Unless there's a blizzard or the Severn River freezes over, Sam Merrick and Stuart Walker will be out battling hammer and tong in their Soling sailboats today, as they have on winter Sundays for 16 years.
That's a long time to go in the cold without a winner, but neither one is willing to say uncle.
"We did good last week," said Merrick the other day of his performance the previous Sunday, "but Stuart did a little gooder. I think we finished 1-2-3 (in three races) and he was 1-1-2. But the week before, he wasn't here and we won five straight."
Merrick and Walker so dominate frostbite Soling racing at the Severn Sailing Association, the top small-boat club in Annapolis, that in the decade and a half this winter series has run, no one else in the fleet has won overall honors. "We finally had to offer an 'NSNS' Trophy," said Merrick, "that 'Neither Sam nor Stuart' can win."
That's about as lighthearted as the rivalry gets between these two arch-foes. Merrick and Walker are two tough sailors with stellar competitive histories, and neither gives or expects any quarter.
Merrick, who started racing in 1926 in New Jersey, was chairman and director of the U.S. Olympic Sailing Committee for the 1984 Games, at which Americans won an unprecedented seven medals in seven events.
He himself tried out for the Olympic team in 1972, finishing seventh in the trials, and has placed near the top in national competition in Thistles and E Scows. Last year, he won the U.S. Yacht Racing Union's Herreshoff Award for outstanding contributions to the sport.
Walker was Prince of Wales Cup winner in International 14s in 1964 and in 1979 made the Pan Am sailing team after winning the Atlantic Coast, Long Island Sound and Great Lakes championships in Solings. He has a racing column in Yacht Racing and Cruising magazine and has written numerous books on sailing.
Merrick, 71, is retired after a government career that included a stint as assistant secretary of Labor for legislative affairs. Walker, 62, was a pediatrician and professor at the University of Maryland until he retired last year.
You'd think these two might relax now.
"Sam and I feel we're equal and we each ought to win about half the time," said Walker. "The trouble is, I want the big half, and so does he."
This shared attitude was evident on a recent Sunday as Merrick, Walker and four other Soling skippers squared off in a cold, driving rain for five races at the mouth of the frigid Severn.
As the seconds ticked down for the start of Race 1, Merrick spied Walker's boat, Old Glory, in a bad spot. He cackled maniacally as he bore down on Old Glory, and when Walker put the helm over to make for the starting line, Merrick squared up and cut off any avenue.
Walker charged in, anyway, looking for a hole that never materialized. Merrick's cackle turned to a delighted roar when Walker's boat struck his side-on.
"Got him that time!" crowed Merrick as he shot across the line free and clear. Walker had to bear off into a 360-degree turn to cross the line a half-minute behind.
But the joy on Merrick's boat, Multiplicity, was short-lived. Due to a mixup in sailing instructions, he rounded the wrong mark to start the third leg of the race and, when Walker rounded the right one, Old Glory took the lead and eventually the race.
Merrick was so mad he almost quit. "He did that on purpose," he said of his arch rival. "He knew where the mark should have been. Anyone else would have seen that and gone around the same mark the leader rounded," Merrick fumed. "Stuart can be difficult. Very difficult."
Merrick later calmed down, rejoined the fleet for the last three races and won the last one. But even as he put his boat away in the cold rain, he was grumbling about that first race.
Merrick and Walker have been doing this sort of angry dance on cold waters since 1970, when both began racing the 27-foot, Olympic-class Solings in hopes of making the '72 U.S. team. They are not friends. They like to beat each other.
"I'm proud to beat him and he's proud to beat me," said Walker.
And neither intends to quit soon, or even switch to big boats, which might be more comfortable for older gentlemen. Said Walker, "I've never had any interest in big boats. I like to know it's me making the difference, not how much money I'm willing to spend."
Merrick scampers around his little sloop like a man half his age, although he concedes he finds mental quickness abandoning him, which is "very frustrating."
But Merrick says he'll sail until he drops, or until the frustrations grow intolerable.
As for Walker, "I'll sail Solings until hell freezes over," he said. Or the Severn. Whichever comes first.