Ralph Reitan turned a 33-foot "junk" sailboat into a sleek and speedy vessel, and he became a familiar face at the Wednesday night races on the Magothy River. The 59-year-old computer scientist was on the water for last week's competition, when, during the first leg, the weather suddenly turned.
The winds kicked up - some say as high as 45 knots - and the waves became choppy amid a light rain. Fellow racer Joe Lombardo, trailing Reitan, headed to shore.
"We waited for a lot of boats to come back after the race," Lombardo said. "Ralph didn't come back."
Reitan had fallen overboard, and he later died at a local hospital. The racing community was stunned - organizers said they can't remember a death occurring during a race - and some wondered if they should venture back out this week.
But tonight, Lombardo and fellow sailors will hold a ceremony on the water honoring Reitan. The fleet will form a parade and cross the starting line in succession, with crew members wearing solid white or navy blue, representing the hull colors of Reitan's Tartan 10, Wabbit. Lombardo and several other boaters who were close to Reitan will helm his boat.
"He was held in high regard - a nice fella who was the kind of guy that if you sailed against him and sailed a good race and beat him by a couple seconds, he'd wave and say, 'Congratulations.' But he'd be standing at the finish line looking at his watch," laughed Angelo Guarino, the race committee chair for the Magothy River Sailing Association.
Weeknight racing is a Chesapeake Bay tradition, with competitions held in tributaries from the Patapsco to the West rivers. Chip Thayer, race committee chairman for the Annapolis Yacht Club, said they have become more popular in recent years with demands on time making it more difficult to break away for longer weekend races. The weeknight races have since become increasingly competitive.
"They sail hard," Thayer said.
The Magothy River Sailing Association series is divided into five mini-series of four weeks each, capped off by a short series in the fall. About 40 to 50 boats typically participate. The courses are fixed, and wind often sweeps over the river, even when there's none on the bay.
Since Reitan was a boy, he enjoyed being around water, said his wife, Margaret, 73. The couple met in Philadelphia, and moved to the area in the 1980s when Reitan took a job in Washington, where he worked on projects such as the Hubble Space Telescope.
The Reitans moved to the Cape St. Claire community outside Annapolis because of its proximity to the water, Margaret Reitan said.
"He fell in love with this place," she said.
They ditched their 23-foot boat and purchased a 28-footer, which Margaret Reitan said her husband described as a "tub" because it didn't move fast. Named Mara, an amalgam of Margaret and Ralph, the boat was later replaced by the 33-foot Tartan 10. He needed something quicker, though the new boat wasn't the answer right away.
"It was a piece of junk," she said. "He stripped it, bare-boned it, and rebuilt the body from the inside. He wanted it to be able to do what his mindset was pointed at, which was to win races. He wanted it to be as light as he could make it."
He won numerous races, and became more involved with the racing community, last year serving as commodore of the Yacht Club of Cape St. Claire. Because even for a casual race a sailor needs a crew, Reitan often tapped co-workers, neighbors and friends to help helm Wabbit during races, and he held parties for the crew to show his appreciation.
Reitan had three crew members Wednesday when, police said, he fell overboard near Ulmstead Point after completing a difficult windward leg during a squall. No one seems to have seen what caused him to go overboard, but crew members from a competing sailboat threw him a life ring, which he tried to grab.
But he appeared to lose consciousness and went under the water. He was pulled aboard the other boat, where CPR was performed. He was taken to a local hospital in critical condition and later pronounced dead.
An autopsy determined that Reitan had drowned, but his wife said he must have hit his head before falling into the water. She said her husband was an advanced swimmer and diver, known to don diving equipment to scrub barnacles off the bottom of his boat, a service he sometimes extended to fellow boaters.
In an e-mail to fellow sailors, Commodore Ed Poe said that organizers of tonight's event would "reflect on our own safety procedures, do our best to learn from this tragic event and do our best to make our sailing better and safer in honor of Ralph and his family and crew."
The accident was a reminder to "go over the essentials" and for skippers and their crews to contemplate when conditions might cause them to abandon a race, Guarino said.
Lombardo said the boats probably shouldn't have been out in those conditions but that Reitan's death couldn't have been anticipated.
"Most of the people who race are probably the best sailors on the bay," Lombardo said.