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An interview with Donna Mohr and Jon Hamilton on the 70th annual Mug Race

by David Schmidt 1 May 16:00 BST May 3-5, 2024
Typically, the start of the annual Mug Race is downwind in light air. A large fleet is a nail-biting but spectacular event © The Mug Race

There aren’t so many sailboat races that wend their way down dozens of nautical miles of river, but the 70th annual Mug Race isn’t a typical race. For starters, the event (May 4), which is organized by the Rudder Club of Jacksonville, Florida, caps mast height (read: bridge clearances), not hull LOA. Then, there’s the course, which stretches 38 nautical miles from Palatka to Jacksonville, specifically from the Memorial Bridge and finishes at the Henry H. Buckman Bridge.

If this sounds like a mission for a fast multihull, you’re likely on the right track, at least when the list of previous winners is considered, however the race’s NOR makes clear that the event is open to all boats, so long as their mast height doesn’t exceed 44 feet.

Racing is set to commence at 0755 hours on Saturday, and racers have until 2007 hours that evening to complete the one-way course.

I checked in with Donna Mohr and Jon Hamilton, who serve as race organizers, via email, to learn more about this time-tested river race.

Can you please tell us a bit about the Mug Race’s history and the origins of its name?

So in the early 1950's there were two friends, Norman Brown at the Rudder Club in Jacksonville and Colin Mackenzie at the St Johns Yacht Club in Palatka. These clubs are 39 nautical miles apart on the St. Johns River.

They had this idea to run a race from Jacksonville to Palatka. The first boat to reach the dock in Palatka got a mug of beer. The last place boat got a paddle. Hence the name 'mug race'.

A few years later, as the Rudder Club developed its facilities, they reversed the course so [the race] ran from Palatka north to Jacksonville, as it does today.

We still meet the winner at the dock with a ritual mug of beer, and there is a very important - sometime hard-fought - trophy for last place. The St. Johns Yacht Club morphed into the Palatka Yacht Club. They are still an important part of the race support team, especially at the start and southern half of the course.

Congratulations on the 70th edition of this race! Can you tell us a bit about the kinds of boats that have competed at the event over the years/decades?

Hard to believe, but the early 1950s did not have any catamarans. Flying Dutchmen won a couple of years then.

The loose kinetic rules allowed a certain amount of paddling and kedging, so a light skinny boat called a Suicide was popular. But then catamarans moved in!

For a long while, Tornados were the boat to bet on. The history of the race is heavily influenced by sailor/designer Bill Roberts and the Supercats, RCs, and ARCs that he designed and frequently sailed to win.

His son, Eric Roberts, is still a faithful participant and winner.

BTW, we had a 10-year period where we used a pursuit start. Then we had a reappearance of some classic monohulls with line honors: an E-Scow one year, a Flying Dutchmen again, 50 years after their first win.

How would you describe the event’s culture? Is it pretty competitive?

At the top end, there is a good bit of friendly competition among the higher-end catamarans. Within classes, such as the Hobie 18s, you also find some good-natured competition.

But 90 percent of the fleet is just hoping to finish and get a class trophy.

Thirty years ago, it was a big party event. Ah, we are all getting older. Now what I notice is that racers help each other. This is a long race, and the more difficult the conditions, the more I see them cooperating to make sure no one gets left in danger and that the pull-out goes safely.

I would describe it as a 'Mug-Race family' culture. People come back year after year, but they welcome newcomers.

I see in the NOR that the governing limitation is mast height, not LOA. Am I right that this is due to bridges and air draught? If so, are these bridges tricky to negotiate in certain conditions (wind angles/velocities)? If so, can you please tell us about this?

Ha, ha, yes indeed, there is a bridge, the Shands Bridge over the river at Green Cove Springs. It has a 44-foot clearance, if the river is not really high.

So, the story is that 30+ years ago we had a big fleet of Tartan 10's that did the race, with mast heights [that are] a good bit higher than that. But they all had figured out how to get a crew member out on the boom and heel the boat over enough to squeak under.

Of course, the year finally came when the crew member fell off the boom and the boat popped upright, snagging its mast in the understructure of the bridge. This blocked traffic, and the Coast Guard was not happy, nor were other racers. So, we had to put in the mast height restriction.

