A windless summer day on the Severn River teaches junior sailors rigging, racing and lots of patience

When sailing is no breeze

Maryland Journal


A scan of the horizon reveals a sad fact: It's going to be a windless day.

A white band of haze hovers in the distance. The flag at the Severn Sailing Association hangs limply, and a few wispy clouds provide no shade. The temperature is pushing 95.

But, with the optimism that only comes with being under 16, a few dozen junior sailors rig up the club's boat and get ready for a morning of sailing school.

The Annapolis-based sailing club runs classes throughout the summer, including two-week-long tutorials on the basics of sailing: how to rig a boat, tying knots, the points of sail and basic racing rules and strategies.

They draw a crowd of mostly upper-class, clean-cut kids, who swap stories about their recent vacations, make joking references to the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and squirt each other with water bottles.

"Today it is 150 degrees out, so we're all going to drink water," announces Alex Symers, 25, a sailing instructor.

"And we're going to put on sunscreen," adds Missy Hudspeth, 17, who was not long ago a junior sailor herself.

On a whiteboard, the two instructors illustrate strategies for how to start a sailboat race.

One common hazard - particularly with a group of pint-size beginners - is skippers banging into each other. Hudspeth reviews the rules about who must yield to whom.

"What happens when we're on starboard tack?" Hudspeth asks, referring to when the wind is coming over the right side of the boat.

"You have right of way!" several kids answer with glee.

"What else happens?"

This time she just gets quizzical looks.

"You avoid collision at all costs. We don't go around on starboard aiming at other boats trying to hit them." She adds pointedly, "Right, John?"

On the dock Sam Roush, 14, and Samantha Davidson, 13, struggle to push their boat, a dinghy called a 420, into the water.

As they finally slide it over the edge of the dock, a hotshot 420 racer hollers, "You guys don't have a stern plug!"

Without it, the boat could take on water.

"Should we steal one from another boat?" Samantha suggests.

Stern plug found, not stolen, the pair pushes off to the water.

But there is still no wind.

The boats inch down the Severn River toward buoys marking a practice start line.

Sam says to no one in particular: "I can sum this up in several words: `This is not a sailing day.'" His face is turning red from the sun and heat.

Riding alongside in a motorboat, Hudspeth tells the kids to gather near the start line. She blows three long bursts on a whistle, signaling that only three minutes remain until the start. Two bursts means two minutes.

At one minute, Hudspeth blows the whistle once and yells, more to be heard than out of urgency: "GET TO THE LINE! NOBODY IS CLOSE TO THE LINE!"

At 30 seconds nobody is close to the line, either. It doesn't look any better at 20 or 10 seconds.

When the race starts, four boats bang into each other. There's a lot of laughing.

"What do you do if you hit the buoy?" Alex Hodges, 13, asks - after hitting a buoy.

On the next start, everyone is a little closer to the line. The kids sail to the windward mark, then back to the line. The hint of a breeze that was powering the boats dies.

"THIS WILL BE A KINETICS RACE!" Hudspeth yells again. The kids can propel their boats forward however they choose.

The crew on boat No. 7 paddles. The skipper on boat No. 9 rocks. Skippers on boats 6 and 5 furiously push their tillers back and forth - a motion called sculling.

Sailors aboard boat No. 11 do nothing.

"Slow and steady wins the race," Alex, its skipper, says.

"But we're not winning this race," Alec Walker, his crew, complains.

Maybe to pass the time, one sailor, Ryan Shuart, 12, plucks a sea nettle out of the water and holds it up. "Look! I've got a jellyfish! I got one by its tentacles!" he proclaims.

The boats continue drifting around the course. And the breeze is still slack.

As boats float over the finish line, Hudspeth yells again, her voice showing no sign of strain: "ONCE YOU FINISH, YOU CAN GO SWIMMING. JUST STAY BY YOUR BOAT!"

Luke Hamel, 12, instantly stands in his boat and does a cannonball overboard.

He's taking the sailing course twice. "My dad wanted to drill it into my head," he says later. "So I don't forget anything."

The sailors, now swimmers, splash each other, and hold on to their boats.

The kids pile back into their boats. They drift some more. They practice their no-wind starts. They get hot and jump into the water again.

And finally, a little after 11 a.m., the breeze picks up.

"Get in your boats and sail to the shoal pole!" Hudspeth says.

This creates a rush of questions:

"Where are we going?"

"What is the shoal pole?"

"Where is the wind coming from?"

The kids find the pole, sail to another buoy and return to the dock.

Later, sailing instructor Symers explains that a morning shore breeze met a sea breeze - and the two bits of wind canceled each other out.

"It's just a problem with the Chesapeake," he says. "It is a problem with Annapolis. You don't get much wind."


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