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Blast From the Past

Blustery breezes and good times mark the 21st annual running of The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race, a true fall classic.

February 3, 2011
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Summerwind

Summerwind reaches before the skyscrapers in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Angus Phillips

The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race is all grown up as of 2010 with the 21st running of the 127-mile classic from Baltimore, Maryland, to Portsmouth, Virginia. Forty entries flew down the bay on the wings of a mid-October northwester that arrived to the dance an hour or so late.

“If it stays like this, we’ll get there sometime next week,” grumped veteran offshore racer Jim Muldoon before the breeze picked up. He was helping out his old friend Art Birney on Birney’s Cherubini 48, Adventurer. The boat wallowed in a cold, windless rain just after the start, but the western sky showed clouds breaking up, and it wasn’t long before there was all the breeze you wanted, and then some.

With a half moon hanging silver over Maryland’s Calvert Cliffs, Adventurer lived up to her name, schussing like a skier through the chill, black night. I was on the old-style spoked wheel off the mouth of the Potomac, the Cape Hatteras of the Chesapeake, when the breeze topped 30 knots, and she slewed down breaking waves at 12 to 13 knots under full main and straining spinnaker. Birney had the con half an hour later when the wind topped 35 knots, and the spinnaker went ka-BLAM! and shredded into half a dozen pieces. Why does it always happen at night?

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It was just as well. The breeze was sliding forward by then, so we tucked a reef in the main and, even without a kite, roared home at 10 to 11 knots with the staysail and jib. “If Adventurer stays together in this,” said Birney, 83, of his pristine, 24-year-old vessel, “then she’ll stand up to anything.”

There were a couple of dropouts in the fleet, but almost everyone made it to the finish sometime on Friday, the race having started Thursday afternoon. Adventurer rolled into Norfolk right at rosy dawn, fourth to finish behind the 90-foot clipper Pride of Baltimore; the buoyant, 74-foot Annapolis-based charter schooner Woodwind; and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy’s elegant, 79-foot museum piece, Summerwind, an Alden design built in 1929. That was good enough for first in class and first overall for little Adventurer, which isn’t hard to swallow.

But The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race isn’t about winning. It’s a visual feast to see these grand old boats swimming in consort again. Schooners, by today’s standards, are neither fast nor particularly easy to sail. But they sure are easy on the eye.

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Fred Hecklinger, the grand poobah of Annapolis wooden-boat surveyors, sailed as tactician aboard Lynx, a clipper replica from the U.S. West Coast whose home is now Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I asked him afterward for his take on schooners. “I like what L. Francis Herreshoff said about them,” said Hecklinger with a twinkle in his eye. “He said, ‘If you like schooners like I do, then get a picture of one and put it up on your wall.'” Meaning they’re nicer to observe than to sail.

The design indeed hit its stride long ago, in the 18th and 19th centuries, when sails and tackle were heavy and it paid to split up the loads. Today’s light gear allows more efficient sail plans on a single mast. Schooners still fly on a reach, but their distinctive two- or three-mast setups, with the foremast generally shorter or at most the same size as the mainmast, means that they don’t sail well upwind, and it’s hard to go wing and wing downwind because the main blankets the fore.
But they’ve always been pretty. You should’ve been there at dusk, when the Pride of Baltimore and flawless Summerwind, fresh from a $10 million refit, were overlapped and fighting for the lead in dappled sunlight and gusty winds along the bay’s western shore. “We had a real jousting match there for a while. They’d try to take us to windward, and we’d take them up,” said Jan Miles, the longtime skipper of Pride. “They couldn’t go as high, and we held them off. We put a couple of reefs in the main and took in the stuns’l, the gaff tops’l, and the topgallant, then toned it down after sunset,” said Miles, who held on nonetheless to capture line honors.

Miles helped start The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race more than two decades ago by accepting a challenge from Lane Briggs, a Norfolk tugboat captain, for a race down the bay between Pride and Briggs’s comical “tugantine,” a steel tug called Norfolk Rebel that carries two masts for auxiliary propulsion.

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Briggs has since died, but his son Steve, also a tug skipper, still sails Norfolk Rebel in the race. The “challenge” is a bit of a farce as Norfolk Rebel is as pokey as a turtle compared to the rakish, speedy Pride, but the race is anything but a joke. “As a schooner-specific race,” said Miles, “this is the biggest in North America and maybe the world.”

Because Pride is from Baltimore and Rebel is from Norfolk, it’s always been considered a Baltimore-Norfolk race, but the start actually is off Annapolis, to spare the fleet from threading through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the way south, and it finishes at Portsmouth, right across the river from Norfolk. Both cities put on a show.

In Baltimore, the fleet gathers the day before the start for a parade of sail in the Inner Harbor, replete with thundering cannon shots that shake the windows in downtown skyscrapers. In Portsmouth, before Saturday’s award ceremony, there’s a festive picnic with oysters, Carolina-style barbecue, and sea chanteys.

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Sadly, this was the first year in many that Norfolk’s homegrown schooner, the pilot-boat replica Virginia, wasn’t in the fleet. Virginia is currently docked in Norfolk awaiting funds to get her sailing again. A long story about her troubles ran in the local paper the day after the fleet rolled in. “It’s a shame,” said Miles. “It was a great rivalry. She’s actually faster than Pride.” In 2007, Virginia set the current time to beat of 11h:18m:53s.

“It’s a real celebration,” said Pride‘s skipper of The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. “And when the Virginia sails—what a match!”

Angus Phillips is a CW_ editor at large._

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