Memorial Day Weekend is just around the corner! And with it, a collective sigh of joyous relief from sailors around New England that the season is officially underway. For many sailors in the area, MDW can be summed up in a word: Figawi. We wanted a little more backstory on the legend of Figawi, so we went straight to the source and talked to four of the women who were there for the first race in 1972. Read on for a brief history of the Figawi Race Weekend.
Now in its 50th year, Figawi Race Weekend typically encompasses the kick-off party at Hyannis Yacht Club, the 230-boat pursuit race from the Hyannis Port Jetty to Nantucket Boat Basin, the Saturday night tent party for skippers, crew, and sponsors, the Sunday morning Joke Telling Session, the Figawi Invitational for high school sailing teams, prize giving, and finally the Monday "Redux" Race back to Hyannis. – Whew. It's no small feat, and yet, as any Figawi racer can tell you, after 50 years of practice this event is run like a well-oiled machine.
So how did Figawi Race Weekend come into existence? As the story is often told: Three friends were having drinks at Baxter's Bar in Hyannis, MA, each one certain that his boat was the fastest of the three. To settle the dispute once and for all, they decided to race from Hyannis to Nantucket.
At one point during the heated competition and completely lost in the fog, one of the sailors shouted "Where the f**k are we??" – which, with enough of a Cape Cod accent, is pronounced Figawi. The boats made it safely into port and decided it was a grand idea to run the race year after year on Memorial Day, and thus the tradition that is Figawi Race Weekend was born.
But as with most sailing adventures, there's always more to the story.
And one of the best ways to hear more of the story? Ask someone who lived it. And so I jumped at the chance to lunch at the Hyannis Yacht Club with Connie Horan, Charlene Horan, Jeanne Luby, and her daughter Karen Luby, the wives and daughter of Bob Horan, Joe Horan, and Bob Luby, respectively – the original Figawi three. Just like Figawi, lunch was a lively affair right out of the gate, as the group immediately begin comparing injuries, swapping stories and updates on friends, and reminiscing.
As we start chatting about Figawi, Charlene – Joe's wife – describes the three sailors and life-long friends: "Friends and brothers. Characters. Fun from day one. They were spontaneous and hard-working. They weren't doctors or lawyers, they were men's men – all self-taught sailors; they didn't belong to a club or take lessons." But when it came to sailing, they were diligent, taking responsibility to make sure the race was fair and safe.
Spontaneous as they were, Figawi was actually a longer time in the making than the legend might have us think. As the story goes, “A few friends thought a friendly, competitive sail to Nantucket would be a fun way to spend the weekend. Therefore, with wives and a few friends aboard as crew, the skippers headed out to see who had the fastest boat in getting to the island.” But as the Figawi wives describe it, the entire winter leading up to Memorial Day 1972 was one rife with taunt-filled bar challenges at the Old Yarmouth Inn as the guys worked hard, played hard, and got amped up for summer on the water – and the night they finally decided to run the race was at Baxter's. So according to the first families of Figawi, the race truly started at the Old Yarmouth Inn, over many, many games of darts. "They were all loudmouths," Connie adds. "But then one day at Baxter's, it was a done deal – it just got dreamed up elsewhere."
All of the taunting finally culminated the weekend before Memorial Day 1972, at which point the men and their families decided that if the weather was nice, they'd race to Nantucket the following weekend.
"If the weather was nice" was a big if. The weather wasn't rainy or hazardous, but it wasn't exactly a picturesque day on the water, either. The first Figawi was foggy and chilly, but the rain held off and the race was a go. Charlene sailed, while Joe, Connie, Jeanne and Karen went ahead to welcome the boats to the docks of Nantucket.
Bob Horan raced with Jim Horan on Caribou, an old wooden boat built in 1941, heavy but strong – "When it was rough, the boat could handle it. But we couldn't go the speed of the fiberglass boats." Bob "Red" Luby sailed aboard Red Rooster, a 34' Islander, and Joe Horan with Charlene and Sully aboard Ares. As Joe Hoffman relays "Joe got off to a fast start and tried to run Red up onto the rocks over near Baxter's Boathouse Club. But Red had the faster boat and sailed a helluva race."
Charlene was above deck – "So here we are, sailing in the fog, in circles..." – when Joe went below to check their coordinates. After some time passed, he popped his head back up and shouted the phrase that sailed a thousand ships.
"It's not very pretty," Connie says about the namesake of the race. "When they decided to make it an official race, the newspapers needed a name that was printable! We had to come up with something, and had just been told a joke about a lost Indian tribe, and that’s how they spelled it in the joke." And so, with the touch of a salty accent leading the way, the race had a name the news could cover. "The spirit of Figawi is the thing. It's a big deal."
