A chummy night as human ballast



The rain was relentless, and the prospect of an overnight 70-mile sail from Annapolis to St. Mary's City was becoming a dubious pleasure.

Taking shelter under the Spa Creek bridge, my shorts soaked, my shoes waterlogged, the rain pouring down my neck, I looked over the pontoons of the Annapolis Yacht Club's annex toward the 73-foot dark green hull and 91-foot raked black, carbon mast of the sloop Donnybrook.

There was no sign of life aboard. Then a similarly drenched figure in red weather gear dashed toward the boat. Marian Bruno, cook and sail-pit hand, clambered aboard and disappeared quickly down the hatch. I decided to join her.

The activity I had expected to see on deck a couple of hours before the start of the Governor's Cup was in full swing below. Donnybrook's tennis-court size sails were being folded and bagged, ready to be hauled up through the forward hatch as needed.

Humidity merged with body heat to make an atmosphere so thick you could have cut it with a knife. Sprawled on a bunk opposite the U-shaped dining area in the cavernous main cabin was Jim Muldoon, owner-skipper of the Santa Cruz turbo-sled.

Muldoon, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who has made his millions procuring federal contracts worth $65 billion for the clients of his company, Metcor Ltd., likes to drive his own boat, particularly if the weather pipes up.

He is a stocky figure with graying beard and laughing Irish eyes. There's no mistaking his roots when Donnybrook flies a massive black flag decorated with a green shamrock.

He was grabbed by sailing while at the University of Maryland, College Park, and it has become his magnificent obsession. He is a member of the Annapolis Yacht Club, a trustee of St. Mary's College of Maryland - organizers of the Governor's Cup race - and, for the past three years, chairman of the U.S. Sailing Association, the sport's governing body.

I am warned that the worst possible error aboard is to block his line of sight from the wheel to the bulkhead instruments. For the next 10 hours, I move with the stealth of the cat burglar in "Topkapi."

My most useful contribution during the race would be as human ballast, shifting my 185 pounds hither, thither, and yon, from port to starboard and amidships, to maximize the boat's speed.

For most of the night, we were close-hauled on a starboard tack, sailing down the west coast of the bay, a course chosen by Muldoon to keep us in shallower water and away from the fiercer, adverse current in the 80-to-90-foot deep main channel. He also was hoping to find some off-shore evening breeze.

The wind, light and shifty at first, settled at around 11 knots, which had Donnybrook well heeled and us dangling our feet over the toe rail, with our heads bent under the lifelines to get our weight as far out as possible.

The small of my back revolted, and what I think were my iliac bones began to press through the gluteus maximus with the constancy - and pain - of a baby's teeth pushing through its gums.

Shifting to port to get us into water deep enough for Donnybrook's 12-foot keel, or to give the boat a better incline in the lightest of breezes, simply brought more of the same punishment.

Brief relief occurred when we were ordered to the center of the boat in lighter air. There, we could sprawl about, lying on our fronts or sides.

But the most merciful moment came when Muldoon ordered an alternative headsail prepared. It lay along the freeboard, ready to be unbagged and hoisted should conditions require, and was as comfortable a cushion as I've sat on for a long time.

The only catch now was that every time we moved, we had to take the sail with us, and sails for Donnybrook are not light, whatever their names. The Light One is light only in the sense that is lighter than the Heavy Two, both of which we sat on and shifted in turn.

It's amazing how chummy you can become in these circumstances. We drank from the same water bottles, chewed on the same candy bars, although we had never met before.

We kept each other awake, when sleep beckoned.

"No snoring," shouted someone as the tack stretched on and the Heavy Two became ever more embracing.

"I brought ear plugs," boasted Bruno, a federal bureaucrat who has crewed regularly on Donnybrook for the last year. "I never travel without them with this crowd."

We glided along in enchanting discomfort, the clouds breaking open above Calvert Cliffs to show a handful of stars, a sprinkle of welcome brightness on an otherwise dark, gray night.

Then, suddenly, briefly, we were floodlit. The sails glowed white against the black velvet of the night. We were in front of a tug, and it wanted to be sure we knew it. We got the message.

Throughout the night, navigator Kurt Lowman yo-yoed up and down from his glowing computer station to the hatch to keep Muldoon informed to the time and distance to the next "target" and what the marker we were heading for was like.

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