By Herb Meeker
News Report Staff
Bill Totten’s love for sailing started thanks to his grandfather and a Sears & Roebuck Catalog.
The Effingham attorney — and avid sailor — recalled how he used to go out on lakes in Indiana using an old boat that could convert from paddle to wind power.
“I grew up in Hanover, Indiana. My interest in sailing started when I was about nine. I’d go down to grandpa’s and go out on a boat with a canvas hull from Sears & Roebuck. You could use it as a canoe or rig it with a mast as a sailboat,” Totten said.
His sailing expertise has come a long way from those days. He recently reached the pinnacle of sailing in his class by winning the American Y-Flyer Sailing Association Nationals. It was held during July on the Ohio River on a course off Louisville, Kentucky.
Then early in October, he competed in larger sailing boats during the United States Sailing Championship of Champions at Oyster Bay, New York.
How did a kid from Indiana end up competing on the national level for two highly-respected sailing competitions?
Totten, an attorney in Effingham who was born in Urbana while his father was studying at the University of Illinois, said he learned the ropes gradually. He even took a college course to better his sailing skills.
In the Boy Scouts, he earned a small-boat sailing merit badge. He also completed a sailing class 25 years ago at Lake Land College. The college course placed him inside a Y-Flyer sailing boat, which set his racing destiny in motion.
“That was the first time I learned the physics of sailing,” Totten said of the college class.
He would learn more about Y-Flyers on Lake Mattoon as he joined the flying fleet there about 20 years ago. Y-Flyers are 18 feet long and weigh no more than 500 pounds without the two-member crew aboard. They are low to the water, and with a good wind, can appear like a sail floating across a lake or river.
Totten said the fiberglass boats with triangular sails are easy to control under the right weather conditions.
“You can get an instant feel back from the tiller and the main sheets. It’s like a finely-tuned sports car,” Totten said.
Totten took to racing in the Y-Flyer even though his first boat had the unglamorous name “Mud Slide.” (A later boat would have a racier name with “Cherry Bomb” or an inspiring title like “Godspeed.”) He honed his racing skills with Fleet 39 of the Lake Mattoon Sailing Association. That lake was the site of different races that drew sailors from across the Midwest and the Southeast, regions where Y-Flyers are most popular.
“They nurtured my sailing passion for almost 20 years. They encouraged me early in the process when I would often finish far behind the leaders. They are also a strong social family for my wife, Nancy, and my daughters Madeline and Felicia, who have often crewed for me during local fleet races and in regional and national regattas,” Totten said.
Totten would learn to master the math of sailing that involves winds and adjustments for the “puffs” or sudden gusts that can throw a boat off course. The sailor at the tiller must communicate regularly with the crew member for adjusting the lines and keeping up with the wind.
“If the wind is higher than 15 mph, it can make it more difficult to control the boat,” Totten explained. “With the puffs, they can be a third higher than the regular wind speed. So you have to do the math when you’re out there. The term they have for a day with many wind changes is ‘shifty.’”
Sail racing success comes with getting the most from the wind and taking sharp turns at the marker buoys directing the boats to figure-eight or different course shapes. It is like a road race, but much slower with speeds of 20 miles per hour. Wind velocity of 25 mph or more could break a Y-Flyer apart.
There are remarkable moments when the water is “smooth” and the boat hits the groove, Totten said.
“Y-Flyers can lift up on the water. That’s when you really fly,” he added. Seeing dozens of sailing boats in a regatta rise up like that can be an amazing sight.
Totten first started racing in national competitions in 2001 at Lake Carlyle in Southern Illinois. He was in “Mud Slide.”
“I finished but we weren’t last. We were in the 40s from a field of 50 boats,” Totten said.
But he wasn’t discouraged. He kept racing, but couldn’t break into the top five at the Nationals at different sites ranging from rivers, lakes or on the East Coast once at Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. Then good fortune came Totten’s way this year.
He teamed up with Paul Abdullah, of Jacksonville, Florida, for the 2017 Nationals on the Ohio. Paul changed partners because his wife, Marie, was expecting a baby. The Abdullahs were members of the Atlanta Y-Flyer Club, and familiar with winning national races. Bill was thrilled to take the till of the boat with someone as talented as Paul for a crew member.
“He’s a semi-professional sailor and employed by North Sails. He was like a mentor to me and a great confidence builder. We got the boat updated and worked on some strategies. Paul is a tactician,” Totten said.
The strategy was simple: get a good start and maximize wind speed by playing the wind shifts.
“Paul can see things others can’t see on the water. He’s like a major league player seeing the spin of the ball. He can read a gust coming down the river and knows right away how to approach it. He can also maximize the current of the river relative to your direction,” Totten said. “He had me doing things with the boat I hadn’t done before.”
With his talented crew member, Totten broke out front in the series of six races during the Nationals, held over four days from July 17-21.
“I went from a personal best of tenth in the Nationals to first,” Totten said. He recalled how Abdullah, a past winner, congratulated Totten as they crossed the last marker on the deciding race.
That win qualified Totten to compete in the Championship of Champions with SONAR class boats at Oyster Bay during the first weekend of October. He was one of three working these heavier sailing boats – weighing 2,500 pounds — with keels and colorful billowing sails. It is a grueling round robin competition with several races from Oct. 5-8.
“It was my first time in a keel boat. There were beautiful conditions and nice temperatures and winds. But it was raining during some of the races,” Totten said.
He and his crew members – Abdullah was not involved this time — finished out of the 12th. But the experience has drawn his interest.
“I know people use those boats for the Mackinaw race. And there are people here who sail those down at Kentucky Lake. We’ll see. I’m open to opportunities,” Totten said.
When you’re a national champion, you like to face new challenges.