Reporter Eli Saslow last weekend joined the crew of the Maighdean Mhara, skippered by Rick O'Donnel of Crofton, for the 31st annual Maryland Governor's Cup yacht race, the oldest and longest overnight race on the Chesapeake Bay.
It's a sailboat race, but aboard the Maighdean Mhara during the 2004 Governor's Cup, the boat seems to be the only thing not racing.
Hearts race, sure. They race when the boat tips to 45 degrees, when night falls and the goal of navigation becomes avoiding collision, when the skipper reminds his crew of the man who drowned during this race 10 years ago.
People race. They race to fix an overflowing toilet, to put on life jackets, to clean broken glass from a bottle shattered by violent jolting, to take down a spinnaker that makes the boat impossible to control.
But the boat, the boat never seems to race. And for the seven-man crew, speed is a distant consideration. Here on boat No. 79, skipper Rick O'Donnel is more concerned about enduring -- about surviving -- this 70-mile journey across the Chesapeake Bay that starts at 6 p.m. on Aug. 6 and doesn't end until nearly 14 hours later. Here, finishing 13th out of 15 similar boats is a victory worth celebrating, because it's better than not finishing at all.
"We have nothing to prove," O'Donnel tells his crew of friends and family members before the start of the race. "We're going to focus on safety first."
For much of the night, safety requires full attention. Stephen Bickell, 47, of Annapolis died during the 1994 Governor's Cup when the boom -- the bottom of the sail -- knocked him overboard. His body wasn't recovered for two days. Intent on avoiding a similar tragedy, O'Donnel briefs his crew on a few safety considerations.
* "Watch out for the boom," O'Donnel says. "You know why it's called that? Because boom is the sound it makes when it smacks your skull."
* "Always keep three points of contact with the boat, because otherwise you'll end up in the water."
* "Everybody wears a life jacket, and attach yourself to the boat with a harness when you're outside the cockpit."
It's a well-intentioned set of rules, but when a fierce, gusting wind snaps the boat back and forth, even O'Donnel, a sailor for 20 years, looks anxious. The boat tips until one side seems destined to slide underwater, and O'Donnel tells his three sons -- ages 14, 18 and 20 -- to sit on the higher side and hold down the 37-foot craft.
"Steering this boat," crew member Carrie Reid screams, "is damn near impossible."
Nightfall makes it worse. A few crew members head below deck and try to sleep, but the boat rocks so violently that one of them, sound asleep, is flipped out of bed.
In the darkness, O'Donnel and other racers navigate by a series of flashing lights placed in the water, but it hardly seems an exact science. Around 2:30 a.m., O'Donnel and his 14-year-old son, Liam, spot lights in the distance.
"Could be a boat," Liam says, "or maybe that's land."
"No," O'Donnel says. "I think that's a marker."
Eventually, they agree that the lights illuminate a highway bridge.
Around 4 a.m., when cold air forces crew members to put on heavy jackets, when the small toilet that requires hand-pumping to flush waste briefly overflows, when low winds push the boat along at roughly 1.5 miles per hour, O'Donnel struggles to explain the draw of his hobby.
"This is sailing," he finally says. "It's hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror."
Yet he's been doing it passionately for nearly 20 years, and with increasing intensity. Every year O'Donnel competes in at least one overnight race, such as the Governor's Cup, and he races his boat for a few hours every Wednesday night. He's addicted to the sound of the wind, to the thrill of movement without the aid of a motor. When he's out on the water, his focus is simple. And he's willing to sacrifice for that clarity.
Preparing for the Governor's Cup took O'Donnel several days. He stocked his boat with enough food to last the four days he'll spend on it: a giant sub sandwich, two packages of Oreo cookies, six bags of chips, two bottles of wine and a cooler of beer and soda.
He paid a $75 entry fee and lined up a crew. He then divided that crew into two teams and scheduled them to race in four-hour shifts, maximizing endurance.
O'Donnel left his Annapolis area home Friday morning, and would not return until Monday night. After the race, he planned to sleep for a night at the finish line in St. Mary's County before starting the return trip, which takes two days.
"It's a lot of time and effort," O'Donnel says moments after the boat crosses the finish line, "but what a great feeling! Right guys?"
His crew doesn't answer.
"I guess," O'Donnel says, "everyone is still recovering from the race."