Scenes from the winter just ended, one of the most benign in recent memory on the Chesapeake and Potomac . . .
On Dec. 3, 1979, we drove halfway to Chicago to meet a Soling class sloop. In the parking lot of a Holiday Inn at 11 p.m. Over a beer, we traded registration papers and racing yarns changed hands. By early morning the boat was resting on a trailer in McLean. The other half of the "we" is Larry Brodie, a maritime lawyer. Partnerships are the in thing in boating these days. That is, until there's a falling out.
The Soling is an Olympic-class keelboat, 26 feet long with a crew of three. There is no objective explanation of why people choose one class of boat over another, but the fact that the Chesapeake Soling fleet tries to race all winter is a point in its favor.
On Jan. 1, we found ourselves in a 12-mile race up the Severn River, on a beautiful afternoon of nearly 50 degrees with winds from the north occasionally reaching 10 knots. The spinnaker run back was five miles. The boat carrying the director of the U.S. Olympic yachting effort, Sam Merrick, crewed by the tactician from the last America's Cup winner, Gary Jobson, was among those which ran aground. We did not. Their plight considerably enlivened the post-race party by the edge of the bay.
The Solings raced every Sunday thereafter all winter, with only three days abandoned because of snow or chill, and the fleet is now hopelessly spoiled. Next year, when the ice paves the bay as it often does in January and February, we will have to pay double dues to nature.
We took the cruising boat out for a spin one Sunday afternoon in February.
The wind on the surface of the South River was averaging about 10 but every few minutes a gust of 25 knots descended from above, sandpapering the water and knocking us flat. The 10-knot air was about 40 degrees Farenheit, but the gusts were very warm -- they felt 55 degrees or so. This was no comfort to the children. "You said we wouldn't heel over, daddy." Wham, another 25-knot gust.
The 9-year-old decided to cry, which prompted her 12-year-old sister to expound on what a baby she was, which prompted a quick turn into Harness Creek, possibly the most beautiful anchorage on the Western Shore and, in summer, among the most crowded. The kids threw parts of their sandwiches and all of their pickles to the seagulls.
The gulls made the usual noises. They were very pretty, clean-looking gulls, and one of them exclaimed very clearly: "Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha." It was a laughing gull. They really do laugh.
The plane to Tampa was filled with guilty men in topsiders, leaving their businesses to die while they goofed off getting wet and breaking their bones in the Southern Ocean Racing circuit. At the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, the huge lawns were spread over with drying sails and people were drinking gin and tonic. The guilty look had faded.
This was the second race of the series. It went from St. Pete, on the Gulf side, down around the tip of Florida, to finish at Fort Lauderdale. The start was delayed because the night before a 550-foot tanker had collided with a Coast Guard buoy tender in Tampa Bay. Many lives were lost in the tragedy. The fleet sailed directly past the sunken Coast Guard ship. Five tugs tore the bay to pieces trying to free the tanker which had run aground. Helicopters clattered overhead. It was very sad, not at all festive.
The start was downwind. Among the class A boats, the first mark saw Tenacious, Ondine, Mistress Quickly, and several other maxiboats bow to stern, luffing each other like dinghys. It was warm and the wind blew fine and the beat to Lauderdale started as a slam to windward but quickly turned into another spinnaker run. Not too shabby. And the double vision, caused by getting knocked cold by a flying shackle at midnight in the Gulf Stream, is almost gone now.
The spring series of the Potomac River Sailing Association is now underway. Racing is at the Washington Sailing Marina today and every Sunday through May 18. First gun goes off 11:20 a.m. Classes: Hobie, Thistle, Lightning, Mobjack, Flying Scot, Albacore, Laser, Penguin, Handicap, and El Toro. Information from D. Nowers, 10615 Muirfield Dr., Potomac, Maryland, 20854.
The fourth annual Used Boat Show concludes today at the Kent Narrows Marina, five miles past the Bay Bridge. The owners of 200 boats -- about 80 of them sailing craft between 20 and 40 feet -- will be on hand. The hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adult admission is $3.75.