ANNAPOLIS -- If you just took up hurdling, you wouldn't expect to go out next week and run against Edwin Moses. Brand new to skiing, you wouldn't challenge Tamara McKinney at Lake Placid.
So it was a bit unnerving last weekend sharing the starting line with some genuine Olympic-class sailors, including J-22 and J-24 world champion Jim Brady, when I went racing as first-time co-skipper of an antiquated 27-foot Soling named Fleetwing, of which I recently bought a half-share.
But there they were -- Annapolitan Brady calling tactics for fellow Olympic aspirant Dave Curtis of Marblehead, Mass.; Canadian hotshot Bill Abbott Jr. in his newest Soling, one of more than 800 he's helped build at the family shop north of Detroit; 1988 U.S. Olympic trials finalist Gerard Coleman, who took the red-eye in from San Diego, as well as two dozen other stalwarts who'd trailered boats in from as far away as Maine, Rhode Island, Chicago, Milwaukee and Nova Scotia.
The attraction that drew 31 boats and 93 sailors from around the continent was the three-day Fall Soling Bowl, top event of the year for Washington area competitors who race Solings out of Severn Sailing Association, a small-boat club overlooking the U.S. Naval Academy from the far side of Spa Creek.
So how does it feel to get clobbered by the best? Not as bad as some might suspect.
Legendary Soling wizard Buddy Melges of Zenda, Wis., who took the gold medal when the class joined the Olympics in Germany in 1972, thinks being picked for the Games is the worst thing that ever happened to the slender, Norwegian-designed sloops.
"It's horrible," he said. "The fact that it's in the Olympics draws out the big sailmakers who race for a living. The amateurs get discouraged when pros like that come to regattas and blow them out of the water. When the weekend sailor gets pounded week after week, he eventually gets embarrassed out of the class."
But having been thoroughly pounded for one long weekend, I find myself eager to get back in the water and get pounded again.
With partner Tom Carrico at the helm, I found it downright invigorating to finish 20th overall, knowing that less than a score of boats stood between us and some of the best sailors in the land. We were on the same lap when the winners crossed the finish, after all, which is better than you'd expect to do in a NASCAR race the first time around, or chasing after Eamonn Coghlan when he was in his prime in the mile. So where's the beef?
Sailing a Soling in such company was the realization of a modest dream for me, anyway.
I grew interested in the class several years ago when Washingtonian Sam Merrick invited me to race with him one day. Merrick was 71 then, yet he hopped around his Soling like a man half his age. He sailed every Sunday through the winter, he said, and grew enraged whenever archrival Stuart Walker, nine years his junior, slipped by for a win.
Walker and Merrick were staunch foes on the water, but after each day's racing they compared notes publicly back at the dock and shared whatever they'd learned with anyone who cared to listen.
In a sporting world full of folks who'd do just about anything to win and just about nothing to help the opposition, I found their openness refreshing. So when Carrico popped up with half a boat for sale at a reasonable price this summer, I thought, "Why not?"
We spent most of last month slaving away on Fleetwing, which Carrico had rescued from the scrap heap at the Naval Academy after the Mids got what they could out of it. We sanded and filled the bottom, smoothing out imperfections while reciting the small-boat sailor's mantra: "Smooth is fast; smooth is fast."
Curtis, who runs the North Sails loft in Marblehead, brought a new mainsail down from Massachusetts. He handed it over Friday morning amid the considerable din as Solings rolled in on trailers and racers scurried around mounting masts and adjusting rigging.
At 10 a.m. a shotgun blast signaled the harbor start, prompting all boats out to the race course. Ninety minutes later, Carrico nervously picked his way through the impressive fleet as I counted down seconds to the start.
We amazed ourselves that day, standing 12th overall after two races. But from there, the wind grew lighter and things went steadily downhill, which should have been no surprise. By Sunday evening we'd dropped eight places and our eyes were weary from gazing into the distance, trying to see the leaders.
Back at the dock, Brady himself, consensus pick for yachtsman of the year after big successes in the most competitive international classes this summer, stopped by with condolences. A local representative for North Sails, he even offered to come out with us one day and help tune up the new mainsail.
Nice touch, that, and we'll take him up on it. We need all the help we can get. Time's a-wastin', after all. The 1996 Olympics are only six years off, and with sailing events to be held off Savannah, they'll be easy enough to get to once we've won the trials.
This sailing with the best is dangerous. After a while they start to look human. You get big ideas.
Soling Bowl Results -- 1, Dave Curtis, US 786, "Whip." 2, Bill Abbott Jr., KC 1, "Odds 'n' Ends." 3, Erik Koppernaes, U.S. 806, "Babes to Bullets."