Victory goes to the fleet and the flock in Annapolis

June 22, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

ANNAPOLIS — Annapolis--The cannon roars, sailors curse and two boats nearly collide before the wind fills their spinnakers and propels them down the Severn River to Chesapeake Bay.

It's another Wednesday night at the yacht races in Annapolis, a town that bills itself as the Sailing Capital of the United States.

Each week, sailors hurry from their jobs, casting off ties or tossing aside hard hats before slipping into shorts and sunglasses. Spectators crowd onto the decks of the Annapolis Yacht Club or lean over the Eastport Bridge to see the finish.

"It's kind of exciting to watch all the boats," says Colleen Jackson, who drove from Washington with several friends to watch the races one recent Wednesday.

The Wednesday night series started more than 25 years ago as an informal challenge among members of the Annapolis Yacht Club. Today it is the largest yacht race on the Chesapeake Bay, drawing more than 100 boats in 11 classes.

Preparations for the evening's races begin shortly after 5 p.m. While sailors check their equipment, members of the race committee, which oversees the contest, climb aboard a 38-foot Morgan docked at the yacht club.

In the glare of the descending sun, their boat churns into the Severn and anchors in line with a green buoy about a mile out.

Race Chairman Reg Genola checks the direction of the wind and calculates the courses, which vary from four to seven miles.

One committee member scouts the water with binoculars, calling out the sail numbers of contestants while another official checks them off on a clipboard.

Yachts with names such as Pistol Pete, White Lie and Mischief circle the committee boat like white-winged sharks, checking the wind conditions and deciding race tactics. Crews consist of three to 12 members and while some drink beer, others more intent on the race check sails and lines.

The countdown

With five minutes to go before the first race, a small cannon aboard the committee boat fires a deafening warning shot.

The water becomes more crowded as boats jockey for position. On this evening, the wind favors those that start close to the committee boat.

A committee member sounds an air horn telling racers they have one minute until the start. The crews check their watches.

At 6:20 p.m., the cannon roars again. The boats surge toward the committee boat before turning toward the open bay. The boat Infringer is over the starting line too soon, and Mr. Genola calls it back on a loudspeaker.

While Infringer struggles to return to the starting line, the other contestants throw up their spinnakers, catching the westerly breeze.

Every five minutes, the cannon sounds the start of a new race. When the final race starts at 7:05 p.m. the Severn already is filled with colorful "chutes."

As the ninth and last race begins, committee members spy the first contestants returning. The committee boat heads back to the Yacht Club to watch the finish.

By then, a crowd is gathering on the decks of the Yacht Club and on the Eastport Bridge.

"It's pretty when they put up the spinnakers and it can be exciting when there's a strong wind," says Helen Meade, sitting at a table with a friend.

"And it's a pleasant place to have a drink," says her companion, Rosalie Smith of Eastport, as she sips a pink planter's punch.

Only a few of the spectators have much knowledge or interest in the boats, observes Carl Lazar, who gave up yacht racing 10 years ago and was at the club for dinner.

The yacht club, he said, is "a place to meet people."

At 7:35 p.m. the first boat, Full Cry, crosses the finish line and the cannon roars again. Two startled mallards fly up from beneath the bridge. The noise doesn't seem to faze three impeccably dressed women watching the race with cool detachment.

"It's so beautiful out we had to come down," says Nancy Orloff, who had a friend in the race.

"It's more to see the people," says one of her companions, Evelyn Keyes. "It's a show thing."

Recap and a nightcap

While spectators at the yacht club sip pink drinks and remark quietly as the boats glide to the finish, a boisterous crowd crams into Marmaduke's Pub across Spa Creek in Eastport. Here the Wednesday night special is B&B -- beer and burgers.

Sunburned crews and their friends relive the evening's contests by watching videotapes on television. John Morrison, a crew member on the unlucky Infringement, was trying to forget his race. After the false start, his yacht ran into more trouble. The wind died as the boat prepared to round a buoy for the last lap.

"It was a very frustrating evening," says Mr. Morrison, who grew up in Baltimore and has raced for four years.

Other sailors were in a better mood. The crew of Cannon Ball was celebrating its victory in the J-30 class. "We saw a better wind off the left-hand side," explains crew member Steve Siska.

Sailors come up to offer their congratulations to Cannon Ball's skipper, Dr. William Wallop. A radiologist who has been sailing for nearly 20 years, Dr. Wallop says racing is always challenging.

But, he adds, "You can get away from the office, the phone, the TV set. It's beautiful."

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