Frostbite sailing on the Chesapeake Bay: Where even the ice isn't a breaker

On any given winter weekend, visitors who peer across the frozen harbors of the Chesapeake Bay might think they are seeing a mirage. Beyond the snowflakes and ice around the water’s edge is a spectacle: people dressed for snow skiing, out on sailboats, whipping through steel-colored waves and around buoys.

They’re sailors racing in the Frostbite series, a niche sport that draws those who love sailing, even when conditions are frigid.

With temperatures hovering in the 30s, frostbiters say, winter is the ideal time to get out on the water.

“Nobody’s out there, and the water’s clean. It’s beautiful,” said Scott Williamson, a fleet captain for the Severn Sailing Association. “It’s the best time to sail in Annapolis.”

The record cold this winter has not daunted these sailors. They’ve gone out even when ice is gathering around their docks, Williamson said — they simply use a motor boat to break the ice. So far in 2018, which has recorded one of the region’s longest streaks of sub-freezing temperatures in decades, the group has canceled only one day of racing. The Severn River was frozen bank to bank.

Frostbite racing has been around for more than half a century, and there are more than a dozen Frostbite fleets along the Eastern Seaboard, including several in the Chesapeake region. The fleets generally run in November through March, on sailboats that range from the four-person J-22 to the more hardcore, and easily tipped, one-person Laser.

One December Sunday in Annapolis, a long line of Severn sailors wrapped in ski hats and brightly colored suits maneuvered their white triangular sails through a five-knot wind to line up for the start. In the summer, they’d be fighting with dozens of yachts and powerboaters — and the wake they leave behind. This day, the sailors had the Annapolis Harbor to themselves.

Sandy Westphal, who was set to race, called frostbiters “the best of the best” in Annapolis Laser sailing.

“By the end of the winter,” she said, “you can really make gains in your skills.”

As the group launched their boats into the water, one sailor mock-skied down the snow-capped boat ramp.

“It’s like a ski slope over here,” she said. But as soon as she finished, her Laser slipped away and began to drift off. It took just a few moments for another racer, Corbin Voorhees, 15, to make a decision. He jumped into the 43-degree water and swam toward the boat, quickly towing it back in.

Voorhees, a freshman at Kent Island High School, smiled the entire way, and shrugged it off like a true frostbiter.

In recent years, these fleets have attracted more sailors. The Severn Sailing Association, which runs every Sunday in Annapolis, has 68 registered frostbiters this season, up from 45 or 50 in years past. Williamson called it a “banner year.”

The Newport, R.I., series has 100 boats, which makes this year one of the more popular in its history, according to Moose McClintock, a member of the group’s racing committee.

The Annapolis Yacht Club’s frostbite series grew to 95 boats five years ago and has held steady since, said Bobby Frey, the club’s principal frostbite racing officer.

Baltimore’s Downtown Sailing Center operates one of the newer and more laid-back leagues. About 20 people show up for races on the first Saturday of the month. Stuart Proctor, the center’s community programs director, said that he hasn’t seen growth — which is fine, because “sailing burnout is very real.”

Winter sailors need to take precautions. All sailors in the Severn Laser league are required to wear a wetsuit or drysuit. The Annapolis Yacht Club requires at least three sailors per boat for safety purposes. If one person goes overboard, there is a second to steer the boat, and another to help the sailor back in.

That race day in Annapolis, a Severn Sailing Association member capsized his Laser doing a roll tack. But he quickly recovered, balancing on the boat’s side and righting it without falling into the water.

For more serious mishaps, the group has separate motorcraft positioned at different points in the race course.

McClintock, an America’s Cup veteran, says sailors in Newport are required to wear drysuits.

The eight-time world champion suffered frostbite several years ago during a winter race. His fleet goes out unless the water spraying onto the sailboat turns into ice, or the wind speed is greater than the temperature.

The Severn Sailing Association hosts up to eight races each Sunday. On the December day The Baltimore Sun visited, there were only two.

As the sailors retreated to the shores, they traded their wetsuits for sweaters and readied for the post-race ritual that frostbite sailors savor: fire and beer. They built a fire, pulled out several Loose Cannons and talked about the forthcoming Ice Bowl on New Year’s Day.

“At the end of it, we finish with some drinks, a fire, talk about the day and the next one,” Williamson said. “It’s a good time.”

crentz@baltsun.com

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