A three-quarter yellow moon was pinned on the inky sky, the water undulated, and the speedometer, glowing red on the base of the rig, announced the predicament of Rick Palleschi's sailboat in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay: 00:00.
"Look at this! We're dead in the water!" Palleschi declared, as he stood in the night darkness at the helm of his white-hulled, 39-foot sailboat, which was supposed to be racing down the bay in the Governor's Cup, one of the area's largest and most popular overnight sailing races.
"I think the jellyfish are passing us," joked Mike Zinkgraf, one of Palleschi's eight crew members. Indeed, the Shanty Irish was not the only boat trapped in the stillness of the bay. The lack of wind forced 50 of the 175 boats to withdraw early from the race, which began Friday evening at the mouth of the Severn River in Annapolis and ended ever so slowly yesterday at the harbor in St. Mary's College of Maryland.
"This has never happened with the Governor's Cup. We're getting reports from many people that this is perhaps the worst they have ever seen," said Sybol Cook, a spokeswoman for the college and the race. The state-supported liberal arts college on St. Mary's River hosted the after-sail party.
The culprit was the same hot, still weather that has become a fact of life onshore as well. As of noon yesterday, only six boats had finished, Sybol said. In the past, the fastest and biggest boats finished by 1 a.m., and most boats finished by noon, she said.
"It is the slowest race in the history of the Governor's Cup," said Jim Muldoon, skipper of the 72-foot Donnybrook, the first boat to finish, first in the class of big boats.
"The conditions were not bad. We had a beautiful moonlit night. We didn't get rained on. But when you're racing in light air, you have to work harder, work with a lot of more concentration," said Muldoon, who is president of the U.S. Sailing Association and has done the bay race for 25 years.
Last year, the Donnybrook finished the race in six hours. Yesterday, it took a sleepless 12 hours, Muldoon said.
The first time Palleschi raced the Governor's Cup in 1996, he finished in 12 hours, without a spinnaker, and won. Yesterday morning, after sailing 15 hours and still having more than 20 miles to go, the Shanty Irish struggled to focus, its crew and skipper exhausted from sleep deprivation, frustrated by the lack of wind and fretting about the coming of a very hot, humid day.
"Please be wind up here. Please be wind," Palleschi prayed out loud, looking worriedly at the white, Dacron spinnaker in front of him that was failing to fill. At the rate they were going--barely faster than the speed of the outgoing tide--he and his crew were guessing that they would be lucky to reach the finish line by evening, 24 hours after they started.
The race had begun with promise. Even after starting five minutes late, the Shanty Irish cruised past dozens of boats, its special Kevlar racing sails, translucent like vellum, cupping fast winds. It moved toward the Eastern Shore, away from the pack. Palleschi and his crew had a plan: to ride the 7:20 p.m. tide, catch more wind, on a straight course to the mouth of the Potomac River.
A red sky at sunset, scattered clouds and, later, lightning held promise for stronger winds. The red and green tell-tails on the Genoa jib barely fluttered, indicating a solid course. Two hours into the race, the Shanty Irish was doing 6 knots. "Ha! This is it, guys!" Palleschi pronounced.
His crew included one woman, Valerie Gaydos, of Baltimore.
"What I've never done is go all the way down the bay all in one shot. [This] is a good opportunity, plus it's the Governor's Cup," Gaydos had said earlier.
"See what I mean? This is a good reason," said William Child, who sat starboard side with the rest of the crew, admiring the sunset behind a parade of sailboats. It was his first overnight race, too.
The quiet conversations that followed--one was about the hypothetical racing advantage to allowing sailors to be naked--drifted in and out with the winds.
But the good winds were short-lived. By midnight, the crew was working hard to catch any breeze at all, growing tense and irritated. There had been some mishaps. The boat got snagged on a crab pot line. Then during a quiet lull, a crew member taking his turn at the helm mistakenly began heading north instead of south.
The boat's speedometer read 00.68 knots.
"I always tell myself I'm not gonna do this anymore when it gets like this," Palleschi said, looking at the glowing red numbers.
"Yeah, and then boom, you get 20-knot winds and then. . .," piped in Zinkgraf.
Then they all laughed.