MARQUETTE - Beginning this weekend, the waters of Marquette's Lower Harbor will be spotted with sailboats, which will be competing on a national stage for the better part of a week.
The 2012 Ensign National Championship, a five-day event composed of a number of races and competitions, will kick off at 4 p.m. Sunday and will run through Thursday.
And while the championship will be a great thing for Marquette, people should be accustomed to seeing ensign sailboats on the water near the city's lower harbor, according to Neil Lynch, the chairman for the 2012 National Ensign Championship.
Skipper Jim Knape and his crew work to set the spinnaker on the ensign Lickety Split while skipper Jeff Millin and his crew, in the background, look on from the ensign Death Roll. (Dennis Zanetti photo)
"We basically submitted a proposal to the Ensign Class Association and usually there are several different fleets that are kind of vying for the opportunity to host," said Lynch, who serves on the Marquette Yacht Club board of directors and is a member of both the ECA and Marquette's Ensign Fleet 35, which hosts a Wednesday race series in the harbor. "They liked what they saw in our application, namely the fact that we have so many ensigns racing out here on a regular basis."
Lynch said there are usually between 12 and 18 boats on the water for the weekly races. By national standards, he said, that's a large number for a single fleet.
Ensign sailboats represent the largest class of full keel boats in North America, according to the ECA, and are best raced with crews of four. An ensign is 22 and 1/2 feet long and weighs about 3,000 pounds. Each year, the ECA organizes four regional championships, a midwinter championship and a national championship regatta.
"The Ensign National Championship is kind of the pinnacle of the Ensign Class Association, which is a national class association. It's the pinnacle of their racing season," said Lynch, who is serving as chairman for the 2012 National Ensign Championship. "It's really the high point for the class, as far as regattas go and we are probably one of the furthest outposts to have been granted the privilege to host it."
Other locations in the state have hosted past national championships, however, including Les Cheneaux Islands last year and Menominee in 1998.
Championship weeks typically draw a crowd of competitors. Just last summer, 44 ensigns turned out to Canandaigua Lake, New York, for the 50th national championship. This year, four countries - The United States, Great Britain, Canada and Japan - will be represented in Marquette.
Though the championship is the biggest event of the year for racers and the ECA, it will also be a major event for Marquette, according to City Manager Bill Vajda.
"Because this event represents a weeklong set of trials, that's a pretty significant economic impact," said Vajda, who added that the event should continue to boost the prestige of the city.
One challenge, however, will be providing the infrastructure to handle the ensign sailboats.
"The logistics of putting 40 boats in the water, maintaining them safely while they're here and then helping move them back to wherever they came from isn't something that can be considered casually," Vajda said.
To assist in the task, the 652nd Engineer Company, of the United States Army Reserve, will be constructing a floating pier to provide space for the competitors to moor their boats during the competition.
Citizens will also be able to walk onto the pier to view the boats and to see the city from a vantage point most don't often get to experience.
During the competition, Vajda said, the harbor will remain open and spectators are urged to exercise caution on and near the water.
"We're anticipating there will be a lot of people out in the harbor using their boats, if for nothing else, as a way to get a better view of what's going on in the water," he said.
The 2012 National Ensign Championship kicks off with opening ceremonies at the Yacht Club at 4 p.m. Sunday. Lynch said there will be as many races each day as time and weather permits.
Activity is scheduled to wrap up Thursday with an awards banquet, with winners determined through cumulative point tallies.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.