It was a wild and wet weekend for the popular Naval Academy Sailing Squadron Race to Oxford and its companion partial race-back, the Tred Avon Yacht Club's annual Hammond Memorial Race to Poplar Island, over Sept. 22-23.
The paired events, commonly referred to as a single unit under the loose title "Fall Oxford," have been among the most popular races of the sailing season for more than 30 years.
That's because skippers and crews know that the winds are likely to be good in late September, and TAYC's hospitality in Oxford is always excellent.
Another important element is that the distance -- about 30 miles from Annapolis to Oxford -- makes the NASS Oxford Race appealing for sailors of smaller cruising one-design boats, especially in conjunction with the next day's Hammond Memorial, which speeds the fleet on its way home with a 20.5-mile race from Oxford to Poplar Island.
Nearly 240 boats in 10 handicap divisions and nine cruising one-design classes from Cal 25s to J/35s set off in the rain on Saturday morning from the mouth of the Severn, splashing and crashing through the waves kicked up by the current and a southerly 12- to 15-knot breeze.
Wet clouds came so low to the water from time to time that visibility on the course was reduced to virtually zero, and rain dripped off of everyone and everything. But the steady breeze made the long fetch and beat down the bay enjoyable until at last the skies lightened up -- and so did the wind.
The fleet leaders, including first-to-finish Jack King on his Frers 62 Merrythought, with an amazingly short elapsed time of 3 hours, 42 minutes, 6 seconds, were long finished before the breeze died down to 5 knots or less. But most of the rest of the fleet was already well into the Choptank River with spinnakers flying when it went light, and were able to keep going in the gentler blow, so that it was only about three hours later by the time the rest of the sailors were finished.
Sunday dawned bright and clear, with exciting northerlies sustaining at better than 18 to 20 knots all day with gusts easily up into the 30s. It was as wet as the day before, but this time the damp came from spray and green water coming aboard in the stiff chop and heavy breeze.
After a short spinnaker leg at the start, the 196-boat fleet fought its way north into the wind, and the long heavy-air beat was taxing of gear, sails, and crew, especially aboard the smaller boats.
For Charlie Husar, who sailed his Cal 25 Chicken Little to victory both Saturday and Sunday, it was a weekend to remember. "We almost survived it," Husar joked.
Saturday, his strategy and sailing were straightforward. Husar said, "We went over to the east, but not all the way in behind Bloody Point. We were below '84' (a mark of the course off Poplar Island), but we gradually got lifted and lifted so we made it. At that point we didn't see another Cal anywhere around, so we figured we were either DFL or doing really well. Then a little while after we popped our chute, I looked back and saw another Cal chute go up, so I was pretty sure we were in front."
Husar's class had been among the first starters Saturday, so that the bigger boats sailed through a fleet of smaller boats on their way to Oxford. On Sunday morning the largest, fastest boats started shortly after 8:30 while the Cals left nearly 1 hours later. On a day when the wind was gradually building as time went on, this meant that the relatively tiny Cals were left to face the strongest breezes for the longest time.
"We made the seven o'clock (p.m.) bridge at Spa Creek," Husar said. "It was a very long day, and I can only put it down to crew guts. We really busted our butts, worked very hard."
After an initial spinnaker leg in which he said his class was "pretty even," Husar explained that he had an overlap on three or four outside boats at the turning mark and hailed for room, but was forced to bail out to avoid a collision and come around for the mark again after one of the outside boats went into a roundup.
"We lost some there," Husar said. "We had our No. 1 up and a reef in the main, so we thought we'd be able to pick up some on the first close reach, but everybody killed us. We headed out a little farther, and they all went in toward shore. We put up our No. 2 and came back in in the thick of it. From that point on it was just covering."
Husar said victory on Sunday should have gone to Mike O'Toole, skipper of Alice May, but for a sudden windshift and set of waves.