Success aside,he's a sailsman, not a salesman Boating: Jerry Wood started Annapolis Sailing School as a way to pay grocery bills, but despite decades of success, love of the sport keeps him afloat.

October 11, 1998|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

From the bushy, angled eyebrows to the ruddy cheru cheeks, his is the face that launched a thousand ships.

Or boats, to be exact.

And bump that number all the way up to 100,000.

That's the estimated waterborne progeny of Jerry Wood, 74, whose Annapolis Sailing School has been putting novice sailors at the helm since 1959. In doing so, he built a ready-made clientele for his later creation, the U.S. Sailboat Show, being held for the 29th year through tomorrow at the Annapolis City Dock.

Not bad for a career that began at a beat-up old marina just across the creek in Eastport, as a means of paying the grocery bill.

"People had always had an interest in sailing," Wood said in explaining his success, "but the way it had been presented until then was as an elite sport."

Looking at the place, it is hard to imagine the Annapolis of 1959, especially with the boat show in town. Yesterday, the show's 200 or so gleaming vessels lined the waterfront, their masts aflutter with colorful pennants, while nattily-dressed men and women strolled the decks calmly inquiring about base prices soaring to $500,000 and beyond. The sport's elite aspect is still as prominent as a gaudy bowsprit.

But a closer look among the dockside booths and tents reveals the 13- and 14-footers, with their centerboards and toothpick masts, harking back to the spirit of Wood's old hangout in 1959.

Setting the stage

Then, he kept an 18-foot catamaran at a $5-a-month boat slip (a boater could easily pay 20 times that much today for a comparable location).

Having grown up in Westchester County, N.Y., he'd learned to sail at the Larchmont Yacht Club, just about the only kind of place a novice could learn to sail in those days, short of applying to the U.S. Naval Academy or learning from a friend.

The Wood family's toy-manufacturing business had closed the year before, and he was wondering what he should do with his life. He liked photography, and a public relations firm in the Midwest had offered a job, but one look at Chicago convinced him he'd be happier in Annapolis.

Opportunity knocks

Then opportunity knocked in the form of a man who approached with a question: Do you know where a guy can rent a sailboat around here?

"Sure," Wood answered. "I'll rent you one for $20."

When the same thing happened a few days later, "I said, 'Hey, this looks interesting,' " Wood said.

He placed newspaper ads in Baltimore and Washington, and the customers began rolling in. That might have been the limit of the venture, if not for a major shortcoming he noticed in his clientele.

"A lot of them didn't know how to sail," Wood said. "There literally weren't any sailing schools around. So that spring we started the boating school."

Betting on basics

From the beginning he steered clear of the yacht club approach, remembering the sort of preliminaries at Larchmont that had bored him to tears and kept him off the water -- stacks of paperwork about the differences between a brigantine and a barkentine and a ketch and a yawl, as well as the proper names and uses for everything from a mizzenmast to a running backstay.

Wood geared his lessons to the practical side of sailing, the basics that would keep a novice afloat. "We demystified it," he said.

New twists

The timetables varied -- three hours a weekend for four consecutive weekends was one approach. But that limited his market to locals, so he tried cramming the 12 hours into a few days, then tacked on an alluring slogan: Learn to sail in a weekend.

After that, "people would drive down on Friday from Philadelphia and Richmond," he said.

Within two years, he'd designed his own teaching boat, the Rainbow, a 24-foot sloop. It was a forgiving craft that didn't easily capsize, and its high-swinging boom didn't hit so many beginners in the head.

Five years later he added another twist -- lessons aboard a bigger boat that the students could live aboard for days at a time. Now, a customer could turn his lessons into a weeklong vacation on the Chesapeake Bay.

"That escalated our market to east of the Mississippi," Wood said.

Boat show beginnings

By that time, Wood was peddling the Rainbow at boat shows, winter affairs in big arenas and convention halls in cities like Washington and Baltimore. But the events always bothered him.

"You'd come out at the end of the day with your eyes burning because of the overhead lights and the cigarette smoke," he said -- not exactly the salt-air invigoration of a day on the bay.

Harvard University had just put a big bubble over its football stadium, and he thought he could put one temporarily over the Annapolis City Dock and start an open-air show. He measured the dock and figured the cost: way too expensive.

But the idea of an outdoor, on-the-water show stuck with him, and in the spring of 1970 he and business partner Peter J. Carroll decided to give it a try.

If it rained, so what? It wasn't as if boats and sailors weren't used to getting wet. And he'd hold it in the fall, not the winter.

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