As the horn signaled the start of the first race, the sailors fastened their trapeze harnesses, sheeted in their sails, and began to steer their boats to windward in preparation for a typical catamaran race on Lake Hopatcong. However, this was not a typical catamaran race. This past Saturday, June 19th, 18 A-Class Catamarans, with balloons flying from their sails, had jammed the starting area to race in the “Doc Stern Regatta,” celebrating and honoring fellow sailor Merrill “Doc” Stern’s 90th birthday.
Doc (a retired dentist) and his wife Rhoda, married 66 years, have been spending summers at the lake since 1967 at their cottage on Raccoon Island. While active in many forms of water sports that the lake has to offer, Doc has a special love for sailing, and the boat he chose for all these years is the A-Class Catamaran. A-Class Catamarans, often abbreviated to A-Cat, are the fastest single-handed racing boats in the world. Most other racing classes are identical “one-designs” whereas the A-Class is a development class that allows for updates. As a result, it has become a pure high-tech boat. The A-Cats are known for their high speeds and ability to rise on one hull and literally fly down the lake.
Sailing A-Cats from almost their inception in the mid-1960’s, Doc joined forces with legendary Lake Hopatcong sailors Eddie Knuth and Cal Fuller in creating one of the first A-Cat Fleets in the nation on Lake Hopatcong. The first boat Doc sailed was a “LOKA”, built by Cal Fuller, who then modified the boat into a design called the “Cat-Nip”, which is the predecessor of all modern day A-Cats.
Doc won the A-Class Catamaran North American Championship in 1972, and in honor of his age, sailed boat #90 this past weekend. Cal Fuller, in his late 80’s and three-time North American Champion, no longer sails, but is still a member of Lake Hopatcong’s A-Cat Fleet and is active in club functions and regattas.
Doc has been not only instrumental in bringing new sailors into the class, but shows them that sailing is an ageless sport. Through his efforts and inspiration, the Lake Hopatcong A-Cat Fleet has grown into the largest and most respected fleet in North America, with over 25 active sailors and boats. The ultimate A-Cat year-end trophy, call the Merrill “Doc” Stern Perpetual Trophy was established in the late 1980’s. It honors the sailor who has accumulated the best results in the 50+ races sailed each season on Lake Hopatcong.
Like so many other races, Doc was on the starting line this past Saturday. He started mid-fleet, and while many of the sailors had trouble figuring out the shifting south-westerly breeze, Doc had full command of his boat and managed to navigate the wind shifts and cross the finish line first on his big day. As sailors followed him across the line, they heard him declare, “What a great day—what a great day. “ It really was.