In a brisk fall breeze, a colorful fleet of 39 sailing vessels set out from the Bay Bridge yesterday on the 11th annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race to Norfolk, Va.
Conditions were close to perfect for the start of the 127-mile sprint down the bay, with the sun shining and a 15- to 20-knot wind from the northwest.
By dusk, with the fleet off Cove Point, led by Wondwind, Imagine..!, and Californian, the wind had dropped to below 10 knots, and half-a-dozen boats were in a pack behind the leaders.
In the fleet were boats ranging in length from less than 40 feet to more than 100 feet, gaff- or staysail-rigged but all carrying their sails fore-and-aft on at least two masts in classic schooner style.
Crossing the start line south of the bridge, the schooners were soon spanking along, putting on a display of sail almost as spectacular as that of the tall ships during their summer visit.
Several racers, including Baltimore's own tourist schooner, Clipper City, and two Annapolis-based boats, Farewell and Imagine...!, took part in OpSail Baltimore 2000, which drew about 1.5 million visitors to the Inner Harbor.
Clipper City, owned by local restaurateur and hotelier Tony Moeli, is the largest in the fleet at 158 feet. She is a 17-year-old replica of an 1854 trading ship. In light winds, she would be struggling, but yesterday's strong blow was perfect.
"The higher the winds, the better," said captain Skip Bradshaw, a former tugboat skipper. "She's always been one of the top boats in her class."
The boats are divided into five classes, based on length, but two of the fastest, Saorsa (Gaelic for "freedom") and Resolute, both 39-foot Freedoms with fully battened sails, have been bumped up a class to prevent their running away with the race.
The challenge for the skippers will be to keep to the favored side of the bay with the strongest winds and avoid deep water when the currents are adverse.
"My husband is a tugboat captain [who] says the whole secret is to stay out of deep water," said race secretary Kathy Hill.
Bill Beach, a tactician in several previous races and a member of this year's Norfolk race committee, said: "Generally, the boats are spread out, because it's a 127-mile race, and it depends on how efficient your crew is and what stamina they have to stay alert.
"What we are trying to do is replicate what these schooners used to do up and down the bay. That is, racing with cargo on board to get there first, so they could sell it at the highest price."
The only cargo on some of the racing schooners yesterday was charter passengers. Clipper City was carrying 25 passengers, paying $350 each for the trip to Norfolk. From there, the boat, with its 10 permanent crew, will go to Key West, Fla., for the winter charter season, returning to Baltimore's Inner Harbor in April.
The fastest boats are expected to reach Norfolk today, but the overall results, based on handicaps, will not be known until the last boat arrives, possibly tomorrow if the winds weaken. The corrected record time to beat was set in 1994 by Leopard, from Richmond, Va., at 8 hours, 30 minutes, 18 seconds to the finish line at Thimble Shoal Light
"That was a very windy one, and everyone just flew down the bay in record time," said Hill. "1994 was the best race we ever had."
If 1994 was best, 1996 was worst. Winds up to 60 mph forced most of the fleet to quit with blown-out sails or to flee for shelter.
Warned by radio of the approaching gale, Tom Donan, skipper of the 47-foot Flutterby, an equal-masted staysail schooner, quickly dowsed his sails and stripped the boat's deck of movable equipment.
"It just got absolutely slack - calm," said the six-time contestant, who lives aboard his boat in Norfolk. "Then, an interesting phenomenon occurred - a very pungent smell of pine needles followed by a 20-degree temperature drop."
For the next four or five hours, he said his wind indicator stayed at 60 mph as his boat sped along at 8 knots with just a 150 square-foot fore staysail flying. Flutterby was the smallest boat to finish the 1996 race.
Since it was first run in 1990, the race has become a major attraction for charter boats heading from as far north as Canada to winter in Florida and the Caribbean. No monetary prizes are awarded, and entrance fees are donated to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
"Every boat has worked very hard during the summer months," said Kathi Gochal Nichols, Maryland race committee chairwoman. "This is kind of a layover for the crews, to have a good time, party for a few days. The schooners are a very small community. A lot of the crew work around the ships from year to year."
Donan, forced by a knee problem to miss this year's race but in Baltimore with the Norfolk race committee, said: "You get to hang out with a bunch of people who are pretty cool."