Boats try to outrace the weather

Heavy winds, rain and lightning were on deck as crews participating in the annual Governor's Cup regatta worked to stay afloat and finish the 83-mile race.

August 07, 2005|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

ST. MARY'S CITY -- It felt like a bad idea to be out sailing Friday night on the Chesapeake Bay. As SchockaRoo -- and its 63-foot mast -- raced from Annapolis toward the mouth of the Potomac, lightning flashed and fat, cold raindrops splattered onto the deck.

"Don't touch anything metal," shouted Paul Susie, 38, the boat's captain, who was grasping an aluminum tiller extension. Heeding his warning was easier said than done on a deck covered with metal fixtures -- from the stanchions holding up safety lines, to the cleats, to that large rod holding up the sails. Metal was unavoidable.

When the storms began, SchockaRoo was about two hours into the 2005 Governor's Cup, an annual regatta sponsored by St. Mary's College of Maryland that drew about 160 vessels this year.

The thunder and lightning made the race one of the most violent in recent memory, said Marc Apter, a spokesman for the race.

It started calmly enough. The wind was so light that SchockaRoo -- and most of the other boats -- crossed the starting line several minutes after their 6:10 p.m. gun.

"Wind zero. Speed zero. It's going to be a long night," said one crew member reading the instruments bolted to the mast.

On cue, a purple-hulled boat tossed over an anchor. Their strategy was simple: The boat would be better positioned remaining stationary than risking drifting backward with the current.

The hulking Donnybrook, a nearly 70-foot behemoth of a sailboat, was also suffering in the light conditions. The boat holds the course record of 6 hours and 9 minutes for the race, and the other competitors kept an eye on its black hull.

So it was with some surprise when Garrett Parks, 35, a SchockaRoo crew member from Timonium, spotted the Donnybrook behind his boat.

"Take a picture," shouted Parks. "It's not often that you see that!" After a pause, he added: "Of course, he's going to cream us when this wind kicks in."

The core of SchockaRoo's crew has been sailing together for about 10 years. Four of them --Susie, John Lange, Parks and Tom Griesacker -- sailed what they called beer-can cruises after work.

"We went out with a cooler full of beer; when it was half-empty, we turned around," Susie said.

From there, they began racing in smaller buoy regattas. Over time, they graduated to longer overnight races.

Now they sail one or two long races a month and race together Wednesday nights out of Pasadena.

Others joined over time, and Susie has a pretty regular crew of nine men who race with him.

But the SchockaRoo crew hasn't drifted far from its beer-guzzling days -- the boat was loaded with cans of cheap beer.

In past years, SchockaRoo finished the 83-mile race in about 11 hours, sailing up the St. Mary's River to the finish before dawn. But just after Friday's start, sailors said jokingly that the boat was moving backward.

Susie ordered the crew to raise the boat's spinnaker -- a large, baggy sail -- when the breeze shifted and finally began picking up. With each yank on the halyard, the wind gusted harder. By the time the sail was raised, the boat tilted uncontrollably to the right -- and the starboard rail was underwater.

"Take it down, take it down!" somebody hollered. Two sailors in the bow struggled to pull in the cloth as it crumpled toward the deck. A bright light crashed through the sky. Thunder caused the hull to vibrate. Two crew members said they felt a physical shock. The navigational system -- a hand-held Global Positioning System hooked up to a laptop -- went dark.

The SchockaRoo didn't get hit that night, but at least two other boats did, according to race officials. Nightingale, a boat from Annapolis, and Alert, from the Patuxent River, both dropped out after lightning strikes, said Amanda McCartney of St. Mary's College.

Still, by 11 p.m., SchockaRoo had weathered almost three hours of constant lightning. And the rain began falling, quickly soaking though everyone's foul-weather gear.

The best place to be, clearly, was the cabin. It was pleasantly stuffy, warm and, above all, dry. Ropes -- or lines, in sailor speak -- hung like vines from the ceiling. Bags of gear, water, beer, shoes and flippers were scattered haphazardly below. But one could curl up in the sails and easily fall asleep.

In the middle of the night the wind went away, and it never really came back. There was still a rumble of thunder, the occasional flash of lightning and an occasional gust of wind. But the SchockaRoo was parked by the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant for hours. For the rest of the race, the boat drifted from one puff of wind to the next.

In years past, the fast boats got in by midnight. This year, the first boats crossed the finish line about 10 a.m., said McCartney. Even Donnybrook went slowly this year. The jet-black craft came in third in its class.

For SchockaRoo, at least, winning really wasn't the point of the trip. It finished 18th in its class of 28. The boat tacked up St. Mary's River and crossed the finish line about 2 p.m. --20 hours after it started.

In retrospect, Susie wished they hadn't hugged the Eastern Shore, where the wind turned out to be lightest. "We rolled the dice," he said. "It looked good at 4 a.m."

Others played down the finish. "We're accountants, we work in law offices," said Lange, who is a marketing manager. "This is adventure. That lightning last night, didn't you feel exhilarated and alive?"

Regatta results: A list of the Governor's Cup finishers. Page 12E

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