be a hassle, Bramoff says. He remembers describing it to his football teammates in college, receiving mostly blank looks in return. When Pettigrew asked Martin to row with him in the nineties that first time, Martin looked at him and said, “You want me to do what?”

Maybe it is the sound of the crowds cheering on Long Wharf as the harpooners close in on the whale. Maybe it is the spirit of the old whalers that come out to stir competitive energy in those who take to the whaleboats come HarborFest weekend. Those initial skeptics have been converted — some have even become whaleboat legends themselves.

“If someone says ‘Sag Harbor’ you can’t go too far down the list without saying ‘Whaleboat races,’” Bramoff added. “For a lot of us it’s the biggest day of the year in our town.”

Women from Sag Harbor Liquors celebrate winning the 2011 Whalers Cup during HarborFest in 2011.