The Homecoming: Beth Richard Learned to Sail in Cleveland. Now, She's Returning to Compete in the Gay Games

Beth Richard, 52, now lives in California and works as a computer chip design engineer, but she grew up in Cleveland, where she learned to sail. This month, she returns to her hometown — and to the very lake in which she sailed decades ago — to compete in the Gay Games. We caught up with Richard for a quick phone chat as she was finalizing plans for her trip to Northeast Ohio.

So how long have you been aware of the Gay Games?

Well, I first heard about the games when they were coming to Chicago eight years ago, but I was too late to get involved. And then four years ago they were in Germany and I was just changing jobs, so there was no way I could do anything about that. I was watching for Gay Games 9 to show up and when I saw it was in Cleveland, at Edgewater Yacht Club, racing lightnings... Well I grew up in Cleveland, learned to race at Edgewater Yacht Club and I own a Lightning, so it's like, I gotta go.

It was meant to be, huh?

Oh yeah. They announced it would be in Cleveland four years ago but it wasn't announced it would be Lightnings until last fall and I had to be there.

You took up sailing about 10 years ago?

Yeah, I had been away from the sport for a long time, and had an opportunity in 2004 to buy a boat. It's a Lightning, which I used to see a lot growing up in Cleveland, and even though I had never been on one before, they were a familiar boat to me. I had the opportunity go buy one and went for it.

What exactly is a Lightning?

Basically, it is a 19-foot-long sailing dinghy. It's a centerboard boat, which means the fin underneath the boat can be pulled up instead of fixed down like a keelboat would be. They were originally built in 1938. There have been more than 15,000 of them that have been built between then and now, and there are fleets racing all over the world. Typically it's a crew of three, but for Gay Games, we're doing a crew of four, which changes the tactics and boat handling a bit — we'll have to figure that out.

Who will you be competing with?

Usually when I race, it's myself and my spouse and another person that crews with us locally. But my spouse is a teacher and because school starts next week here in California, she can't come to the Gay Games, so I had to come up with some other people. Now, my cousin lives in Avon Lake and races regularly out of Edgewater — in the Gay Games, you don't have to be gay, so she's our super supportive straight ally — and she's our tactician, keeping her eyes on the wind and the waves and the other boats, and she's going to be running her spinnaker as well. And normally you have one forward on the boat, but we're going to have two — a port forward and a starboard forward. Our port forward is from upstate New York, and she's been in and around Lightnings all her life; she hasn't had a lot of time racing them, it was a family boat, but her brother does race and she's getting a chance to crew on her brother's Lightning here for a couple months before the games. That's how she's practicing up. And then we have another woman from the San Francisco area who's the owner of Melges 24, a keelboat race boat, and she's a good racer who's going to be our starboard forward. We're going to have a crew of four ready to go by Gay Games, but we will not have had all four of us at the same place in the same time until it starts.

Where in the area did you actually grow up? Within Cleveland?

I grew up in Lakewood, went to Lakewood High School. I then spent some time at Cleveland State University but graduated at Tri-State University over in Angola, Ind.

How did you get started sailing as a kid?

We lived in Clifton Lagoon, which is right at the mouth of the Rocky River. We moved there in '73 when I was 11. I guess farm kids have horses or dirt bikes, but lake kids, we have canoes and sailboats. My dad got us kids a little basic 12-foot sailboat, and it was a lot of fun. We went around the lagoon on it and soon enough my dad was like, "Okay, you can go on the lake now, just stay by the beach." So, I started sailing small boats as far back as 1973.

My dad tried to teach me to sail one when I was a kid. It never made sense in my brain how you'd control a boat like that and I ended up panicking.

Before we moved to Lakewood in '73, we lived in Bay Village, and my dad was a lifeguard at Huntington Beach and my mom was a beach bunny there. I grew up around Lake Erie — I don't think I lived any more than a mile and a half from the Lake Erie shoreline until I took off for college in Indiana.

So after college you left sailing for a while until you bought that Lightning 10 years ago. Why did you buy that?

When I was in high school and college, I was recruited by one of my neighbors who had a keelboat, a Tartan Ten, to be the floor deck crew — back in the day I was skinny and light, a teenager — and I really liked the racing, I had a great time with it. And then I moved off to college, got a career, got married, had kids, was out of it for a long, long time. But at one point, we were living in Dallas, I was taking my daughter to dance, we crossed a bridge over a lake and looked down, and there were all these small boats racing. I was like, "Man, I haven't done that for years and looks like so much fun, I should get back into that." Well, I looked into that and my spouse and I bought a Lightning, a 19-foot Lightning. We sailed it all through Dallas and now that we've moved to California, we do it here too.

How often are you sailing nowadays?

I try to get out and race about once a month. In the racing season it's more than that, in the winter season it's less than that. It probably averages out to once a month. We also have Wednesday night fun races — work has been a little bit hectic this summer so I haven't been out as much as I'd like, but we can just go out on Wednesday nights whenever we want, the whole yacht club. In California, there's racing all year round; in Cleveland, not so much.

That would've been especially tough here this past winter

Yeah, yeah. I remember back then we'd have the last race of the season the last weekend in October, and everybody would come back from that so cold and so wet that we were ready to put the boats away for a while. And of course by April, we were all itching to go again. It wasn't until May where we could get the boats out, but we'd go at it like crazy until it got cold again.

So will people from back here be coming out to see you race at the Gay Games?

Yeah, I don't know how the spectating will work, but I have a lot of family and friends in the area and I know I'm going to see them, whether or not they get a chance to come see the races — I hope they can — I won't know until I get there and can see what the course looks like.

What are some of the intricacies of sailing the average person wouldn't know?

Like golf, it's low score wins: The first person to cross the finish line gets one point, second gets two, and so on, and they add up the scores. They just published the schedule last night, and it looks like we're going to be racing for three days in the preliminaries and then reduce the fleet for two days' worth of finals. Adding up the scores from the preliminaries determines who goes to the finals; adding up the finals to get the gold. The way racing works is there's a committee boat that goes out and sets up some buoys, and then they will use flags and sound signals to let us know the timing. There will be a path you have to follow around the buoys that is agreed on ahead of time, and the finish line will be back between the race committee boat and the buoy. Sailboats can't sail directly towards the wind, they need it to come down one side of the sail, and the first leg of these races is almost always straight at the wind, so you have to be able to control the boat first off to one side and then to the other — they call that tacking. The thing that's interesting about that is everybody makes their own decision about when to tack and sometimes you'll get boats coming pretty close to each other, and there's a lot of strategy involved — what you do when the boats are coming together again.

Anything else you'd like to say?

I'm just really excited about a chance to come back to my home town, at the yacht club where I learned to race, on boats I love to race, and do it with family and friends.