Raoul Frye stood on the Naval Academy sea wall with a bullhorn. Beside him Tom Meyer stooped over a small, silver cannon, waiting for the signal to fire. On the water, 75 sailboats carrying a few hundred frostbite sailors tacked and gybed their way across this Sunday afternoon in February, ready for the weekly race against winter.
"We never call it off for cold weather," said Frye, the white-haired chairman of the Annapolis Yacht Club's winter racing season, a 20-year-old exhibition of nautical grit and debatable sanity. "If the water freezes over, of course, we do have to cancel."
Let the rest of the fair weather world search the soil and their own imaginations for signs of spring. These Severn River sailors, and many more on the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay, refuse to let winter's worst deny them their windward pleasure.
"People say we are crazy for sailing in winter weather, but those same people go skiing in it; they go jogging," said Bob McKay, 33, who has been an all-seasons racer on the Severn and the Chesapeake since he was 12. "As long as you're not out swimming around in it . . . it's a piece of cake."
Frostbite sailing is not unique to this area. There have been winter regattas off Cape Cod and Long Island for more than 30 years. And while there seem to be no reliable statistics, sailors claim their frigid sport is almost totally free of fatalities.
"We have very strict safety rules," said Frye, acting as starter this Sunday for eight classes of ocean cruising yachts up to 35 feet long. During the race, for instance, no crew member is allowed to climb out of the cockpit. And if anyone does go overboard, the race is immediately halted.
This Sunday past, the conditions were deceptively fair. Temperatures were in the upper 40s and the breeze was a moderate eight to 10 knots. It was the kind of day that will lull a sailor into a carelessness that could cost him his life.
"Put your hand in the water. It looks nice, but it's damn cold," said Jim Ayres, the fleet captain for the Potomac River Sailing Association, which races smaller boats on the Potomac during the winter. "It's the melting snow, coming directly out of the mountains of West Virginia. Go over and you either have to be wearing a wet suit or be pulled out immediately. It takes only a few minutes for hypothermia to set in."
Nellie Stallings is a fair weather sailor, married to a foul weather one. "My body's more into being warm," she said, as she waited on the rock sea wall for her husband Brooks to sail their 30-foot Pearson into view. With her was daughter Susan, 21, and her 2-year-old daughter Sarah, who quickly learned to cover her ears when the cannon roared.
"They like this because it's sailing; it keeps you in tune for racing the rest of the year . . . and it's more fun afterward to go into the yacht club to have an Irish coffee," said Nellie Stallings.
The beginning of the race is best for spectating. The boats tack strategically behind the finish line, trying to time a full-speed approach to the start just as the cannon fires.
"In effect it's a LeMans start for sailboats," said Frye, wearing a black yachting cap and a stern look befitting a judge who must call down the gold platers that have crossed the starting line too early.
Because the winter races are so short, this one a double triangular loop around buoys for a total of 4.6 miles, the start is crucial and innate boat speed is less important than smart seamanship.
Skippers must take into account tidal currents, the effect of harbor buildings on the wind and the mental tenacity of their opponents. "This is just club racing, but you have some of the best sailors on the bay down here," said Brooks Stallings, after he and a three-man crew had bested their class.
Stallings grew up on the Severn River and spent so much time on or in it that he describes himself as a river rat. At 15 he tied a 50-yard freestyle swimming record set by Johnny Weismuller. At 50 he owns a television sales and service shop in Arnold, Md., and a competitive spirit that will put him again this summer on a yacht racing from Annapolis to Newport, R.I.
That competitive fire burns more and less brightly in all these frostbite sailors. The prize for winning may be only a name engraved on a silver bowl already crowded with other names, but the pursuit of it can lead to disputes, collisions and cries of foul.
"There are only two rules and we obeyed both of them," said Art Purcell, 37, a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office and a sailor on the 24-foot Sherlock, owned by Art Holmes. "We got ahead and we stayed ahead."