Standing at the edge of a wind-swept pond near Camping World RV Center in East Ridge on a December afternoon, Skip Steagall has the calm face of a fisherman waiting for a nibble.
But inside his 76-year-old brain, there is a lot going on as he maneuvers his one-meter-long, radio-controlled sailboat around buoys deployed in the steel gray waters. He's thinking about wind speed and direction, the setup of the boat's radio-controlled rigging and the turning radius of the 7-pound craft.
Last month, Steagall, a retired audio and video technician living in Dayton, Tennessee, became the rock star of the Chattanooga Model Boat Club by notching a national championship in the Sea Wind class of model sailboats. Meanwhile, his wife, Ann, who is also an RC boat hobbyist, came in sixth in the competition, which was held in Naples, Florida.
Asked if it was gratifying to win a national championship, Steagall responded energetically.
"Damn straight," he blurted with a laugh.
His answer was short, but observers say a lot went into that competition on Nov. 9-10 in Naples, where Steagall smoked competitors across the nation to win the glass cup.
Steagall is one of about a dozen serious RC boat racers that gather at the ponds off Interstate 75 on a weekly basis as part of the Chattanooga Model Boat Club.
Charlie Roberson, a retired U.S. Coast Guard veteran and president of the boat club, said the group formed about 20 years ago around a core of serious boat builders. Almost every weekend afternoon, they gather to participate in a hobby that is both relaxing and hyper-competitive.
Skip and Ann Steagall, who moved to Southeast Tennessee from Phoenix, Arizona, are at the Camping World RV Center ponds almost every weekend that they are not traveling to an RC-boat regatta in another city.
"It's something we can do on weekends to spend time together," Ann said.
Before starting to race sailboats, Skip said, he spent years piloting radio-controlled airplanes, and later dabbled in RC speedboats that can go up to 60 miles per hour. Now he has grown to love the more sedate, and cerebral, sailboat class.
The Chattanooga Model Boat Club is constantly recruiting new members, said Roberson, noting that RC sailing is addictive once you sample the hobby. Boats like the ones the Steagalls and Roberson sail cost about $400, they said.
The nationals for Sea Wind class sailboats in Naples featured about a dozen top racers from around the United States. The competition is based on cumulative points earned in about 30 heats, which can take from five to 10 minutes each. Skip won almost a third of the heats on his way to victory.
"He is phenomenal at setting up sails based on wind conditions," said Roberson of his friend.
Winds were strong in Naples, whipping at about 20 miles per hour, and Skip won the event going away.
"The last four races, I killed it," he recalled.
For more information on how to view or sample the RC sailboat hobby, contact Charlie Roberson at 423-718-0090.
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645.