The striking thing about the Jet-14 racing dinghy national championships on the Chesapeake Bay last weekend was the number of husbands and wives sailing together.
When my wife, Valerie, and I enrolled with the Annapolis Sailing School many years ago, the first thing the instructor did was assign us to different boats. The rationale: one partner, usually the male, is dominant afloat, undermining the other's training.
But there they were at the Severn Sailing Association, racing together: Greg Kowski and wife Ann Neff, last year's Jet-14 national champions who finished second this year; Dave and Ann Hansen, who traveled 600 miles from Utah to sail here together; Rhett and Celeste Simonds, who have been sailing together for 26 years; and lots of other couples.
The Jet-14 is an ideal two-person boat for racing families. It is competitive, maneuverable, and one of the smallest racers to fly a spinnaker, the colorful foresail that is a photographer's delight. This makes the foredeck a crucial position and the sailing that much more fun, not to say challenging.
Such a small boat also benefits from having light-bodied women or children in the crew, particularly in the sort of light airs that prevail on Chesapeake Bay in August.
Reflecting the predominance of couples in the class, Jet-14 sailors Bill and Ellen Reed wrote an article for the official history of the centerboard dinghy entitled: "Sailing Safely With Spouses."
The couple advanced these rules for espoused teams: sail together before you get married; if married, do not sail together before discussing the ramifications; don't take criticism personally, and don't take it home with you; be nice and considerate; know the benefits of sailing together.
For Kowski and Neff, being partners afloat and on land brings advantages.
"Our communication skills are really good," said Kowski. "That's probably one of our strong points. I don't have to say `trim this' or `pull that.' It's already done. Sometimes things don't go good, but we don't take it personally."
The Simonds have won the Jet-14 national championship five times. Rhett, this year's class president, actually won one more title with another partner, setting the six-championship record, which Brent Barbehenn, sailing with his daughter, Tara, 11, matched last week.
To prevent their sailing partnership from getting out of balance, the Simondses initially took turns skippering the boat. But they found that constantly switching roles was undermining their particular skills. In 1989, they decided each would specialize - he as skipper, she as foredeck.
All this smacks of smooth sailing for the romantically linked. But we all know that when husband and wife are on the water, sudden squalls can strike.
I once heard a husband cursing out his wife so loudly for botching a docking operation in the Rhode River marina I use that a nearby sailor felt compelled to walk over and calmly tell the haranguer he was doing little for his partner's confidence, less for her enthusiasm, and nothing for the afternoon peace he was disturbing. I hope he has mended his ways.
Edwin Pierce never did. He came to sailing late and was consumed by it. He engaged his wife, brought up on Buzzards Bay, Mass., in his new enthusiasm but wouldn't listen to any of her advice.
"I was doomed to be a silent partner in this venture," Emily S. Pierce, now 81, wrote to me recently, recounting her experiences as a marital first mate.
Her husband became a sailor after suffering a heart attack. Recuperating in bed, he read a book on sailing and decided to buy a boat. Doctors advised him to avoid stress and strain, but on the boat, according to his wife, if an unexpected calm or blow arrived, he would get "excited, and then not only incoherent but unhandable."
Many wives may be able to identify with the condition.
For nine years, she sailed with her husband out of Bowley's Marina on the Middle River, on a fast, 17-foot boat that drew 5 feet of water - and frequently set them aground.
"As far as I was concerned, [it was] a dangerous boat to have in Chesapeake Bay because of the unexpected shallows," wrote Mrs. Pierce. "Far better, a centerboard."
With her handwritten letter, she enclosed a typed account of one particular cruise for which, she noted, her husband packed his pills - and she "took along Nytol, Nervine, and two murder mysteries."
They had a pleasant sail to Rock Hall, where they cooked supper of hamburger, salad and french fries. Next day, they headed for Kent Narrows with 22 knots of wind blowing from the southeast.
"He was by then very uptight as we had now left familiar waters and were depending on our poor eyesight to find the buoys to mark the way," she wrote. "I was also uptight, to put it mildly. Nothing like having confidence in your captain!"
Halfway through the channel, almost inevitably, they ran aground.