The following story by Jim LeMonds was published in the Daily News on July 2, 2011.
When he was a high school student in Roseburg, Ore., Dean Wood constructed an eight-foot rowboat. The family moved and he was forced to sell the boat before it had seen water.
Wood, 67, has been making up for that misfortune ever since.
Life on the Columbia
He got his first taste of sailing when his father purchased a 17-foot “thistle class” boat the family raced at Fern Ridge Lake in Eugene.
“That got me hooked,” he said.
When he came to Longview in 1968 to teach economics and sociology at Lower Columbia College, Wood bought a 17-foot sailboat and began racing in Tuesday night events sponsored by the Columbia Sailing Club.
“We raced at Rainier, Kalama or Silver Lake,” he said. “It was a family atmosphere because everyone knew each other.”
Gradually, most racers – including Wood – upgraded to larger boats. Dean and his wife, Caroline, live on Willow Grove Road, west of Longview. Their 40-foot sailboat, the Black Aye, is moored directly across the road on the Columbia River.
Wood expanded his sailing repertoire during the early ‘90s when he crewed on a boat for the Bridge to Bridge Yacht Race from Astoria to Newport.
“It was a miserable trip,” he said, “very stormy, pitch-black all night with torrential rain. Almost everybody was seasick. As far as I know, no one else on the boat for that trip ever went back. It was horrendous, but there was something about it that I loved.”
The following year, he entered his own boat and has since completed the race 10 times.
Initially, Bridge to Bridge started at Astoria. Now it begins offshore at Buoy Two. “There were some years when there was a strong incoming tide,” he said. “You could spend half the race just getting out of the mouth of the Columbia,” he said.
The course record is 10:45, although most sailors take 15 to 25 hours. “It’s obviously very wind-dependent,” Dean said. “If the wind goes slack at night, there’s not much you can do.”
“Being offshore is more challenging than sailing on the river,” he said. “I especially like night sailing and the feeling of being 20 miles from shore, knowing there’s nothing around for a long, long way.”
Dean has reached a speed of 17 knots sailing in a following sea with a following wind. “It’s like you’re on a surfboard,” he said. “You’re holding on so tight you feel like you’re going to pinch your fingers off.”
Wood’s son, Drew, also races sailboats. In 2001, he contacted Dean and asked if he’d crew for him on the second leg of the Bermuda 1-2.
The race begins in Newport, R.I., with each sailor running single-handed for 650 miles down the East Coast to Bermuda. At that point, a second crew member is allowed to come on board for the return trip to Newport.
Wood and his son have competed in the event four times, three on a 30-footer and once on a 21-footer. When things are going well, each leg takes approximately five days.
“It’s the most exciting race I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s also the most grueling and most dangerous.”
The Gulf Stream, with a temperature of nearly 80 degrees, runs close to cold water along the upper East Coast, creating the potential for severe storms and big winds.
“One night, we had winds of more than 50 knots for hours,” he said. “All you could do was hang on.”
Since 2004, Wood has designed parts he sells to sailboat aficionados around the world. His shop features a stainless steel welder, milling machine, and lathe.
“Every sailboat requires specialty parts,” he said. “You can’t just go to your local marine supply store and buy them.”
Owners send in specifications, along with photos that show where the part is to be installed. “I never realized the importance of precision until I started doing this work,” he said. “When you start talking thousandths-of-an-inch, you’re talking very specific.”
His first effort was an auto-pilot mechanism. He has also designed a bowsprit fitting that allows smaller boats to utilize more sail, which translates into more speed.
“Mine is sturdier (than the original) and will stand up under a lot more abuse,” he said. “I’ve had people tell me they’re the best they’ve seen.”
“Thistle class” racing boats – designed by Gordon Douglas – bear a unique number on the hull. In 1993, 24 years after his father sold the family boat, Dean spotted it in Portland and bought it. In 2002, he returned to Fern Ridge Lake in Eugene to race again in the boat that changed his life.
“It’s a very special feeling to own the boat I first sailed on,” he said.
Wood once dreamed of sailing around the world, but reality intervened. “You start realizing it would be way too expensive,” he said.
If the weather cooperates, he will race 20 to 25 times this year. And when he can’t get on his boat, he will work in his shop or paint with watercolors, something he has been doing for 25 years.
Not surprisingly, water plays a big role in his work.
“Most all of my paintings have a lot of blue because almost all of them have water involved,” he said.