Northwest Free For All Trophy History
Read: Oshkosh Ice Boat Club History & 1939 Northwest History by Harry Lund
All-around iceboater Andy Gratton let me borrow a rich archive of iceboat ephemera, photos, and records from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. As anyone who researches history can tell you, the information in libraries like this is filled with rabbit holes that lead you to unforeseen places, always different than what you originally intended.
A report written in 1939 by Harry Lund about the history of the Oshkosh Ice Yacht Club led me to the 1940 Northwest regatta. The regatta was sailed on Geneva Lake in Lake Geneva, WI. It was the first time a Class A Skeeter, Jack Vilas in SUSIE Q, won the ten-lap Northwest “Free For All” race, where the winner is awarded one of the most beautiful trophies in our sport.
The Northwest began in 1913, and the Free For All was the last race of the regatta to compare the speeds of the different classes of stern-steerers. The top two finishers in Class A, B, C, and D stern-steerers were eligible to race for the trophy. 1933 marked the first time the Skeeter class competed in the Northwest, and it only took them seven years to take the Free For All trophy from the stern-steerer class. The Skeeter class has continued their dominance of that race to the present day; Minnesota’s John Dennis is the current titleholder. Thinking about that day in 1940 when Jack Vilas in SUSIE Q became the first bow-steering boat to take home the big cup reminded me of National Sailing Hall of Fame member Jan Gougeon.
Back on Lake Geneva in 1981, Jan gamely lined up his DN with the Class A Skeeters of Four Lakes Ice Yacht Club’s Paul Krueger and Bill Mattison for the ten-lap finale. “It was a scary situation for Bill and me,” Paul recalled. “Jan didn’t realize how fast Bill and I were making the mark. To avoid him, I had to hit the mark, and Bill went to the outside.” From then on, DN sailors who qualified and wanted to compete in the race were allowed to borrow a Class A Skeeter. Jan’s good friend, Ron Sherry, won the 1997 race in a Class A Skeeter he borrowed from 4LIYC’s Bob Kau. (Interesting how Lake Geneva is where Northwest Free-For-All History has been made in 1940, 1981, and 1997!) Ron’s account of that race is a classic story, worthy of another good future post.