July 23, 2019

Remembering Summer Days at Essex’s Pettipaug Yacht Club

Pettipaug Yacht Club clubhouse and grounds in winter

It is all quiet now. The Pettipaug Yacht Club, located on 12 acres of land on the Connecticut River, has been put to bed for the winter. The heavy docks are stacked. The anchors and their chains for the sailboats are out of the water, their mooring balls resting beside them.

Also, the club’s office in the clubhouse is locked up tight, and the clubhouse deck is now a jumble of stored picnic tables. On the club’s grounds, there are still many boats scattered about. Although the club-owned powerboats are fully accounted for, according to the club’s ever present Paul Risseeuw, “We just don’t know who many of the other boats belong to.”

The cold stillness at the club is starkly different from the way it was last summer. Then in the bright, hot days of July and August, over 150 young people were actively participating in the sailing courses of Pettipaug Sailing Academy. Under the watchful eye and careful supervision of the Academy’s instructors, the club’s grounds were literally teeming with activity. Boats were being launched, sails hoisted, and races getting underway, amidst the happy voices of the young participants.

 Sailing Academy Director Paul Risseeuw

Paul Risseeuw, who is the Director of the Pettipaug Sailing Academy, is a retired naval architect and engineer, who spent his career at Electric Boat, designing and constructing atomic submarines for the U.S. Navy. Now during the summer he spends literally seven days a week, every week, working at the club’s Sailing Academy, among other activities.

Paul Risseeuw among the boats at the club

The Sailing Academy’s program is divided into two sessions, and both sessions run for three and a half weeks. The first session takes place in July, and the second session runs from the latter part of July into the month of August.

Each of the two sessions is in turn divided into a morning program and an afternoon program. The morning programs offer sailing lessons to children, ages 8 to 11 years old; and the afternoon programs are designed for more advanced, young sailors, ages 12 to 16.

There are 41 students in each of the morning programs and 55 students in each of the afternoon programs.  Tuition to attend the Sailing Academy costs $375 to attend a single program, and $600 for a student who takes both of the morning programs, or both of the afternoon programs.

105 students at a Sailing Academy picnic on Nott Island last summer. (Photo courtesy of Paul Risseeuw)

It is never permissible, under Academy’s rules, for a student to mix morning and afternoon programs. If they are morning program sailors, they stay in that category. If they are afternoon program sailors, they stay in their category as well.

In directing the Sailing Academy Risseeuw supervises a faculty of seven sailing instructors. Each of the instructors is out on the water in his or her own powerboat, while the students are sailing in the waters off the club. Also, it is a strict rule at the Academy that all students wear lifejackets, while they are on the dock or sailing.

One factor in learning to sail is that it is a fairly common occurrence for young novice sailors to be hit by a sailboat’s boom. The boom is not particularly heavy on a 7’ 6” Opti sailboat, which is used in the morning programs, but it can still hurt. All of the sailing instructors are First Aid and CPR trained, and know how to handle these and other mishaps.

Boys and girl sailors, there’s a difference

After directing the Sailing Academy for many years, Risseeuw has made a number of observations about the different ways boys and girls approach learning to sail. For one, whereas the number of boys and girls taking sailing lessons is about fifty-fifty in the morning programs; in the afternoon programs the ratio is about seventy percent boys and thirty percent girls.

“The older they get, the fewer the number of girls there are in classes,” Risseeuw says. Also, he observes, “Boys like the racing; they like the competition.” As for the girls, “Girls generally are less competitive sailors. Girls like to be together. They prefer socializing.” Also, he says that sometimes in the afternoon programs, “Some of the girls show up in bikinis, at an age when boys don’t know where they are.”

Also, Risseeuw observes that as a general rule the younger sailors in the morning programs are easier to manage than the teenagers in the afternoon.

A singular treat for teenage sailors in the afternoon programs is that every Monday they hold races with the junior sailors of other yacht clubs. Sometimes these races are held at Pettipaug, and other times at other clubs. When they travel, Pettipaug sailors and their boats are transported with the help of parents.

Generally, when Pettipaug sailors race other clubs they engage in what is called “team racing,” which is a very popular and competitive type of racing. The goal in team racing is to have the team win the race, and not a single individual sailor, as is the case with traditional “regatta” racing.

Boats engaged in team races make extensive use of the priority of the starboard tack while sailing, and other right of way rules, so as to clear the way for the members of their team to advance.

The club's Opti sailboats on the river last summer (photo courtesy of Vic Hoehnebart)

Clubs which compete with Pettipaug’s sailing teams are all members of the Eastern Connecticut Sailing Association, who’s Commodore just happens to be Pettipaug’s Paul Risseeuw.

Something for adults as well at Pettipaug

In addition to running the Sailing Academy, Risseeuw oversaw the running of twelve U.S. Powerboat courses last summer. The courses consist of one full day of training, from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with a guaranteed six hours on the water.

The tuition for taking the course was $170, and the U.S. Sailing Association contributed $10,600 to support the program.

There are also many traditional yacht club programs at the Pettipaug Yacht Club run by other club members. Specifically, there were ten sailing races and regattas for members of the club throughout the summer sailing season. They include the traditional Charles Birch Memorial Race, won this year by veteran sailors, Ed Birch and Jeff Going. Charles Birch was the father of Ed Birch.

Also, last summer the club conducted a two-evening windsurfing course for adults.

Organizationally, there are three commodores at the club, which presently include Commodore Cameron Taylor, Vice Commodore Chris Manero and Rear Commodore Vic Hoehnebart, as well as a Board of Governors.

If they ever need help in running the club, they can always call on club member “extraordinaire,” Paul Risseeuw.

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