"We keep getting more and more top-notch skippers," says Betsy Alison, the winner of the first RIWKC. "People take it seriously now."
So seriously that crews start training for the following year's RIWKC soon after the current regatta ends. Three such highly disciplined teams held sway over this year's fleet. One was led by defending RIWKC champion Jody Swanson of Buffalo, N.Y.; another by Susan Milnes-Wallace of East Nor-walk, Conn.; and the third by hometown favorite Alison. Only once during the entire regatta did any of these teams fall to lower than fourth place in the 46-boat fleet.
Surprisingly, J.J. Isler of La Jolla, Calif., was out of the hunt after just three races. In 1987 Isler won both the Rolex Women's Regatta and the Yachtswoman of the Year award (given by the membership of U.S. Sailing); she is also ranked No. 1 on the U.S. sailing team.
Isler had an inkling that she might be jinxed in this year's RIWKC when before racing started, she drew bow No. 13. Next, she was penalized a whopping 47 points—the rule is that the boat with the lowest score wins the series—after committing a starting-line foul in Race 1. Then, in Race 3, Isler squeezed between Alison and a leeward turning mark when there was no room to maneuver. Alison raised a red flag and the protest committee threw Isler out of the race.
"My husband [former America's Cup navigator and ESPN commentator Peter Isler] and I broke a chain letter a week ago," said J.J. after the regatta. "Four days later this enormous branch fell out of a tree and dented our car."
By the final race, which was held on Friday the 13th, Isler was still lamenting the turn of events. "We've been really fast all week," she said. "If we hadn't gotten thrown out, our score would be 1-2-2-5-6. We'd be winning the regatta."
Then Isler's luck changed. While there was no way she could win the RIWKC, revenge was at hand. Alison, who had a 1.5-point lead going into the final day, needed to finish ahead of Swanson and in at least eighth place in the last race. As the fleet rounded the final mark and headed for the finish, Alison was ninth, one place away from the title. The boat ahead of her, with a solid 43-second lead, was J.J. Isler's.
"I told my crew that it was a new race, and we had to sail the best leg of our lives," said Alison. Remarkably, she caught Isler and won the title by five seconds. "It's just too thrilling, particularly when it comes down to the last 100 yards," said Alison.
After the race, Isler brushed off any suggestion that she should have camped on Alison's wind, thus denying her rival the championship. After all, Alison had been responsible for Isler's being ejected from Race 3. "Yes, we were aware of the situation, but we definitely weren't trying to play the spoiler," Isler said. She knew that attacking Alison would have had a negligible effect on her own overall standing, so she left her alone. "We sail against these same people all the time," added Isler's crewmate, Margie Fetter. "In the long run, it just doesn't pay to pick on somebody on the last leg of the last race."
Alison is quickly becoming the Dennis Conner of women's sailing. She's a hardworking perfectionist, consistent and highly intuitive, which could explain why she won the 1985 RIWKC without having ever before skippered a J/24.