Model yachts at Nathan Benderson Park.

Image: Stewart Leith

It was a balmy Sarasota afternoon, with a crisp breeze energizing the 30 sailors racing their pretty boats on calm water. The competition was going smoothly until two ships collided on the final turn towards the finish line. Fortunately, no one was injured, or even got wet, since both helmsmen had their feet planted squarely on dry land. The racers are members of the Sarasota Model Yacht Club (SMYC) and the competition at Nathan Benderson Park (NBP) is one of many during the club's winter series.

The model yacht club was founded in 1996 by friends Milt Thrasher and Dick “Sherm” Sherman, who enjoyed building and sailing boats in the lake behind Thrasher's house. After outgrowing this lake and others, they landed at NBP in 2015, an ideal spot for its lack of wind-blocking trees and its ample parking.

Yacht club members come from around the world.

Image: Stewart Leith

The club has 110 members from their early 30s up to 95, and they practice three days a week at NBP. “We’re old enough to get along and young enough in spirit to be very competitive,” says member Daniel Harris. Sailors hail from Sarasota, around the nation and even as far as Switzerland. Around 80 percent have experience with “big boat” sailing. While there is currently only one female member, they'd like to change that.

Ranging from 37.6 inches to 41 inches, the sleek vessels are true miniatures of their larger counterparts and are often assembled from kits in members’ garages. Typically made of plastic, the boats are propelled by wind, though remote controls maneuver the rudder and sails. They cost from $300 to over a grand, but for beginners, John “Boatyard” Stryhn, the club's go-to handyman, sells more affordable restored models. 

There are four competitive series a year, spring, summer, fall and winter, each with 72 individual races held over multiple days. Sailors who have participated in at least 50 percent of a series have their placement scores tallied to determine who had the finest sailing of that season. The club also hosts stand-alone regattas for fun or fund raising. While on the water, members adhere to the Corinthian spirit, the sailor's code of sportsmanship, which requires a positive attitude and acknowledging when you've been a “jackwagon” (a loving replacement for a harsher word).

Members practice three days a week to prepare for competitions.

Image: Stewart Leith

But competition is just part of the attraction of model yacht racing. After each sailing session, members regroup nearby for food and friendship. SMYC also holds luncheons, the annual blessing of the fleet by the Rev. Craig Collemer, a youth summer camp and a mentorship program where senior members assist fledglings. In 2016 members began holding a charity regatta to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. A friendly competition between visiting sailors dubbed the Snowbirds, and locals, the Florida Crackers, raised $4,000 last year alone.

Recently the SMYC became affiliated with the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates, which manages NBP, and the club hopes to make Sarasota a destination for model yachters.

“There's a feeling of freedom when you’re out on the water and an appreciation for natural beauty that translates into small-boat sailing. Combined with the thrill of competition, it creates quite an exhilarating experience,” says Commodore Will Parry.

For more information, go to sarasotamyc.com.

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