WHILE THE America's Cup action in New Zealand heats up both on and off the water as a battle of billionaires, Eastport is home to its own fleet of America's Cup Class racing yachts.
Every Sunday about 11 a.m., the Chesapeake Bay Model Racing Association converges for a day of racing at the Chart House. Here the America's Cup action is on a smaller scale - a much smaller scale. The fleet, which sometimes numbers up to 20 boats, is composed of 36-inch, radio-controlled replicas of the boats that are match racing in Auckland.
"It's my thumbs against yours," said Dave Ramos of Arnold, former national champion of the CR-914 class of toy boats. Ramos, who worked on design teams of the real Americas Cup yachts, is the owner of Chesapeake Performance Models, the North American distributor of the CR-914 model kits. "This is a very competitive fleet," he said.
"Oh yeah," said Steve "Stevie Mac" McLaughlin of Annapolis, a regular on the big boat racing circuit. " It can be every bit as competitive as the big boats. There are times when guys will pick their boats up out of the water and leave."
The model boats give all sorts of people the chance to experience the excitement of sailboat racing without having to spend a lot of money or get wet. The kits are fairly simple to put together - "You could do it in a long weekend," said McLaughlin. For the less handy, Ramos will half-assemble or fully assemble the kit.
Then it's a matter of mastering the subtleties of radio-controlled sailing. Reading the wind from a remote location can take practice but all the sailors agree that the excitement is the same.
"It's frostbiting without the cold," said Ernest Freeland of Annapolis, commodore of the model racers, "Frostbiting" is the term for winter sailing.
The races are governed by the same rules as the big boats with a couple of minor allowances at the marks. The biggest difference in races, according to Freeland, is that instead of being a boat away from the person you are competing against, you are standing shoulder to shoulder.
"Some interesting conversations ensue," he said, "but thus far, no one has pushed anyone off the dock.
As in full-scale sailboat racing, the model boat racers think of races as 3-D chess games. Unlike with the big boats, there is much more of an opportunity for a comeback, which makes for exciting races.
"It is very possible to have a terrible start and be dead last, and if you don't give up, you can still win," said Ramos.
The toy boats also abide by the same rules of the road as full-size boats and, conversely, should be treated as an equal by the big boats. Out of courtesy, however, when the Annapolis Yacht Club's frostbiters are returning to the harbor, the model boats retire for a lunch break at the Chart House.
"It just saves a lot of yelling," said McLaughlin, who added that it can be hard to see the little boats from a big boat.
Occasionally, the toy boats provide an amusing spectacle. "If two masts get hung up together, the two boats go off pirouetting down the harbor with somebody chasing after them," said Freeland. The boats also get away from their controllers sometimes and sail off on their own - thus the need for a motor boat to act as a chase boat.
"The best thing about these boats is that anyone - absolutely anyone - can build a boat and come out and race, and win," said Ramos.
Rules about modifying the boats have been kept strict. This ensures that the playing field remains level and, unlike the full-scale Americas Cup boats, deeper pockets will not buy any advantage.
Like sailboat racing of any size, there is an appealing social aspect to the club. "It's really a lot of fun," said McLaughlin. "We have kids and their parents and retired people and everyone in between."