Every year for the last five Jim Holechek and the Baltimore Ice Yacht Club have been organizing and scheduling the Baltimore Ice Yacht Regatta. And every year for the last five they've been canceling it for lack of ice.
Fate and the vagaries of southern weather have conspired annually to rob Holechek of his dream. It looks like this year will make up for it all.
Maryland, for the last two weeks, has the best ice-boating ice anywhere - hard, clear and unimpeded by snow. Holechek's races are scheduled for Feb. 5-6 on Bush River near Aberdeen but he may have to postpone them again, this time with a great big smile.
That's the weekend the North American ice-boating championships are slated in Red Bank, N.J., and the ice in Red Bank is snow-covered. The organizers of the championship want to move the site to Maryland, and along with it the World Championships that run through the following week.
Holechek's club would become host for the biggest rave series in ice boating. Based on the condition of ice elsewhere, Holechek figured yesterday the odds were about 4-1 the races will be here.
That would mean more than 100 of the best ice boat racers in the world, including entrants from Poland, East Germany and the Netherlands, would test their mettle on the rock-hard waters of the Bush, the Severn, the Magothy - wherever Holechek and his clubmates think is best.
Holechek and about a dozen of his collegues got a good look at the Severn last weekend, car-topping their fiery little DN racers down from the Baltimore area for a day of hair-raising adventure in 35-knot gusts. When it was all over five of the 12 spidery craft were out of commission, three of them in splinters.
They gathered before noon, the cold sun glinting pink off the ice from its winter perch in the southern sky. First they set the narrow-double-ended 10-foot fuselages on the ice. Hands numbed by the wind, they bolted on six-foot crossmembers at the stern, a skate-like runner at each tip. At the bow they attached the single skate that steers the vessel.
The single-sail DNs are all the same.The name stands for Detroit News, which sponsored the 1938 design competition from which the boats were developed. They are made of wood and weight 100 to 150 pounds, depending on construction. The mast is mounted on a pivot, so the sail flops to one side or the other, depending on the task.
With nothing but skate blades against ice for resistance, the DNs go like wildfire. In the blasts on Saturday they chattered along the grainy surface at up to 50 m.p.h., profiting from the phenomenon of "apparent wind."
Bob Stine explained it this way: "When you're sailing across the wind or close to the wind you start going faster than the wind. That means you create your won wind and that's pushing the boat, too."
According to Stine, the silent ice boats are the fastest unpowered speed machines ever devised by man. The big ones can get up more than 100 m.p.h.
With all that wind and all that stress, accidents do happen. John Strueber of Towson was the first to wipe out - a fitting end to his thoroughly discouraging day.
First Strueber sailed downwind and lost a pin in his rigging. The mast came down with a crash and it took a half-hour of bare-handed fiddling before he could jury rig the mast and limp home. A rescue party was already on the way to get him.
After another half-hour of fiddling, this time with tools, he set out for a test run, unwisely taking along a passenger in the one-man racer. Fifty yards out the wooden mast exploded into three splintery shards, blasted apart by compression in a gust.
Next to go was Van Conway of Annapolis, a giant of a man decked out in a tattered black motorcycle pants, a ski-patched windbreaker with an ancient gold helmet framing his jovial red face.
He was laughing when we got to him. "Either I went into a spin and the runner plank busted or the runner plank busted and I went into a spin," he said. "Either way, the 20 seconds before it happened was the best sailing I've ever had."
The runner plank - the crossmember that holds the two stern skates, was shattered.
There were more mishaps - another broken runner plank, a ripped sail, shattered sail battens - and by 3 p.m. most had agreed it was too rough to go on.
Except Wicky McNeil, who has been at it since 1939 and who is in paradise with the best winter in practically anyone's memory.
McNeil sailed home across the river when the winds piped up and reappeared an hour later with a tiny storm sail on his rig, the only storm sail in the club. He was the picture of serenity, skipping from disabled boat to disabled boat, rigging repairs, towing the shattered racers in.
"Wicky's an old pro," said Stine. "He talks softly and carries a big boat."
The final decision on a site for the 1977 nationals and world championships will be made Feb. 2. Meanwhile, Holechek and his mates are checking as many area lakes and rivers as they can to find the perfect spot.
He's looking for suggestions. Anyone with a line on a broad, snow-free expanse of good ice with facilities nearby and plenty of parking should contact him at 301 - 727-3633 during the day.
Holechek is a little nervous about spectators, particularly skaters. The racers, like their "soft water" collegues, don't like to slow down for anything. A collision with a screaming DN does not tickle.
What does tickle Holecheck is a chance for ice boating respectability in his lowly regarded backyard. He's just praying the January thaw stays overdue.