Last weekend was typical for the U.S. Naval Academy's handsome 44-foot yawl, Flirt.
After she finished racing all day in Saturday's Annapolis Yacht Club regatta, she hurried back to the academy to take on provisions. That evening she departed with a crew of Midshipmen for a three-day training sail around the Delmarva peninsula.
Next month she'll be off to Rhode Island in the Annapolis-Newport race, then on to Block Island Race Week and back to the academy in time to serve as a floating summer basic-training platform for next fall's crop of plebes. In the fall she'll be racing again.
The life of Flirt and 11 other academy yawls is a busy one, which is exactly as it's supposed to be. The Mids call them "bumper boats," for the beating they take, but they're well-loved vessels.
The bad news is that the fleet of blue, Luders-designed ocean-going yachts is beginning to fray a bit,and a debate is developing over the prospect of replacing the classic boats with a modern design.
Academy yawls, as they're called by Chesapeake boaters, have been gracing the Bay for more than 40 years. If replaced, they'll be missed by those who appreciate a clean, traditional hull design -- well-kept and sailed hard -- and by academy graduates who earned their sea legs aboard them.
But nothing is forever. The current fleet is actually the second of its kind. The first dozen yawls were designed in 1939, built of mahogany and delivered in the early '40s. They lasted about two decades.
The Navy, pleased by the seaworthiness and serviceability of the fleet, decided to have copies made in fiberglass. The first glass yawl was delivered in 1963; then, one by one, the wooden boats were replaced. In addition to the graceful lines of their predecessors, the new yawls adopted the old names: Active, Alert, Dandy, Fearless, Flirt, Frolic, Intrepid, Lively, Resolute, Restless, Swift and Vigilant.
Before the yawls, there was no real sail- training program at the academy, says retired Captain Bob McWethy, who was a Mid in 1940 and now coaches Mids in sailing. The reason? "There weren't any boats."
The yawls started a trend toward learning seamanship under sail, and the academy now boasts about 135 sailboats, ranging from Windsurfers up to the 98-foot offshore luxury yacht, Astral. The sailing program is so strong that the Mids have won the intercollegiate sailing championships six years running.
The yawls are the "backbone" of the program, says Captain George Dewhirst, commanding officer of the U.S. Naval Station/Annapolis, which maintains all academy vessels.
There's sentiment among some Navy men to replace the yawls with the same time- tested design, according to Dewhirst, who'll be in on the final negotiations. "There is an attachment to the yawls," he says.
"But on the other side, they are a very small 44-footer. That side says we should get a more modern design," which might carry 10 Mids on extended cruises instead of the current seven.
"And the boats we get could be a little more competitive in racing, but that's a secondary consideration," adds Dewhirst. Some racers among the Mids call the yawls "22,000-pound behemoths."
McWethy believes the decision will come down on the side of modernization. He says that the academy has been happy with a pair of Swan 48s it's been using, one of which was donated and the other seized by the government in a drug bust. The Swans are competitive and roomy belowdecks.
Whatever the Navy decides, there'll be no remorse about the 40-year association with the yawls. Few designs could deliver 20 years of almost daily service without major problems.
And the Navy will owe a debt to the yawls, because with them it relearned the value of teaching seamanship under sail.
Dewhirst says the sail program provides a valuable adjunct to the Mids' high- technology studies. Computer training "is important, but a guy has to know what effect a seaway will have on his ship, or how the wind affects it when he's coming into Norfolk or San Diego."
On the yawls, "our source of power is the wind, so the Mids get a better appreciation of weather, and that helps when they're driving a ship. And they get an appreciation of the sea. It's different on a 44-footer, to know the sea is unforgiving and you can never look the other way."