On a Sunday afternoon stroll along City Dock, or as you sat bundled up in the cockpit of a bigger boat for the Annapolis Yacht Club Frostbite series, you may have seen them: bunches of seemingly crazy people zipping around Annapolis Harbor in little 12-foot dinghies.

What you were seeing was the Severn Sailing Association's annual Interclub Frostbite series.

The IC racing began in late November, runs into early spring, and may include a major regatta again this year, drawing teams from New England and the Mid-Atlantic region.

"We're up to 15 boats in the fleet this year, from 11 last year," said Fleet Capt. Tim Mowry. "We've been racing every weekend except Christmas, and we've had as many as 11 or 12 at a time out on the water."

The format is simple. Boat owners and interested crew (the boats can handle crews of two, but also can be effectively sailed single-handed in light air) meetat SSA and launch for a 12:30 first "gun." The series usually runs 10 or 12 short windward-leeward races each Sunday.

Sailors rotateduty on the committee boat, so as many people as possible get a chance to race during the 2 -to-three hours spent on the water. The rulesset a maximum of three hours or 15 races, whichever comes first.

"The races take maybe 10 minutes each," Mowry said.

But if the format is uncomplicated, the competition is stiff in a fleet that includes a substantial proportion of former collegiate All-American sailors, and regional, national and international champions from many other classes.

"Frostbite sailing in Interclubs is an acquired love," Mowry said. "At first, the boats seem heavy, mush, rolly and stubborn. They are not called 'Intertubs' solely on account of their looks."

The boats have long been in use on the collegiate sailing circuit, where many of the local fleet members first met -- and learnedto hate -- them.

"After sailing them a bit, one realizes that they have their merits," Mowry explained. "They respond to finesse like any good dinghy, and they tack and jibe quickly, making them great tactical boats in the shifty winter breezes."

The Annapolis Interclub Fleet began racing informally about two years ago, and receivedofficial sanction as an SSA frostbite class last year.

Ironically, some of the most avid supporters here are ex-collegiate sailors whoran into them in collegiate racing and swore they would never sail an IC again.

J/24 sailor Paul Borssuck had no experience in ICs until he joined the Annapolis/SSA fleet, but sailing ICs has quickly become one of his favorite winter pastimes.

"It's a ball," he said. "The quality of the fleet has just skyrocketed this year. The races are quick, and everybody that sails them is knowledgeable, so it's very tight, close racing, and the caliber of the competition is very high. There are lots of chances for rules violations, at the marks, especially, but they don't happen and you tend to get a very quiet race course, not a lot of screaming and yelling."

Joining the fleetthis year are some brand-new boats from the Naval Academy, manned bythe likes of ex-All-Americans Doug Clark and Gary Bodie, as well as current midshipmen All-Americans.

Two-time Collegiate Sailor of the Year Terry Hutchinson, a Harwood native, also joins the fleet when he is in town on a break from his Olympic campaigning.

"Brand-new boats and boats that are 15 years old -- it doesn't seem to matter," Borssuck said. "Boat speed isn't really the issue. Because the races are so short, and the wind in the harbor is so shifty, good starts and catching the shifts are really important. You can buy a used boatfor a

$1,000 or $1,500 and it's not really going to be off the pace."

In addition to the sheer enjoyment, Borssuck said IC racing has other benefits.

"It teaches you a lot, especially to keep yourhead out of the boat, watching for the shifts," he said. "For someone who hasn't sailed little boats for many years, it's very humbling. Doug Clark and people like him may do it all the time, but it's been a while since I had to roll-tack a boat. And it's really amazing how big a J/24 looks coming at you."

Conditions in the first weeks of the series have been challenging, making the extra weight provided by a second crewman a plus.

"It's been pretty windy," Mowry said, "so things have been pretty scary out there. I went for a swim lastweekend while I was winning the race. I was going around the windward mark in first, caught a big puff and dumped it."

A capsize immediately stops racing and the committee boat quickly switches to crash-boat duty. Safety in the cold water is a real concern, even though all competitors must wear wet suits or dry suits as well as PFDs.

"We've had a lot of people come down, interested in racing," Mowry said, "so we've generally had more people than boats. We haven't gotten to the point yet where it's so cold we have to single-hand them because people don't want to come out."

Mowry said fleet members want to host its second annual Interclub Midwinters over Presidents' Day weekend, although final plans have not been confirmed. Last year's regatta drew 12 teams, including three New England collegiate teams,for brisk and exciting racing.

"Just like last year, it'll be acollegiate-format regatta," Mowry said. "There will be an A team anda B team for each boat, and the best combined A and B scores win it."

The A and B teams rotate on the boats, with a couple of all-A races followed by a couple of B-team races. That gives sailors a chance to rest and warm up periodically during the day.

Another advantage to short, closed-course IC racing in Annapolis Harbor is its spectator appeal. Those who don't feel up to the chilly challenge of stepping into one of the little boats can easily see and follow the highly competitive racing from the end of City Dock or any of several waterfront vantage points along Spa Creek in Eastport.

Watch for plenty of excitement from the Annapolis Interclub Fleet. It's a chanceto see smart tactics, good boat handling, and tight competition in action.

Nancy Noyes is a member of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association and has been racing on the bay for about five years. Her Sailing column appears every Wednesday and Sunday in the Anne ArundelCounty Sun.

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