PARLEY with skipper Neal Berger

Story and photos by Linda Matteson

Neal_bow“The J36 sails like a dream. She’s fast, responsive and well mannered.”  Skippered by Neal Berger, Shingebiss is a regular contender on the Schooner Cove Yacht Club (SCYC) racing circuit.

Her name is taken from a sacred Ojibwe tale about a little merganser duck that is faced with the inability to fish from a frozen Great Lake one winter. Despite the adversity, the duck persevered, refusing to see winter as his enemy.  The story shows that those who follow the ways of Shingebiss will always have plenty to eat, no matter the hardship.  Neal was captivated and inspired by this story as a young boy and vowed some day to name his boat after this courageous little duck.

Meeting up dockside with Neal at Schooner Cove Marina, it was an invitation to delve into the life of a racer and question him about his strategies for success with Shingebiss.

Q: Where did sailing start for you and did you have a mentor?

A: “I have always been fascinated by boats of any kind. Making rafts out of anything I could find and ‘setting out’ on the lakes and rivers in the Midwest was a great summer pastime.

The first time I ever sailed was when I was about 14.  One of my teachers took me out on a Snipe Class boat. Feeling the boat come to life as the wind picked up, pretty much ‘hooked’ me for life. I would look for every opportunity to sail on every imaginable kind of sailboat.”

Q: What got you interested in racing; do you have a natural competitive spirit?

A: “Since a young age, I’ve competed in all kinds of sports and passionately chased a baseball career for quite some time. I suppose my competitive spirit comes out in sailing too. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that anytime two sailboats are in sight of each other (even if it requires binoculars) it results in some sort of a race. 

Early on, one of the first boats I raced on was the Sunfish dinghy, then Tasars. A partner and I raced a 505 for a few years on lakes in the Midwest. I think this kind of racing is a terrific way to learn seamanship and how to manage a boat in all kinds of conditions.”

Q: What formalized training have you had in sailboat racing?

A: “I belonged to the Duluth Keel Club in Minnesota at one time and instructors from the North Sail Loft came out and coached sailing schools and racing seminars on a fairly frequent basis. This sort of formal training was supplemented by armchair sailing, reading, and thousands of hours on the water finding out what works and what doesn’t. Following the examples of ‘those who did well’ or ‘had lots of experience’ was generally, the accepted way of learning.  When you start sailing in little boats it seems you find out very quickly what you can and cannot do. We sailed a Flying Dutchman for a while and that boat could get very cranky if the crew didn’t treat her right. The larger boats are often more forgiving and let you get by with things that would have you quickly in the drink if you were on a smaller boat.”

Captain Neal Berger sailing the Johnstone Strait

Q: Can you recall your scariest experience or toughest challenge out there?

A: “The most ‘heart stopping’ event that I’ve experienced was having a bowman go overboard, under spinnaker, at night, during a Trans-Superior Race. [A 338 nautical mile race on Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to Duluth, Minnesota.]  Our crew ended up looking quite brilliant. As he fell off the leeward side of the boat, the wave action picked him up. As he passed our stern, we were able to grab him by the harness and toss him onboard without missing a beat. It was actually pure luck – that water was very cold and the outcome could well have been tragic.”

Q: Shingebiss is notably a front-runner in racing circles. Any strategies for winning that you’d be willing to share?

A: “Shingebiss is a fun boat to race. The J36 has a fast design that generally puts us up in the front of the fleet. It’s still a challenge to win as our local races are scored on a handicap system. I think the favourite pastime of lots of the racers is forming extravagant claims about how the rating system favours all of the other boats.

The things we concentrate on in order to be competitive are crew and boat preparation. Keeping a crew together that will show up race-after-race is the biggest challenge skippers face. Shingebiss has been blessed with a dedicated group that is on the dock rain or shine – or snow! We go to extra lengths to ensure the boat is ‘optimized’ in terms of preparation, gear and safety.”

Q: Are you always at the helm or do you relinquish the controls from time-to-time?

A:  I am pretty much exclusively at the helm of Shingebiss – my boat, I get to drive. But seriously, longer races will often see someone else taking a turn at the wheel. Oddly, one of the main reasons I stay at the helm is that I suffer from good old seasickness. I like trimming the sails and tending to other things but I do have to be mindful of the seasickness thing – I don’t do well reading charts either.

Q: What has been your hardest and furthest distance race?

A:  Without a doubt, it would be the Trans-Superior Race. A couple of them were unbelievably nasty and really took a toll on the crew and the boat. As mentioned, the race is 338 nautical miles and Lake Superior has a particular wave pattern that can be just frightful. It tends to pile up very steep walls of water that can be truly unpleasant and difficult to navigate. The water is very cold and along with the fog out there.

We have had a couple of interesting races at Swiftsure. [The Swiftsure International Yacht Race runs every May out of Victoria and is made up of six races over four distinct courses.] One year, a crew member was injured, became hypothermic and got into some potentially serious difficulty. Most of our Swiftsure races result in the crew repeatedly asking ‘why are we doing this again, I thought we learned our lesson last year’.  The atmosphere of that race is extraordinary and keeps us going back year-after-year.”

R-Shingebiss crew

Crew: L-R; Bruce Petry, Peter Milne, David Christopher, Peter Jacobsen, Neal Berger, Ken Woodward

Q: Any words of advice or encouragement to new sailors wanting to race?

A: “I think if someone has an interest in sailboat racing the simplest thing to do is to get on board a boat and go. I remember back in Duluth, Minnesota being terribly intimidated by all those sailors who appeared to know a lot of ‘stuff’ that I didn’t. That was true and often still is, but sailors are generally a very helpful lot and genuinely want to encourage people into the sport.”

Neal’s philosophical approach to sailing has helped him create a new dimension of personal awareness.  “Sailing is a bit like a Dickens’ novel – the best of times, and the worst of times”, he states. “Beautiful, bright days with brisk breezes, those whispers of air that barely fill the sails, or the southeasterly storms piling the sea and waves around you, I have sailed thousands of hours and miles on this coast and it’s never exactly the same – changing winds, skies, tides, currents, temperature and it’s all seeing life as a mystery to be lived.” 

The 2013 racing season has already started for Shingebiss. Neal is pleased to say that although he has had little time to be onboard, the crew has been on the start line for every race at SCYC.

“I get excited about the longer races and I do plan on doing the Southern Straits Race this year in addition to the Thetis, Swiftsure and Round Salt Spring Island races”, states Neal. “Last year, SCYC added a Round Lasqueti race to their annual regatta bringing a fantastic dimension to the already popular weekend event.”

Whatever future endeavours challenge Shingebiss, when pushed to the brink of endurance, her achievements will be attributed to the perseverance and experience of her skipper and crew.

For those interested in crewing or looking for membership can log onto Schooner Cove Yacht Club’s website www.scyc.ca to get more information or email one of the executive members.