Racing Interruptus

Terence Smith: Sailing through Annapolis’ season of racing interruptus in a 16-foot boat

By Terence Smith

Capital Gazette |

Oct 03, 2020 at 1:00 PM 

There are nine Herreshoff 12.5s that sail regularly in Annapolis, lovely, 16-foot, gaff-rigged boats originally designed by the great Nathaniel Herreshoff in 1913. His design of an open-cockpit, full-keel sailboat was — and is — perfect.
There are nine Herreshoff 12.5s that sail regularly in Annapolis, lovely, 16-foot, gaff-rigged boats originally designed by the great Nathaniel Herreshoff in 1913. His design of an open-cockpit, full-keel sailboat was — and is — perfect. (Courtesy of Bill Museler / HANDOUT)

It was a tiny victory, in a tiny sailboat, against a tiny fleet, but a satisfying victory, nonetheless.

But the fact that the informal and admittedly insignificant race was being held on a Wednesday afternoon just off the Annapolis Yacht Club and was not organized by the club as part of its longstanding and popular Wednesday Night Racing series tells you something about the impact of the pandemic — and this year’s capricious weather — on the maddeningly frustrating 2020 sailing season.

At its best, this season was Racing Interruptus. Mostly, it didn’t happen at all.

Now, how tiny is tiny? Well, the “fleet” on this afternoon consisted of three Herreshoff 12.5s. They are lovely, 16-foot, gaff-rigged boats originally designed by the great Nathaniel Herreshoff in 1913. His design of an open-cockpit, full-keel sailboat was — and is — perfect. As a result, it has not been changed in 100-plus years. There are scores of them racing up and down the East Coast and a fleet of nine 12.5s that regularly competes in Annapolis.

How tiny was the victory? Well, here’s how it went: with Jana Davis, executive director of The Chesapeake Bay Trust, calling tactics, I steered Dear Prudence, my 1994 Herreshoff 12.5, to a good start just off AYC and pulled well ahead of the other two boats in the race on the first leg. As we approached the turning mark near the far shore, I said to Jana, “Look at that current, it’s rushing past the mark.”

Did I do anything to compensate for the current? No, instead I cut the mark too close to port and was promptly caught in the current and pushed within an arm’s length of the mark. Poor Dear Prudence got caught in the current and spun around 360-degrees while the other boats passed us and turned for home. We rounded the mark a second time and followed in the wake of the others. For a life-long sailor, it was a mortifying moment.

A spirited tacking duel followed as we beat to windward on the long leg to the finish. We slowly caught the other boats and matched them tack-for-tack. At the very last moment, in a classic example of dumb luck, we shot across the finish line first! We won by half a boat length.

Herreshoff 12.5s are an open-cockpit, full-keel sailboat. It has not been changed in 100-plus years. There are scores of them racing up and down the East Coast and a fleet of nine 12.5s that regularly competes in Annapolis. - Original Credit:
Herreshoff 12.5s are an open-cockpit, full-keel sailboat. It has not been changed in 100-plus years. There are scores of them racing up and down the East Coast and a fleet of nine 12.5s that regularly competes in Annapolis. – Original Credit: (Courtesy of Bill Museler / HANDOUT)

That is what I mean by a satisfying victory: pulling it from the jaws of defeat after a boneheaded blunder at the turning mark.

A “normal” Wednesday Night Race series offers two dozen weekly races between April and September and turns out 100-plus boats in various classes and sizes from the little Herreshoffs to big, powerful racing yachts. On a nice evening with a decent breeze, it is a gorgeous spectacle that often concludes at the bar in the yacht club or the Boatyard Bar and Grill where videos of the race are run repeatedly.

But there was nothing normal about this year. Thanks to the pandemic and restrictions imposed by the governor, the whole season started six weeks late and even then most classes initially raced every other week to avoid congestion. In addition, the hot, sticky weather in July and August produced threatening thunderstorms on Wednesday evenings with uncanny regularity. The race committee had no choice but to cancel at the last hour again and again.

When the season concluded on Sept. 2, the Herreshoff class, for example, managed only seven races instead of 24. Bummer.

Pandemics and the weather are obviously beyond the control of the AYC Race Committee. Given the continuing threat of COVID 19, and the heat and humidity intensified by climate change, the 2021 season may be no better than the sadly unsatisfying 2020 debacle.

So, here is my suggestion: why not extend the season and schedule make-up races on weekends? The Herreshoff class has been holding its informal races, on Wednesdays during September, with makeups on Thursdays and may soon schedule them on weekends in October.

The Annapolis Yacht Club Race Committee could do something similar and the beautiful waters off Annapolis would once again look as Annapolis should look, pandemic or no.

Terence Smith, journalist and sailor, lives in Annapolis.
Terence Smith, journalist and sailor, lives in Annapolis. (By Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette)

Terence Smith, journalist and sailor, lives in Annapolis. His website is terencefsmith.com He can be reached at terencefsmith2@gmail.com