Old salt sets sail for old prize

Baker: At his son's urging, the Governor's Cup Yacht Race co-founder returns to the event after a long layoff.

August 08, 2004|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S CITY -- He didn't come in first, not by a long shot, but J. Russell Baker's first trip back in more than a decade to the sailing race he founded as a college student was a resounding success.

Baker couldn't have ordered better weather for St. Mary's College of Maryland's 31st annual Governor's Cup Yacht Race -- sunshine, winds steady at about 25 knots.

Nor could he have asked for a better crew -- a bunch of old salts that included a retired Navy meteorologist, a naval architect and an expert sailor who has raced the bay for 25 years.

And he couldn't have had a better reason for wanting to glide through the bay overnight after a hiatus largely imposed by the demands of family and lacrosse games.

This year, Baker's 17-year-old son, Brendan, told his father he wanted to do the race just once with his father before he went off to college.

"Our goal is just to finish the race with as many people as we started with, and with everybody healthy," said Baker, a real estate developer who lives in Sherwood Forest. "First, last or anywhere in between, it's a team effort."

The race started Friday evening and ended yesterday morning.

Without question, Baker's team faced challenges. In a race filled with lightweight boats -- there were 155 entrants in eight classes -- Baker's 46-foot sloop, the Tandem, weighed in at 32,000 pounds. She hadn't raced the course since 1988.

The 10-person crew had never sailed together before; four had never raced. Jim Baker, Russell's 79-year-old father and the crew's helmsman for much of the trip, steered with his finger in a bandage after he gashed it while slicing a wild goose to be eaten on the trip.

And sometime before Tandem hit the Potomac River came word that the toilet was temporarily clogged.

None of that seemed to dampen the crew's enthusiasm as Tandem sailed into the sunset, then under the moonlight, on its 65-mile race from Annapolis south to St. Mary's City.

There was plenty to savor: shooting stars, an astronomer's dream view of the Big Dipper, a crescent moon that showed off the phosphorus glowing in the water.

And when the 32-year-old sloop passed newer, more expensive boats, their crews all in matching T-shirts, few on the Tandem could resist making comments about the "Type A's" in the race.

"If I'm still alive next year, I'll get you all special T-shirts," Jim Baker said as he sailed in flowered shorts and a T-shirt.

Even those members of Baker's crew who had raced on the big winners in past cups had no envy as they passed their sleek competition.

After all, the Tandem has character, with its old-school mainsail and aged spinnaker.

"This is a proud old boat that hasn't raced in years," said expert racer Mike Wagener, "but it was one of the first to do these races."

At one point in the 1980s, college officials said, the race included more than 300 entrants. The college decided to scale it back in recent years, and officials said this year's competition was about the right size.

But when Russell Baker was studying biology at St. Mary's College in the early 1970s, he could never have predicted that an idea hatched by him and two buddies, Pete Sarelas and Dale Rausch, would become the college tradition it is today.

Back then, Baker was on the college's sailing team and competed in overnight races in New England. He figured the college had the facilities to accommodate a substantial summertime race because, unlike many marinas, it has ample dorm rooms and bathrooms.

And with a race from Maryland's current capital to its original capital of St. Mary's, the trio thought the Governor's Cup would be an appropriate name.

"What I tried to promote was that it would be great exposure for the college. St. Mary's was so small that they didn't have much of a hope of being competitive," he said. "But back then, nobody thought 30 years ahead. You were thinking about college and graduation."

That first year, 45 people signed up, many of them Annapolis sailors whom Baker recruited. Baker persuaded the college's cafeteria manager to cater a post-race dinner.

Nowadays, the college holds a lunch, a dinner and an all-day party with a band after everyone pulls in. People stick around long after the trophies are awarded.

The Tandem ended up 14th in its category, which was won by L'Outrage, skippered by Bruce Gardner of Annapolis.

L'Outrage also won the day's overall prize as best boat in the fleet.

The Tandem might yet have its day. Brendan Baker, who was up all right helping trim sails and spent several weeks helping his father clean and paint, said he would be back.

"I might win it one day," he said, "when I become a better sailor."

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