It all starts with the sound of three long whistle chirps, and then Will Paschal shouts, "Three minutes!"
He's letting the Sunfish racers know how much time they have until the race begins. He continues to shout and blow his whistle at one-minute intervals until, "Thirty seconds!," his bellow is followed by two short whistles.
The count down continues at 10-second intervals and with five seconds to go, a whistle is blown each second.
The sailors, in somewhat of an organized frenzy, slice their boats through the water and dart around with great precision as they fight for the wind and jockey for the best starting position.
The final whistle announces the start of the race, Paschal shouts "All clear," and they're off.
About the races
The weekly Sunfish races have finally made it to Lake Norman after nearly a month of cancellations due to thunderstorms - though these dedicated sailors will race in the rain if there's no lightning.
The races, hosted by North Carolina Community Sailing & Rowing (NCCSR), will run 6-8 p.m. each Monday through November, just off Blythe Landing in Cornelius.
Participants can race in one of 10 of the 14-foot, single-handed Sunfish supplied by NCCSR, or sailors can bring their own boats. Races are open to all experienced sailors 11 and older who weigh 210 pounds or less. This is not a learn-to-sail program.
Participants also must purchase a NCCSR season pass ($225 for adults, $150 for 65 and older, $75 for youth); call or e-mail to reserve a boat on race day; possess necessary skills to sail and race; and wear a personal flotation device. Races are meant to be rather informal, but scores are kept.
Young, experienced sailor
Paschal, 25, a longtime sailor from Augusta, Ga., is the waterfront director and youth coach for NCCSR. He has lived in Charlotte for about five months.
The University of Georgia graduate also leads the Monday-night Sunfish sailboat races.
"It's definitely a game of positioning yourself in relation to where the wind is coming from," said Paschal. "There's a lot of in and out, moving all the time, but it is all about positioning."
A race generally consists of three legs, two upwind or windward legs and one downwind or leeward leg.
"We get the most competition and action out of that kind of course," he said.
Paschal has been sailing since he was 7. At 11, he was an assistant to the head instructor at the Augusta Sailing Club's summer sailing camp. At 18, he was head instructor at the club. He has worked at Lake Lanier Sailing Club, also in Georgia, where he served as head coach and taught youth and adult sailing.
Internationally, he was the skipper in charge of the sailing training program aboard a 44-foot catamaran for three months in St. Martin. He and a dive instructor were in charge of 13 eighth-graders, who all lived on the boat for 21 days while touring island coasts.
The community support for the local program stood out to him immediately.
"The facility and equipment we have - there's not much else like it in the nation, especially on the support end," said Paschal.
"There's just a huge amount of community support and so many good people come through this program. We have plenty of activities to get people engaged. So, for somebody looking to get involved, it's a no brainer."
Rookie finishes second
Frank Ramey III, who began sailing less than two months ago through the center's learn-to-sail program, has already logged nearly 24 hours on the water.
Ramey recently turned 23 and has lived in Cornelius since late January. The recent graduate of the University of Tennessee moved to the area to work for the Lowe's regional distribution center in Statesville as a manager in its new supply-chain program.
He came in second in one of the races held June 7.
"It felt really good to come in second," he said. "I was really pleased to be able to bring together everything I have learned and actually compete with sailors who had been at it exponentially longer than I have. I wanted to get first place but, hey, there's always next week."
It also was a proud moment for Paschal, his instructor.
"Those kind of skills generally happen over a lifetime of sailing," Paschal said. "There were so many experienced sailors on the water, so for that to happen so quickly was really cool to see."
Mastering the wind
Learning to sail can come easy for some, but some might never quite get the hang of it.
"It really depends on the individual," said Paschal. "There's a lot to overcome. You learn a ton in the beginning and continue to learn throughout your life. It can be really simple to learn, but it's more challenging without proper instruction. The programs we design help make it simple for everyone."
Ramey said the basics and main ideas of sailing - rigging, knowing when to let out the sails and steering - sunk in rather quickly.
"They were pretty easy for me to grasp and learn, but one of the hardest things for me to learn was being able to tell when the wind was shifting," he said.
"I think it was because the wind is something you learn to tune out when you are living life on land and it's hard to unlearn that behavior. Now I've become more perceptive about everything around me since I've started sailing. I think sailing is a great hobby for almost anyone to pick up."
A longtime sailor's view
Greg Coleman, 38, has lived in Davidson with wife and two kids for about a year and a half.
The Australian native and environmental scientist/power industry solution consultant also has sailed and traveled throughout Africa, from Egypt to Capetown, mostly hanging on the east coast, he said.
Coleman has been sailing since he was 6, on lakes in his home country as well as in the Pacific and places throughout the Caribbean. He also raced Laser dinghies throughout his 20s.
He and his family chose the Lake Norman area because there is more pollution-fighting work in the area, he said, but the sailing program didn't hurt either.
"I'm definitely taking advantage of everything they have," he said. "They're a pretty good group, and they provide all the boats."