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Windy, Wet and Dark race down the Chesapeake Bay

The sail down the Chesapeake Bay during the 2009 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race for PRIDE OF BALTIMORE II was…in the end…a rather rewarding sail. True, it was cold and wet and very dark, so everyone aboard was really glad when it was over. But having it be over and be the first schooner in the fleet to cross the finish line turns the cold, wet, darkness and tiredness of not much sleep magically into no matter at all!

For fast schooners, getting across the finish line first is the holy grail of the strongly competitive sailor. It is a clear and unequivocal statement of speed for all of the racing fleet to see. There is no rating rule and no handicap. Just pure, powerful boat speed and smart schooner handling.

But handicaps and ratings are wonderful things as well. Complicated as they are, they do provide a leveling out of all the schooners, big and small, such that honest efforts to sail well can be recognized. While PRIDE may have reached the finish line first, within her class of larger schooners LADY MARYLAND bested her on handicap time and won 1st place in Class AA. PRIDE managed 2nd place and VIRGINIA managed 3rdplace. The corrected time difference was only five and a half minutes between LADY MARYLAND and PRIDE (PRIDE actually finished almost two and a half hours before LADY MARYLAND…see what I mean about handicaps and ratings?). Reviewing how PRIDE sailed down the bay, it is very hard for me to identify how we could have sailed faster/better to make up that small five and a half minutes. Maybe we could have saved 2 minutes at the start…we were that late. Still we were the first big schooner across the starting line. I do not know how far behind LADY MARYLAND was at the start…I was too busy working with the crew to get PRIDE’s sails up, after starting with only half her sail area, to look around at the rest of the fleet. Whatever LADY MARYLAND’s starting position was, Captain Mike (Sinker) McCreery is a long standing professional mariner and an alumnus crew member of PRIDE OF BALTIMORE II from the late 1990’s. He and is crew of students did a magnificent job sailing down the bay and capturing PRIDE’s time allowance to LADY MARYLAND.

So, why did PRIDE start with only half her sail area up? Got a minute while I explain? It is not a simple answer. (It never is, some would say, whenever I am explaining:-)]

The key reason is the strength of the wind at the start. It was between 20 and 25 knots. The start line was arranged as a downwind start. Meaning it was oriented west to east across the bay because the wind was from the northeast, making for a downwind start. Normally a moderate wind of 10-15 knots permits all sail to be set aboard PRIDE and as she is maneuvered by her captain to try and get a good start the crew can easily handle all of PRIDE’s numerous sails and large sail area. But with more than 20 knots the job of tacking and jibing and trimming sail becomes exceedingly hard for the crew. Reefing is possible aboard PRIDE, but I knew we would not need any reefing once PRIDE was pointed down the bay with the wind from behind. It takes many long minutes to put in a reef and almost as many to shake a reef out. PRIDE handles pretty well with just the foresail and the staysail in winds of 20 to 25 knots, so we maneuvered near the start with only those two sails.

As it became less than ten minutes to the actual start we had managed to maneuver PRIDE into a running start position short of the start line and the crew turned-to and set the square topsail, followed as quickly as possible by the jib and the jib topsail. By then PRIDE was over the start line and accelerating down the bay. Quickly as possible the mainsail was set. With that sail up the real power machine of PRIDE’s rig came into play and we soon became the second vessel in the fleet, with only WOODWIND ahead of us. But there is still more sail to set! Quickly the topgallant sail was set and so too the main gaff topsail was set. A little more speed was gained. One more sail left to set…the studding sail. But it quickly became apparent that the wind was just a bit too strong for that sail…so we quickly struck it again and waited to set it if conditions ever reduced enough, which they did a couple of hours later.

Could we, had we enough additional crew, been able to save five and a half minutes at the start by having the mainsail and jib set before the start? I do not think so. So congratulations to Captain McCreery and the crew and students of LADY MARYLAND! They sailed the 2009 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race very well indeed.

Jan C. Miles, Captain aboard Pride of Baltimore II