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Members of the Metro Marine Modellers set sail at Humber Bay park.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

As a widower with a fleet of yachts and a name that connects him to a Canadian retail empire, Bill Shorney should be fending off women. Such is not the case, though. The deal-breaker, ironically, is his boat collection. His 32 vessels are not docked at a marina. Instead, they are jammed into his apartment, which resembles the Hyannis Port Yacht Club after an attack by a shrinking ray.

"It compromises dating," Mr. Shorney admits. "When a woman sticks her head in this door, that's it - she runs away, and you never see her again."

His largest boat, a carbon-fibre sloop, is about two meters long. The smallest, known as a "footie," looks like a basketball sneaker that has been rigged with sails. They are part of a miniature armada that fills every millimetre of the apartment - there are only two narrow chairs available for human occupancy, and the bedrooms have been turned into urban dry-docks, filled with tools, parts, and model ships in various stages of construction and repair.

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Lost love is only part of the price he has paid for microyachting, an obscure, oddly beautiful hobby that attracts a competitors from around the world. "It's like drugs," says Mr. Shorney. "Once you try it, you're done."

Microyachting is a twist on the ancient activity of toy-boating. Instead of abandoning their yachts to the whims of the wind, racers control them with radio transmitters that give pinpoint control. Mr. Shorney is a keen competitor, travelling a regatta circuit that takes him across North America and occasionally overseas, his boats and radios packed in foam-padded crates.

As with full-sized yachting, boats are divided into classes. Competitors can buy a boat and radio for $500 or less, but some have turned the pursuit into an water-going arms race, where the keen spend thousands on carbon-fibre hulls, Mylar sails and computerized radio-control systems. One of the most ruinous is America's Cup, microyachting's answer to Formula One, where you can spend $10,000 or more on the latest technology. (Mr. Shorney owns two of these mega-microyachts.)

To keep their edge, racers compete in local regattas at least twice a week. A few days ago, Mr. Shorney was at a race hosted by Metro Marine Modellers, a Toronto-based club. He and his fellow racers arrived at Humber Bay Park early on a weekday morning and unloaded their boats. (Unlike a real racing sailboat, these smaller sloops can be carried in a family car.) By 10 a.m., the wind was picking up, and more than a dozen racers lined a football-field-sized pond.

A loudspeaker counted down the seconds, and then they were off, racing around a course marked by floating pylons. The racers shuffled along the shore, watching their boats and tweaking the joysticks that moved the rudders and sails. The wind sighed over the pond, and the boats tacked to gain speed, gliding past a pair of swans. As racing goes, this was pure Zen, silent and beautiful - it made fly-casting seem like a frenzy.

"You come out here, and you calm down," said Mr. Shorney. "Your stress level goes away."

Still, microyachting has its stresses - when the wind is strong, the larger boats can punch holes in each other if they collide. (The loser usually sinks, dragged down into Davy Jones's locker by its weighted keel.) Mr. Shorney jockeyed for position, tweaking his boat's sail. But a blue and white boat slipped past him. He mumbled a curse and worked the joysticks.

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He was up against Ashley Marshall, a 74-year-old who began sailing toy boats more than six-and-a-half decades ago as a small boy in the West Indies. Now he's a master microyachter, with a veteran's feel for the breeze - he made a quick series of tacks that positioned his boat above Mr. Shorney's, stealing his wind as he zipped past.

Mr. Marshall allowed himself a thin, satisfied smile. "A tricky, tricky business," Mr. Marshall said as he passed another competitor. "Got you!"

A minute later, the race was over. Mr. Marshall had beat everyone else by at least five boat lengths. "He's good," said Mr. Shorney. "That guy can really feel the wind."

Like Mr. Shorney, Mr. Marshall has an extensive fleet of miniature yachts (about 20, he estimates). As he has learned, the maximum speed of a microyacht is dictated by size: the wave generated by its passage through the water holds it back, and a longer boat makes a longer, faster wave. The same irrevocable hydrodynamic law also governs full-size yachting.

In Mr. Marshall's case, the size of his boats is limited by what will fit in his Buick Park Avenue. "Some guys get trailers," he says. "But that's too much for me."

Mr. Marshall's favourite boat is a two-meter America's Cup yacht, which he sees as a miniature, waterborne Porsche: "In the wind, that thing is a freight train on fire," he says. "You wouldn't believe it."

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Many microyachters are former sailors who got tired of full-sized yachting. Among them is Dave Allsebrook, a 51-year-old Toronto lawyer. "This is cheap, and you don't need to recruit a crew," he said while rigging. "And it's relaxing. Well, at least it's relaxing until the race starts. Then you're trying to make a little plastic boat go as fast as your car."

Although even the most elaborate microyacht is cheap compared to its full-sized counterpart, some racers pride themselves on their skinflint expertise. One noted economizer is Alan Tam, a 49-year-old Toronto realtor who spends his evenings scouring eBay for bargains. He arrived at Humber Bay regatta with the fruits of his effort - a one-metre Soling that cost him less than $150, complete with sails and electronic components. He launched his boat and watched as it glided toward the starting line.

"You have to watch the costs," he said. "But there's always some guy trying to beat you with his wallet."

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About the Author
National driving columnist

Peter Cheney launched his driving column after 25 years as an award-winning feature writer, investigative reporter and news correspondent. His writing steers clear of industry jargon to focus on human experience and the passion of driving. More


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