Every Wednesday evening before the summer sun sets over Annapolis, the Severn River becomes a nautical small town. Old friends gather and raise crisp white sails over boats called Maggie, Trophy Wife and Hard Headed Woman. The sailors exchange pleasantries, then prepare to race.
The Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday night racing series lets sailors pit their wits against the elements on a zig-zag course beginning at the Severn and stretching into the Chesapeake Bay. The races are a midweek mental-health break -- a place where sailboat enthusiasts can bring their children, their parents or a new romantic interest and not take the competition too seriously.
"You don't have televisions out there. You don't discuss the situation in Iraq. You go out and you sail," said Fred Hecklinger, a marine surveyor who has been racing Wednesday nights since the tradition began in the 1960s.
The races, which start in April and run this year until Sunday, begin near the U.S. Naval Academy and usually last about two hours, depending on the weather conditions and when it gets dark.
For some families, the Wednesday night sail is akin to Sunday dinner. Everyone attends.
Take the Scheidts. Peter, a physician, directs a major study for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. His three children have families of their own, not to mention demanding schedules and equally busy spouses. Yet at 5:50 p.m. every Wednesday, most of them find time to board Maggie, their J/35 sailboat, and head to the starting line.
"We're all pretty busy," said the Scheidts' youngest daughter, Christina Mudd. "If we didn't sail together, we probably wouldn't see each other."
Mudd, 34, has been part of the Wednesday night races since middle school and sailing with her family since she was 4 years old. On summer sailing trips, when she and her sister argued, they were sent to the tiny, hot bathroom -- or head -- to resolve their disputes. Consequently those fights never lasted long.
When they grew up and got serious about dating, an early test involved bringing their significant others to the boat on Wednesdays to see how they fared. It wasn't a problem for Karen Groner, whose husband was an excellent racer. And soon enough, non-sailing spouses Beth Scheidt and Tim Mudd became accomplished racing crew in their own right.
"If you want to spend time with us," said Beth's husband, David Scheidt, "then you need to sail."
Early on, the Scheidts established some ground rules. No yelling. Keep one hand free so you can hang on. Whether you're driving or trimming the sails, do only your job. And if Maggie wins, as she did last week, Peter Scheidt buys everyone dinner.
The younger Scheidts are slowly exposing their children to Wednesday racing, and Dr. Scheidt bought the 35-foot Maggie a few years ago to accommodate the growing crew. Last week, David's 6-year-old daughter, Tori, joined the race. Karen's children have also come, and Christina said her 4-year-old will be next.
Such a scene would have been unthinkable in the 1960s, when a bunch of local sailors decided to start an ad hoc Wednesday race to break up the week. Some men arrived straight from work, sweating as they embarked on a short course around the Severn. Women waited on the yacht club porch, and children were largely absent, according to Hecklinger.
By the 1970s, the race became more competitive, with formal classifications according to boat size and type. Over the years, the course changed, too -- it became longer and more difficult, with most races extending east to the bay and then returning to the dock below Compromise Street.
The race was open to any sailboat until a few years ago, when Coast Guard concerns about too many vessels forced a change. Now, participation is restricted to boats owned by club members, said Annapolis Yacht Club Vice Commodore Bill Chambers. Even with that limit, the races include about 120 boats.
So seriously do regulars take the event that some have been known to tell prospective bosses that, as a condition of employment, they have to leave early enough on Wednesdays to be on their boats in time.
Cheryl Jersey did more than alter her schedule after learning to sail with the Wednesday night racers. She changed her life, moving her marketing company from Vienna, Va., to Annapolis so she would no longer have to drive 65 miles each way during the week.
Though her longtime boyfriend, whom she met at the Wednesday races, also factored into that decision, Jersey says she has met plenty of other sailors who have relocated purely for the lifestyle.
"A majority of the people, once they start sailing here, decide they'd rather live where they play, not where they work," Jersey said.
When the races end, their spirit lives on at Eastport's Boatyard Bar and Grill, a sailing hangout owned by former investment banker and avid sailor Dick Franyo.
He has hired a film crew to videotape each race, and he replays the highlights on two bar TV screens all fall and winter. He doesn't mind that the films can be as much of a draw as the burgers.
"One of the great things about Annapolis and sailing is that semi-island lifestyle," Franyo said. "We drink rum and race. It's what you do. Whereas in Washington, New York, and even Baltimore, it's probably not what you do."
Still, the reruns are not enough for sailors like the yacht club's Chambers, who will long for the midweek therapy through the fall and into the dark winter, when the day-trippers leave and the politicians return and Wednesdays become just another day.
"It's a sadness and an almost desperation that Wednesday night participants feel when it comes to an end," Chambers said. "It's such a delightful part of the summer, and it's not going to come back again for several months."