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From the skies to the sea

Joining the Eastern Iowa Model Yacht Club
Over a backdrop of radio-controlled airplanes, Elton Combs of North Liberty shows off a CR-914 class model yacht on his basement workbench. Combs joined the Eastern Iowa Model Yacht Club this summer, discovering both a natural transition from his longtime hobby and a great social outlet. The club races at Liberty Centre Pond, Sundays at 1:30 p.m. (photo by Cale Stelken)

NORTH LIBERTY– You could say Elton Combs is a tinkerer of sorts. He’s been a remote control airplane enthusiast for many decades, dating back to his Missouri farm upbringing. In fact, the walls and ceiling of his North Liberty basement serve as a mini museum, with dozens of hanging aircrafts. From early gas-powered engines to electric, Combs has quite the collection.
“That’s the stuff you’d find on Antiques Roadshow,” he remarked, pointing to a model from the 1950s.
The retired mechanical engineer moved from Newton to the Corridor about three years ago, finding a great airspace for his planes in Centennial Park. But an event published in the Leader recently caught his wife’s eye, and was simply too intriguing to pass up.
“Boy, did I run into something this summer, and there it is,” he proclaimed. On a table in the center of his basement stood a three-foot-tall, radio-controlled yacht.
Combs enthusiastically joined the Eastern Iowa Model Yacht Club (EIMYC). Spanning North Liberty and Cedar Rapids, the group of about 14 members holds races at Liberty Centre Pond in North Liberty and Sherman Pond in Hiawatha on alternating Sundays at 1:30 p.m., with two-hour sessions of 20 races. Exhibitions are also held Tuesday mornings at 9 a.m.
The club was started by a Cedar Rapids resident about five years ago and is fully-sanctioned with the American Model Yacht Association, with two members having participated in national competition in recent years. For the EIMYC, however, it’s more about chumming around with pals in the local community.
“Most of the time, we don’t worry about national competitions,” said Dick Hakes, spokesperson for the North Liberty chapter. “We just enjoy racing among ourselves.”
Combs bought his first boat from Hakes and has since repainted the hull and fashioned its sail with military plane decals, a nod to his aerial-based background.
“It’s great,” he said of his newfound hobby, radio-controlled transmitter in hand. “I think I just went hog wild.”
Combs’ credentials were practically tailor-made for the club, having not only an extensive background in radio-controlled planes but experience in full-scale sailboat racing as well, his family having owned one since the 1970s. The former Maytag employee even taught sailboat safety and sailing instructions through the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.
“It just hit me perfectly. It’s all the knowledge and all the things I like,” he remarked. “Anybody with radio-control background would fit into this, because they could use just about all their knowledge and stuff that they’ve had before.”
While the niche hobby has attracted a predominately senior demographic, Combs has also used it to spent quality time with his grandson, Sam.
“I’d never even heard of it hardly until I came to North Liberty a few years ago and saw this group out there sailing,” confessed Hakes, a six-year resident of North Liberty. “It’s really an excellent recreation sport for people who maybe have had some sailing experience in their lives and just want to do something that’s a little bit easier than preparing a full-size boat to get it in the water, taking care of it and all that kind of thing.”
Combs cited a competitive nature as necessary to join the club, and that model yacht racing uses nearly the exact same tactics and rules as a real sail boat, just operating from the bank.
“If you could come around the mark right behind somebody and then stay right on their tail, and then stay right with them right at the finish line, you zip across their backside, take their wind, gain speed and beat them,” he said of a cunning, but difficult, tactic to pull off.
New recruits can purchase a used boat in the $400 to $600 range, often from a club member, with replacement parts available through a company in Maryland.
All club members race using the same one-design CR-914 boat. “You’re actually racing competitively between people’s ability to race, not because somebody’s got a shorter boat or a sleeker boat,” Combs explained. And just as he did over decades of flying RC planes, the retiree is keeping to up to speed as model yacht technology makes its way through the digital age. His new lithium battery has its own USB system, which charges directly off a computer in a mere 15 minutes.
So how has the newcomer fared in the ranks of his first summer?
“Dick says, ‘You’re gonna be rookie of the year,’” he quipped, having bested his fellow competitors twice in their most recent outing.
The group looks to welcome more members into the fold, and Hakes invites the community to spend an afternoon watching the boats in action at Liberty Centre Park.
“We’re always ready to take people out and show them how the boat works, if they’re interested, and try sailing it,” he insisted.
While the official race schedule for 2018 ends in September, Hakes said the club intends to be out at Liberty Centre Pond as long as possible. “We’ll sail here in the fall almost until the point where it gets too cold to let your fingers work the controls.”