A contender in one of the state's best-known yacht races has an unlikely ringer on its crew of 19: a blind Special Olympian with finely tuned hearing and other senses.
Ben Collins is a three-time gold medalist in the tri-state Special Olympics, and he has steered the boat across the finish line for the two years he has been with the crew of the Donnybrook. The 72-footer holds the record for the fastest finish in the history of the St. Mary's College of Maryland Governor's Cup.
"It's a lot of fun," Collins said as he prepped the boat at Annapolis City Dock yesterday afternoon. But, he added, "I really don't know what's going to happen" this year.
The boat's captain, Jim Muldoon, said bringing the Rockville man on board was "the best thing we ever did."
The Donnybrook is one of more than 140 competitors in this year's race, the 35th running of the longest and oldest overnight yacht race on the Chesapeake Bay. It started at 6 p.m. yesterday in the state capital and will end early this afternoon at the college in St. Mary's City, where a huge party awaits the crews.
Eight classes of boat are sailing this year. Trophies in each category will be awarded at a 5 p.m. ceremony, along with trophies from the Patuxent Partnership and St. Mary's alumni.
The race was started in 1974 by three students at St. Mary's College, including Russell Baker, who now lives just outside Annapolis.
"At the time, it just seemed like a good idea," he said. The college was a great location for a big after-party, which none of the other races he knew of had space for, he said.
Racing from the current state capital to the old state capital, a nautical distance of 70 miles, added history and made the race unique. And since "summertime on the bay is just hot and muggy, it just seemed natural to do it at night," he said.
Night racing presents challenges, though: It is tougher to maneuver around the boat, let alone watch out for other boats.
"Back in the days before we had LORAN and GPS, I particularly enjoyed the challenge of navigating the bay at night," said Charles Deakyne, skipper of the Scrimshaw. "Nowadays, it's much simpler."
At 81, he is the oldest man in this year's race, his 27th Governor's Cup. The Severna Park man still competes in 12 races each year in his 37-foot boat, which he has had since 1975.
Most participants come from Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia, but others come from as far as Boston and Minnesota. Several young teams are in the mix, including a high school team from St. Mary's County and two teams from the college.
The Donnybrook, which set the record of six hours and nine minutes in 1994, will be looking for another trophy, though uncertain wind conditions may make this year's race slow, said Muldoon, of Washington.
The Rock Lobster, captained by John Kriz of Leonardtown, has placed as high as fourth in the seven years he has been in the race.
"It's going to be a challenge," he said. There are some "very, very seasoned sailors" in the race.
The Doghouse, anchored next to the Rock Lobster several hours before the race started, also featured a crew from Southern Maryland, including the captain, Dan Shannon. It placed second in its class last year.
"You have to be at the top of your game for a long time," he said. "All of the tactical challenges, we like."
But most others are just out to have fun on the bay and a good time at St. Mary's College. Baker expects his boat, Tandem, to arrive between midmorning and early afternoon. He joined the race again five years ago after a decade-long hiatus.
"It's like a bad habit sometimes," he said. "I'm not good at other things; my knees are shot, so I can't play tennis. ... I've always had a fascination with boats."
"I just want to do it as long as I can," he said.