Connie Horan was on the docks with Jeanne Luby and her daughter Karen, then 10 years old, waiting for the boats to appear. Karen recalls:
"I was ten, and I remember standing on the dock waiting to see who won. We were freezing! It was so cold we were following the sun around Joe Lopes's – the Harbormaster – dock. He came and got my mother, my brother and myself and took us up into his office where it was warm. And I remember seeing my father come around first! We could see he had the big white flag with the big red rooster on it, and the really shiny mast. We could see them coming!"
"It was shiny," the group confirms. The moment they saw the boats coming is still thrilling to recount decades later. Then begins the discussion of what liquor was likely consumed. Galliano? Rum? Galliano.
The post-race celebrations included one location: Cap'n Tobey's. In following years, the weekend grew to include a lay day, with a clam bake on Sunday to feed the hungry crews.
"There were no festivities the first year – we made our own entertainment." The hearty crew made their way to Cap'n Tobey's for post-race libations, and the idea of Figawi began to take hold. With the first outing in 1972 a success, the chatter started building throughout the following fall and winter: Let's keep this going. Bob Horan and fellow sailor and friend Bob Baker worked out the boat ratings, and the second race was in the works.
Members and guests of the Hyannis Yacht Club can view the Figawi trophy as they walk in the door. This trophy has come a long way since the original trophies of the 2nd and later Figawis, which were hand-painted with marker on to plates during the race itself by John Linehan.
"I can still remember him sitting out there on his boat, right near where all the boats were coming in, waiting to paint their names on a pie plate." Was he a painter by trade? "He couldn't have passed kindergarten art class."
While there was obviously always a rukus to be made after even the first Figawi, the Joke Tent, or Joke Telling Session (JTS) as we know it now didn't start until 1977. "We got a letter from Attorney Dick Anderson, who had the idea to start the joke session. Pretty soon we had jokes from people in Marblehead who had doctorates, telling folklore."
Originally hosted downtown by the docks, as the crowd grew bigger and rowdier each year, the town grew to appreciate the language and enthusiasm less and less. Cut to 2018, where you'll see the 15,000 square foot party & joke tent Figawi has hosted for years – off the beaten path and out of earshot of tourists' hearing.
The rules of the JTS are as follows:
No race, color, creed, or sex is safe from attack
No subject matter is off-limits
A joke must be either a classic or fresh and funny
Only members of the Band of Angels are permitted to tell classics
While a joke-teller may appear more than once, only one story per trip to the balcony is allowed
The above rule is subject to change if, during the first trip, the teller is given the hook
Were there always unlimited mimosas and Bloody Marys? Connie laughs: "I always used to say, 'If anyone's smart, they will not book surgery at the Cape Cod Hospital Monday morning, because the doctors all raced.'"
From the first race of three boats, Figawi is now 230 boats strong and has included America's Cup boats and United States Senators. New faces have joined the ranks, new boat technology helps sailors navigate the fog in Buzzards Bay, but the sense of family and mischief at Figawi remains.
As Jeanne recalls,
"After Bob died in 1996, the next Figawi I decided to go over, just to go. I meandered into the tent, where Dennis Sullivan was standing, and announced 'We are going to give a tribute to Red Rooster.' The tent was full of people, and all of a sudden all I could see was all these hats coming off. All the hats! And for what was supposed to be just a couple of minutes, it seemed like an eternity. It was just so quiet. What a feeling."
Also notable, the year Bob passed away, the original Red Rooster returned from Maine to compete in the race. "It came back the year he died, and got to that island first." When Joe Horan passed away in 2005, and the Figawi race that year was dedicated to him by Dennis Sullivan and Howie Penn. Charlene shares an especially fond memory of Nantucket: meeting her husband there in 1962 – and goes on to share that her son got involved in sailboat racing, and met his wife at Figawi. "Nantucket is just special," she says.
As Figawi has grown, so have the hearts of the sailors and community who take part, namely by way of Figawi Charities, Inc. Connie's pleased with how the people who became involved over the years have stayed involved, adding, "If there's one thing my husband would be proudest of, it's the good work that has come from this race," referencing the Figawi Charities, Inc.
Thank you to Connie Horan, Charlene Horan, Jeanne Luby and Karen Luby for sharing their Figawi stories with us! Thank you also to the Figawi Archives and Joe Hoffman for photo permissions. Please visit Figawi Charities, Inc. to get involved and donate. See more photos and stories in Figawi Race: Hyannis to Nantucket (Images of America).
This post was originally published on 5/26/2016 and updated to include links and additional photos.