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It's all fans on deck (or dock) for sailing races in Annapolis

The weekend begins on Wednesday nights in Annapolis with the blast of a starting gun.

That's when dozens of sailboats jockeying in the Severn River harbor head to the starting line for the Annapolis Yacht Club's Wednesday night races, a summer tradition in this waterfront community since the 1960s.

What began as "beer can races" — just a casual event to break up the week — has become serious business for the sailors, as well as for City Dock bars and restaurants.

"This is real sailing," said Bobby Frey, the yacht club judge who runs the races, which are perfect for the competitive sailors who don't have the time to travel the country to regattas. One hundred and fifteen boats are registered in 15 classes. Protests over rule infractions are not rare, and they can go all the way to the top of the U.S. Sailing Association.

The midweek races are a part of the Annapolis summer scene for spectators, too. They line the sidewalks on the Spa Creek Drawbridge to catch the finishes. They hang their feet off the side of a dock with a cooler nearby. And they take their own boats out to party and watch — and avoid the racing boats.

The spectator boats "are more afraid of us than we are of them," said Rod Jabin, commodore of the yacht club and skipper of RAMROD, a Farr 30 that is a regular winner. He was smiling. "We know what we are doing."

Even so, you often hear the crews on the racing boats yelling, "Get out of the way!"

Tom Weaver is a seasoned spectator, a veteran round-the-world and America's Cup sailor as well as a boat builder. He takes the Eastport 32 powerboat he designed, Eau Revwah, out to one of the marks, or turning points, for what he calls "Wednesday night heckling."

"I give a lot of unsolicited advice," said the native New Zealander, who owns Eastport Yacht Co. "I figured out it was a lot more fun than racing."

Lots of waterfront communities have weeknight races, in Maryland and around the country. But the Wednesday races in Annapolis appear to give the whole town permission to ease on out of the workweek. Though there are weekend regattas during the summer, the Wednesday races are a way to mark the hump day.

"It's all downhill from here," said Weaver.

It was former Annapolis Yacht Club Commodore Gaither Scott who installed the races here. He had seen a similar summer racing series in East Greenwich, R.I., and he organized the first Annapolis races in the summer of 1959. There was no race committee, no scoring, no prizes. Just a picnic at the end of the evening.

The races are now run in three series from April through the first week of September. There are class trophies and overall performance awards. And the picnic at the end of the evening of racing is grand.

"It is a lifestyle," said Jabin, who grew up racing with his dad, Bert, a sailing legend in Annapolis who died last fall. His son took over the helm of his boat-building empire here, too. "Easy sailing is part of the fabric of our lives as Annapolitans. Most of us were born into it."

But even those who were not can join the races. Sailors looking to hop on board as crew used to hang around the dock in front of the Chart House restaurant, which in its previous incarnation was where John Trumpy built his legendary yachts. Now restaurant patrons and spectators watch the races from there.

Skippers can easily find an able pair of hands through social media. Peter Elvart is one of those strong guys. He knew someone who knew someone who needed somebody to crew on Bat IV, a J 105. "If you aren't any good, you don't get asked back," he said.

He has a Tartan 30 cruising boat, Inertia, for his family. But the insurance broker grew up sailing on Lake Michigan and likes to race, although it is much different on the Chesapeake.

"The wind can be dead until the end of August," he said. "On those nights, people just drink a lot more beer."

It isn't all pros out there. There are plenty of hangers-on who are, well, hanging on. They shift from port rail to starboard rail as the boats tack to and fro, literally throwing their weight into their job — keeping the boat's fanny in the water. "The goal is not to fall off," said Elvart.

Weather decisions are made by 5:30 p.m. by the race committee with the help of sophisticated forecast technology. Only the threat of lightning will cancel a race.

Although not everybody sails every Wednesday, the mouth of the Severn River is crowded with boats of every size, all circling the race committee boat at the start, careful not to cross the line until the gun sounds for their class. If they do, they have to circle back and recross.

"That's when you know you've lost the race," said Elvart.

To the uninitiated spectator, the start is madness. But the action at the turns will take your breath away. The sailboats tack toward the buoy and then cut hard around it. Sometimes there will be half a dozen hulls so close to each other they look as though they are going to exchange paint.

"I thought I was out for a nice boat ride with friends," said Jim Muse of Philadelphia. He'd come down to join Jonathan Cherner and friends on Cherner's San Juan 48 motor yacht, Flight. On a recent Wednesday, they were "dogging" Cherner's brother Andrew, at the helm of the his J 105, Crash. "All of a sudden, we were right in the middle of things. I saw a couple of close calls out there. Sailing is a dangerous sport," said Muse, who added that he couldn't wait to do it again.

When the yachts make the turn toward home, a bowman dashes up front, opens a hatch, and a giant balloon sail, the spinnaker, shoots up and explodes in color to drag the boat to the finish line, where the yacht club's diners watch from the balcony, eating and drinking in summer style.

On the Spa Creek Drawbridge, Cynthia Chess is watching from her regular Wednesday night spot, this time with daughter Susan Tabler, visiting from Dubai. "It is amazing," said Tabler, "how the finish line is here and so open for so many people to enjoy."

Her mother has been coming to the Wednesday races for 18 years. She even crewed back in the day. "We would go out and have a wonderful time," she said.

Under the bridge, the paddle boarders and the kayakers slide around, watching the finish and slipping in between the racing yachts. The light air in the crowded harbor makes everything appear in slow motion.

But the skippers must turn away quickly to avoid the bridge, and they drop their sails as if the ropes had been cut with sharp knives. The engines come on and the yachts putter away, leaving room for those who finish behind. Everybody parks and the air is lively with the sounds of talk and laughter and beer cans hissing.

Catching all the action on film are Ashley Love and Bruce Nairn of Sailing on Demand. They record the races, with commentary, for the yacht club and Dick Franyo's Boatyard Bar and Grill, where race highlights are shown to the partying sailors less than an hour later.

"You do something stupid, and we will catch you and it will be up on the screen," said Nairn. He and Love now film races and regattas all over the world. "Sometimes guys will do something just to make the highlights."

Summer evenings in Annapolis can be hot and humid and the air a dead calm. Or they can be windy and brisk with freshening breezes to make it a race. Or a squall can rush in, blowing the sailors to the finish line and causing a mad scramble to get the sails down before a mast hits the drawbridge.

"It is a tradition, a break in the middle of the week, a fundamental part of life in Annapolis," said Rob Pennington, eating dinner with his wife, Ann, and their friend Ellie Ponder, at Boatyard Bar and Grill. He crews on Charles Engh's Stray Dog, a regular winner. He's been sailing every year since 1978.

The Wednesday night races end the first week in September, but everybody will be back racing again in November.

That's when Frostbite Series begins. And it's an Annapolis tradition, too.

sreimer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SusanReimer

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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