The Annapolis Yacht Club's annual three-week Fall Series has a special mystique and holds a unique place in the racing schedules of East Coast sailors.
In the old days, Annapolis was a way station on the annual big-boat racing circuit, when the likes of Ondine, Running Tide, Congere and other ocean-racing legends were found on Spa Creek for a couple of weeks at a time, in comfortable quarters up at Arnie Gay's or over at AYC, or at one of the bustling service yards in town.
Back then the Fall Series was a kind of old home week, a central focus for skippers and crews of the great boats to meet around on their way south from a summer's racing on Long Island Sound and in New England to winter havens -- and more racing -- along the sunny Florida coast.
Fall Series' origins include the AYC's desire to offer opportunities for top-notch racing for and against the big guns from out of town, which the annual fall migration south brought to town, and the fact that late September and early October usually offer the very best sailing and racing conditions of the year on the Chesapeake.
The series almost instantly was a major yachting event, drawing top competitors and boats from all parts of the East Coast. It has maintained a reputation as one of the year's most prestigious events despite a gradual localization over recent years as attrition virtually wiped out the IOR class and thinned the ranks of the great ocean-racers.
This year, a significant part of the old flavor has returned, and sailors from northern New Jersey to southern Virginia as well as a few from farther afield have joined the fray, which began last weekend with two virtually perfect sailing days.
The IMS I class has been plumped up with the addition of most of the out-of-town J/44s, which will be used in next week's Cadillac Columbus Cup international match racing regatta in Baltimore, bringing their total in the class to eight of Saturday's 26 starters. Sailors from New Jersey to Norfolk brought their boats to join the racing in the ranks of the 25 PHRF-A starters.
At the other end of the spectrum, J/24 contenders planning to race in the J/24 East Coast Championships at the end of October are using the series as practice, swelling that class on Sunday to 33 starters, including some out-of-towners and seven of the Naval Academy teams.
"We had decent breezes both days," said race official Ron Ward of AYC.
"It was blowing 8 to 10 (knots) on Saturday, and about 12 on Sunday, out of 185 (degrees) on the first weather leg both days, and never changed."
Ward explained that Olympic courses were used both days, with the big boats on Saturday sailing 10.8 miles and the smaller boats on Sunday racing 8.1 miles.
"We wanted to make the weather leg longer on Saturday," Ward said, "but we were concerned about the wind going southwest, which was what was predicted, so we held to 2-mile legs so we would have room to swing the course if the wind shifted, and then of course it didn't, but we had excellent racing both days."
Saturday's fleet was made up of 109 starters in three IMS divisions, PHRF-A and -B, and a J/29 one-design class, while on Sunday 107 boats started, sailing in five cruising one-design classes, as well as PHRF-C and MORC divisions. Both days' competitions included dozens of very close finishes, on both elapsed and corrected time.
"The Race Committee laid a real good course," said Saturday's PHRF-A winner Henry Judy. "The key to the race was getting a good start, protecting the left side, which was favored a little, and playing the oscillations. The wind was really steady, but there was a 10- to 15-degree oscillation all day and if you played it right, tacking every time when you were headed, you could make up a lot of distance on the course."
With Sobstad sailmaker Larry Leonard calling tactics for him on his new J/35 Outrageous, Judy said, "We had excellent crew work. It was almost flawless. Everybody really seemed to be in sync with each other and the boat, and the concentration was really intense. We're gearing up for Key West (Race Week in January), and since this is a new boat, it takes a little time to really learn it, but Saturday everything just fell into place."
Judy's Outrageous team was not first to finish in the class -- that slot went to Seward Lawlor and crew on his Norfolk-based 43-footer Chesapeake -- but when Outrageous crossed the line just 33 seconds behind Chesapeake, Judy's victory was assured by about the same margin on corrected time. He finished just over a minute in front of New Jersey sailor Bill Lockwood and his J/35 Instigator, who held his third-place finish through correction.
AYC's Fall Series will continue through the next two weekends.
AYC Fall Series I
Saturday, Sept. 29