Pals since high school, Mike Ryer and Walt Swietlik bond over water and wind on the good ship Sanity Check, the sailboat they co-own and race out of the Port Washington marina
For devoted sailors like Mike Ryer and Walt Swietlik, these are the days that make suffering through mounds of lake effect snow and late arriving springs worthwhile.
The men have been friends since their days together at Port Washington High School. Today, they co-own and race Sanity Check, an Express 35 sailboat docked in the Port Washington marina.
“We are fortunate to have a friend in school whose father owned a boat, and we both fell in love with sailing,” Ryer said.
The men bought the boat 12 years ago, primarily for racing.
“It was already named when we bought the boat and we were going to rename it, but it seemed so fitting for so many reasons,” Ryer said.
The sail cover is emblazoned with the word Sanity and a check mark.
Like a headstrong child, the boat has challenged the patience of its owners countless times and brought countless delights.
Shortly after they brought Sanity Check to the harbor, it was struck by lightning. The lightning bolt blew the depth sounder out of the hull, and the boat filled with water — sinking while tied to the dock.
“It seems everything that could go wrong has gone wrong,” Swietlik said.
“We’ve lost sails in front of the boat, behind the boat and under the boat. We look at it all as a learning experience. The thing about sailing is you never stop learning.”
That learning process involves gaining insights into the soul of the sailor as much as the mechanics of the boat and sails.
“When everything is working right, there is nothing better than being out on the water,” Ryer said.
That willingness to see challenges as lessons also serves Ryer well in his capacity as race director for the Port Washington Yacht Club.
During the summer, he oversees weekly buoy races hosted by the club. The finishes of each boat are recorded, and season standings are posted.
“The club is small enough where we are able to get things organized and still race,” Ryer said. “I would say we are pretty competitive.”
When asked if bragging rights come into play during the local races, Swietlik had a simple answer.
“There is a bar at the yacht club. I think that answers that question,” he said.
Last Thursday, Ryer and Swietlik sailed Sanity Check in the Lake Michigan Doublehanded Championship. The race pits two-member crews from around the Great Lakes against one another.
An east course of the race covers 66.5 nautical miles from Muskegon, Mich., to Port Washington. The west course, which covers 53.5 nautical miles, runs from Winthrop Harbor, Ill., to Port.
Boats from 25 feet long to more than 50 feet compete for first overall trophies presented by SAILING Magazine, which is published in Port Washington.
During doublehanded racing, Ryer skippers the boat and Swietlik handles most of the crew duties.
Unfortunately for Sanity Check, a rigging malfunction kept Ryer and Swietlik from getting any farther than Racine during the west-course race.
“When we brought the boat back Saturday, the fog was so thick we couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of us for 47 miles. It is times like that you realize GPS is a great thing,” Ryer said.
When conditions are more favorable, he said, their boat is capable of speeds of 7.5 knots — about 9 mph.
The boat is normally crewed by six people.
The men said their favorite races are the Clipper Cub, which runs from Muskegon to Port Washington and is scheduled this year for Aug. 7, and the Queens Cup, which this year runs from the South Shore Yacht Club in Milwaukee to South Haven, Mich., June 26 and 27.
“When we have a full crew, everyone has something to do all the time. There is zero down time,” Swietlik said.
When Ryer, who lives in Fredonia, is not out on the water he works as an engineer. Swietlik lives in Cedarburg and is a salesman for RiteHite in Milwaukee.
“We try not to let our jobs get in the way of sailing,” the men joke.
They admit that sailing is often seen as a rich man’s game, but said that is largely a stereotype.
“For anyone who is interested in sailing, with the fiberglass hulls there are boats available on the used market that are in great shape. The initial cost can be high, like buying a car, but you can get years of use out of a used boat,” Swietlik said.
He said faster boats are being designed all the time, but the fundamentals of sailing remain largely unchanged since the days when only canvas was used to get from Point A to Point B.
“The skills required in sail handling, charting a course and reading the wind are constants,” Swietlik said.
The excitement of racing can be enjoyed by landlubbers, too, Ryer said, especially in Port Washington.
“During the buoy races, from the vantage points you have in Upper Lake Park and Coal Dock Park, you can watch the boats jockeying for position to get the best advantage at the start of the race,” Ryer said.
“It may look like chaos, but it is all very carefully planned to gain every tactical advantage.”
A handicap system is used in many races, so smaller boats can compete against larger — and presumably faster — boats.
“Because of the handicapping formula, sometimes the winner of a race can’t be determined until the next day,” Ryer said.
Seasonal activities at the Port Washington Yacht Club can be monitored at the website www.pwycwi.com.
Image information: Longtime friends and sailors Mike Ryer (left) and Walt Swietlik posed on the bow of their 35-foot sailboat Sanity Check in the Port Washington marina.
Photo by Sam Arendt