The state is planning on replacing this bridge with one that has 65-foot clearance, maybe 5 years from now. That will really change things!

Both the Shands Bridge and the Buckman (between the finish and the Rudder Club) can be tricky in northerly winds.

The SIs allow a certain amount of paddling or motoring at the narrow Shands, and we try to keep a safety boat at the much wider Buckman.

Generally speaking, what kind of weather conditions can sailors expect to encounter on the St. John’s River in early May? What are the best case/worst case scenarios?

Ah, [it] could be anything. Traditionally, this is a light wind race (OK, some years, a no-wind race) often with a downwind start.

In those years, most of the action occurs once the seabreeze fills in sometime in the afternoon. But every year is different.

[In] 2021, the wind died about halfway through so all the fancy catamarans just parked in a big dead spot while the dowdier boats caught up. Then the wind picked up and the cats got line honors, but a Flying Scot got the corrected-time trophy.

[Another] year, when we had a pursuit start, it blew like stink, I mean, I wouldn't have gone out in that, but a Flying Dutchmen beat the big fancy cats across the finish line.

Other years, little zephyrs of wind have been all that sailors could find.

Best case is 10-15 knots from the southeast, kind of like last year.

Our second-worst fear is a race with absolutely no wind, as in the year that only 3 of 175 boats finished.

Our worst-case fear is a line of thunderstorms while racers are scattered along this very long course. We are early enough in the summer that I can only remember this happening once, but it is part of all our thinking.

Despite many years with light air and a cutoff time at sunset (required by the Coast Guard for at least the past 30 years), there has always been a finisher. One year, only three boats met the mid-course (the short Shands bridge) deadline and the finish-line deadline.

For the fast catamarans, once the seabreeze makes it to the river, they make excellent time.

What’s the current course record? Also, how hard a number is this to beat and why?

Two hours, 53 minutes, 28 sec, [which was] set by Eric Roberts in a Aquarius Roberts Catamaran 22 (ARC 22) in the 2023 race.

The three-hour mark was [established] about 30 years ago. Since then, we have shaved little bits off every once in a while.

Remember that the mast height limitation cuts out really big sailplans. I don't expect any big changes in the record until conditions are just right for some foiling boat to stay up on its foils for most of the racecourse, or [when] the new bridge allows something like the RC30 with its full mast (not its cut-down 'Mug Rig') to compete.

If you could offer one piece of advice to visiting (and local) sailors, what would it be?

Make sure your boat is in good condition - hours into a distance race is a bad time to find that your beach cat is leaking.

The race may start out with fair wind, but a squall can move through - can you depower your boat in knockdown conditions? Think through the logistics of a one-way race. Read the sailing instructions! There is a lot of safety information, not to mention persnickety stuff like the location of the finish line.

Finally, ask yourself how you will find your way if you are caught out after dark. Can you tell the organizers where you are? We have some participants who have never raced but think Mug Race would be cool. It is cool, but it takes some thought.

Can you please tell us about any efforts that you and the other regatta organizers have made to try to lower the regatta’s environmental footprint or otherwise green-up the event over its history?

Honestly, there is not much movement here. The club is trying to limit the amount of non-compostable plates and cups throughout the year, and we try to reduce the number of pages we print out, but beyond that, it is a tough sell here in Florida.

We have set-up a 'zone defense' system on our safety boats, so that the powerboats don't have to move around as much. This is as much a matter of fuel costs and not-having-to-go-in-to-refuel as for any pure green motives.

High on my wish-list for the club is a way to recycle beer cans. This is surprisingly difficult in Jacksonville.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add about this year’s 70th Annual Mug Race, for the record?

Seventy years is a chance to look back, but also to look ahead.

I see that racers need to reach out to a younger generation and try to draw them in. Somehow, we need to make it more fun, less stress.

Maybe the Mug Race, with its 'just sail north' vibe, is a good opportunity for that, if one respects the challenges inherent in its length. I worry that we have a dwindling number of people willing to devote the time to race management. Racers, go back to your home club and pick one race a year to throw yourself in to running!

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