When the first gun sounds at the E Scow National Championship regatta this September, more than 100 boats are expected to be on the line on Lake Mendota, Wisconsin. And while competition will be fierce—as always—there will be a bit more on that line than usual, for this year marks the 100th anniversary of this unique and storied class of boats that counts among its fans some of the country’s greatest sailors.
Officially launched in 1924, the 28-foot E Scow was an answer to the much harder to manage 38-foot A Scows that began sailing in Minnesota in 1900, and the single-sail, 20-foot C Scow that was usually used for training. Typically sailed with a crew of three or four, the boat’s sail plan has changed over time, but today it is sloop-rigged with an asymmetrical spinnaker that can zing it downwind at more than 20 knots. It’s exciting, fun, and exhilarating to be hiking out for all you’re worth upwind to keep the boat flat and the snub-nosed bow clear of any waves.
“The scow is a challenging boat to race well, and these sailors are people who thrive on good competition,” writes E Scow sailor Gary Jobson in the official book on the topic released last year, A Century of Racing E Scows: An Enduring Legacy. “The physical demands are strenuous, and yet sailors of all ages excel on the E Scow. It is a family boat, gender welcoming, and technologically fascinating; to win a championship is a feat that few achieve.”
Among those few are the late Buddy Melges, a five-time national champion, and US Sailing Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award winners such as Brian Porter and Harry Melges IV.
From the start, the boats were known for their speed and technical demands—a July 1926 Yachting article about them included in its rather lengthy title, “the Factors Which Make Them the Fastest and Most Sensitive Racing Craft Afloat.”
Jobson’s book provides a detailed look at the class’s inception, history, and evolution—and it’s the methodology of the latter that he credits with helping the class survive and thrive when others would collapse. It’s in competitive sailors’ nature to see how far they can push a rule, and the E Scow Class has been no exception, Jobson says, with ideas that ranged from “brilliant to downright goofy.” But always, others would watch to see if some tweak translated into better results, and from there, the class would examine it thoroughly but with open minds and debate—everything from crew weight limits, shifting from wooden hulls to fiberglass, wooden spars to aluminum, adding hiking straps, and moving from traditional spinnakers to asymmetricals.
“The brilliance of the organizers of the National Class E Scow Association (NCESA) was a philosophy that encourages innovation while creating a robust system of scrutiny before any changes are approved,” Jobson writes, “a slowly evolving narrative that makes for a compelling case study on how a sailing class can survive long into the future.”
Art Brererton, who’s credited with developing the lever boom vang for E Scows, says the class “walks the line between one design and development…You don’t embrace everything that comes down the road. Change keeps the boat contemporary and fresh,” and the debate “improves the society of the people in the class.”
One thing that’s never been up for debate—and which sets the E Scow apart from many other one-design racing classes—is how naturally it embraces and supports family sailing even at its highest levels. It’s not unusual for kids to sail with parents, grandparents, and siblings, and the network of clubs across the country that support E Scow fleets engenders a strong sense of community.
“Many of us share a similar story,” says Chrisy Hughes, centennial chair, who grew up sailing scows with her family in Minnesota and today is part of a third generation that’s sailing, including her husband, son, and daughter. “We race E Scows with our families and have strong bonds with our teams and fellow competitors…It’s an intense sport that I am so proud of, and I feel fortunate to pass the love on to my kids.”
“My father bought an E Scow in 1960,” says Bill Warner of Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. “My two brothers and I crewed for him. My son, of course, picked it up, and now I have a grandson who crews for me on the E Scow, and I have granddaughters who are sailing on the boat. We’ve had five generations sailing, and I hope it continues for many more.”
The E Scow National Championship is Sept. 6-10. For more on the class and centennial events, visit e-scow.org.