Photo and story by Terry Duffy
A decades-long sailing tradition on the northern Niagara scene is coming to an end next weekend.
Organizers of the Youngstown Yacht Club's Level Regatta announced earlier this year that the long-standing YYC favorite would be seeing its end run in 2013. Entering its 40th - and final year - the Level will play out on Lake Ontario waters Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28. It will open in typical Youngstown fashion on Thursday July 25 at 6 p.m. with the always enjoyable Level Street Dance celebration on the village's Main Street, with boat registrations taking place on Friday and sailing competition on Saturday and Sunday.
As of Thursday, a total of 163 vessels from such locales as southern Ontario, the Buffalo-Rochester area, the northeastern U.S. and the Quebec region of Canada had entered - a number that race committee chair and Level founder Don Finkle of RCR Yachts expects to grow to the low-to-mid 200s by next weekend. "We have special plans for this year and you won't want to miss it, we want our 40th and last Level to be memorable," he said.
He notes the Level, as its come to be known, traces its beginnings to 1974. "We wanted to have a new kind of racing where we didn't use handicaps," said Finkle, adding the new concept soon took off and became very popular.
"When we started the Level in 1974 with 20 boats we had no idea at the time that it would grow to become one of the largest and most popular events on the Great Lakes, three times exceeding 400 boats, including an amazing 466 boats one year," said Finkle.
"We never even thought about 20, 30, 40 years down the road when we started," he added.
"But times have changed and we want to change with them."
So what prompted the need for change? In a nutshell, blame it on the border.
According to Finkle, Canada border-crossing complications and access to Youngstown from adjacent lakes have taken its toll on attendance in recent years. Race numbers dropped from the 400s to the 200s down to as low as 150 in recent years. "Yes, it's become an issue, attendance is declining," said Finkle adding he hopes for upwards to 250 this year for the "last hurrah."
Border issues also impact the racecourses in the lake, YYC notes. It was a factor in the recent Niagara Hospice Regatta where a planned end-of-tourney river run had to be shelved by YYC race organizers due to uncertainties with Canada Border Services.
"Therefore this year's event will be the last Level as you have come to know it," said Finkle. "Starting in 2014 we will hold a totally new and different event on the same weekend at the end of July. We are not getting out of the regatta game, only changing tacks if you will."
For next weekend's "last hurrah," Finkle added, "The turnout is shaping up to be the best in years and we are anxious to see our sailing friends again."
Main Race Organizer Pat Mackey said the Level Regatta over the years has brought a good amount of prestige to the YYC from sailing circles in southern Canada and the northeastern U.S. "The little club has done more than its share of entertaining members from other clubs," said Mackey. "All over the U.S. and Canada."
He added that 60 percent of the Level participants hail from Canada, and that sailors and crewmembers love the YYC experience. In addition to offering the "biggest race of its kind on Lake Ontario," the YYC has become "well known" among clubs on Lake Ontario. "They roll out the red carpet" for the regatta, says Mackey.
So does the village. Both Finkle and Mackey say the Street Dance celebrations will offer the familiar fun offerings of music, good eats and drinks and friendship. "No charge, cheap refreshments, music, regatta clothing on sale, a nice mellow evening," said Finkle. Opening will be The Gentleman's Quarrel at 6 p.m., according to a Facebook posting from the Youngstown Business and Professional Association. And taking the stage at 7 p.m. will be The Jerry Andres Band, starring Jerry Andres, Claudia Andres, Joe Fruscione, Mike Killian, Anne DeFazio, Joe Malvestuto and Phil Incorvaia, plus friends. The fun continues on Main Street that night until 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday will feature racing in the lake with "best viewing" found at Fort Niagara State Park, said Finkle. And look for fun socializing plus entertainment both Friday and Saturday evening at the YYC that's open to the public, said Mackey. "We've got fantastic entertainment, look for some surprises," he said, adding that one-day admission tickets will be available for $15. Check www.wnypapers.com this week for updates on next weekend's YYC entertainment offerings.
So what's in store for next year?
"We are keeping plans for 2014 under wraps for now and you will know in due course what those will be," said Finkle.
"Innovative. New and fresh," was all that Mackey would say. "A lot of clubs have 'copied' the level's style."
So stay tuned.
Meantime, be sure to get up to Youngstown and experience the last hurrah of the legendary Level. It promises to be one heck of a good time.
For more visit www.yyc.org.
NFP intern Maddy Matthews contributed to this report.