Jack King was born a thousand miles from the seas of international yacht racing. When most kids who would grow up to skipper million-dollar boats were learning to tack and jibe in yacht club harbors, King was sailing the Mississippi, taking care not to get caught in the dam keeper's sluice gates.
Talk to King about the joy of sailing and you do not hear about moonlit bays and soaring sea gulls.
"The cruising guys get into the romanticism. I like to go fast and get there first," said King, a robust Fairfax County beer distributor who is easy to spot in a sport dominated by men who look like aged Anglican choir boys. "We have our fangs bared for every race."
This week's race began Saturday morning at the beginning of the Annapolis Channel. It will end today, or tomorrow, or sometime next week if the wind doesn't pick up, in Newport, R.I., 473 miles away.
Seventy-three yachts, all at least 34 feet in length and each worth more than a government file clerk is likely to save in a year, are competing for loving cups, silver bowls and bragging rights to the wind and waves of the mid-Atlantic seaboard.
"It is all competitiveness once we're out there," said Al Van Metre, an Alexandria developer whose first Annapolis to Newport race, in 1967, put him in some of the roughest weather ever endured in this biennial event.
"We never finished. We tore up some equipment somewhere out in the ocean and had to pull into Ocean City," Van Metre said at Friday night's captains' meeting. "We were scared to death. It was a hell of a welcome to the world of sailing."
Van Metre now owns and skippers Running Tide, one of the world's fastest ocean-racing yachts. King's yacht, the 45-foot Merry Thought, is not exactly slow. In 1980, he won the Sardina Cup for the United States against 15 other nations.
Because of differences in size and design, Running Tide is a faster yacht than Merry Thought. To make such competition between classes more a test of sailing skill, yacht racing has developed ratings systems that provide time handicaps. Van Metre, for example, will have to finish 6 hours 23 minutes ahead of King to beat him this week.
If that sounds confusing, try to ferret out the history of this race, which is cosponsored by the Annapolis and Newport yacht clubs. It is safe to say the race was first run sometime in this century and that it used to begin in Newport and end at Annapolis. After a number of exciting ocean races were deflated by dead winds on the Chesapeake Bay, organizers decided to put the tedious part of the contest at the start.
This year's race began in conditions ideal for sunbathing and terrible for ocean racing. The winds were light and the weather forecast called for even less wind this week.
The speed record for this event was set in 1975 by John Kilroy's Kialoa in 55 hours 40 minutes 36 seconds. However, some boats have taken seven days to finish.
"It's going to be tippy toes down the bay," said King. "Because the land cools faster than the water, the air will be coming off land at night. We're gonna have to find us that breeze."
King has owned four boats named Merry Thought in the last 11 years. Each one was raced, then sold to finance the building of a faster one. King likes pretty boats, but he would trade in the sleekest cruiser for something that looked like an oversized bathtub if he thought it would improve his sail speed.
"I've never been a weekend sailor," said King, whose avocation has taken him to races in Jamaica, Canada and Europe since he moved to Virginia 20 years ago. There is no money to be made in this sport for men like King, only money to be spent.
"We may bet a bottle of rum occasionally," he said, stroking a beard a shade whiter than his hair. "But this is strictly a Corinthian sport."
It is also a sport that prides itself on throwing parties after races to quench the thirst of the saltiest sailor. And King, known on the circuit as "the Beer Baron", claims unrivaled dominance in that department.
"We've lost a lot of races," he conceded, after dispatching 32 cases of beer to Newport by truck. "But we have never lost a party."