Sailing for Lives

The International Sailing Federation has devised hundreds of pages of carefully calibrated rules for racing, few of which apply to the colorful shenanigans that took place Saturday on the high seas of Louie’s 10th Last Regatta.


It seems the race officials allow a good bit of rule-bending in deference to the real serious business at hand: raising money for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

What started in 1999 as a barroom brainstorm to extend the area sailing season has grown into one of the biggest independent fund-raising events for the hospital. The 150 boats and the sailors that participated Saturday figured to generate more than $130,000 and push the 10-year total beyond $500,000.

‘It’s incredible,’ said Mike Bersch, the skipper of the Dirty Vicar and one of the Louie’s Last founders.

‘It’s hard to fathom that number from what we thought would be a silly little regatta,’ he said. ‘We started out with our tongues firmly planted in our cheeks.’

Frivolity does seem to reign supreme in Louie’s.

The award given to the winning boat is Louie’s Last Cup, a silver tankard dented on a parking meter to re-create the stein that killed Louie Eishold during a bar fight in 1886. Eishold is an uncle of one of the Ale House founders and the inspiration for the beer Louie’s Demise.

From there, the top prizes grow in inverse order, from one quarter barrel for first place to three for third, and the final rankings can be bought.

‘If you were humiliated by one of your rivals, you can pull out your checkbook and bargain your way up the standings,’ explained Tim Kent, the real leader of Louie’s Last Regatta.

Louie’s Last is one of the few races to bring together regal 70-footers and sleek scows, and it has gained an international following of competitors who fly from Ireland and Australia to join the race and the fun.

John Ruf of Pewaukee has a sailing résumé to match Kent’s, including a bronze medal in the 2008 Paralympic Games in China. He also found himself dazzled by the spectacle, from a perch on the bow of the 70-foot Chance.

‘I enjoyed every minute of it,’ he said with a big, post-race smile. ‘I haven’t been sailing in too many races where it was just that much pure fun.’

Ruf also has a unique appreciation for the cause. He was born with a tumor on his spine and spent more days than he cares to consider as a patient in Children’s Hospital.

‘I absolutely remember being one of those kids,’ he said. ‘There’s a lot of courage all those kids have.’

Helping to keep the event in its proper perspective, the most coveted of the Louie’s awards is the Maggie Bersch Memorial Cup, a shiny, undented trophy given to the skipper and the crew that raises the most money for Children’s Hospital.

The trophy memorializes Mike Bersch’s niece, who died of leukemia in November 2004 and was the bright, smiling face of the regatta for its first five years.

Even garbed in full German beer wench regalia, Cate Muller of Chicago had a unique grasp of the irreverence and seriousness at the heart of Louie’s regatta.

Her baby sister, Allison, died exactly 20 years ago, at just 21 months old.

Raising money for Children’s Hospital is a way for Muller to remember and honor her sister. And to her, it’s just as important to do so ‘while having as much fun as possible.’

Published on: 9/28/2008

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