Races allow casual sailor to leave mundane behind AMATEUR NIGHT IN ANNAPOLIS


There's a reason Tim Mudd is sailboat racing this spring. It's his density.

"I'm just a lot of weight on board," said Mr. Mudd, 24, who barely can tell a sheet from a halyard but found a way into racing by serving as ballast. "I don't really have enough jobs to mess up yet."

Mr. Mudd, a trim 6 feet 1 inch and 185 pounds, is one of the newest additions to the Wednesday Night Races, an Annapolis tradition that has brought the high-rolling world of sailboat racing to the masses for the past 36 years.

Each week from April to September, hundreds of amateur sailors converge on the city. They trade neckties and wing-tips for T-shirts and boat shoes, fling open the hatches on their boats and take to the water. By 6 p.m., more than 120 sailboats are maneuvering at the mouth of the Severn River for the start of the race. They cross the finish line at the Annapolis Yacht Club at dusk.

While some racers seek the adrenalin rush of competition, for others Wednesday Night Races are about more than trophies. Most racers just want to leave the workweek on the shore, improve their racing skills or learn how to sail.

The casual races help Mr. Mudd score points with his girlfriend, Christina Scheidt, 25, who is an avid racer. But there's little Mr. Mudd knows how to do, so Ms. Scheidt uses his weight to help keep the boat flat in rough weather.

On the food chain of sailing competitors, Mr. Mudd may be bait. But there are sharks out there, too.

Nightmare stories abound: the skippers who screamed so loud the crew members cried, the speeding boats that sawed each other in half, the cheaters who were taken to the yacht club's protest board.

"Anybody who tells you this isn't about winning is lying," said Ronnie Weed, 31, who crews aboard Ramrod, a high-tech, 40-foot craft built by international yacht designer Bruce Farr and skippered by marina owner Bert Jabin.

Ramrod is hot, fast and popular -- a "rock star" boat that vies for first place with Hot Spit and other speed-burners.

Mr. Weed, who does lawn care by day, said racing is his first passion. "I take my frustrations out in creaming other people," he said.

While there are a fair number of Ramrod types in the water, not every race crew shares that killer instinct.

Aboard the 02 Juliett, the crew is just happy if nothing really big goes wrong. Already this season, the crew has hoisted the sails upside down, run aground and been temporarily disqualified. The crew even suffered the indignity of getting beaten by a boat named English Muffin.

"Usually, we're the ones messing up," said 02 Juliett crew member Roy Lappalainen, 35, a soft-spoken software analyst from Sudbrook Park in Baltimore County.

But that doesn't bother Mr. Lappalainen, who looks forward to the races so much he usually arrives three hours early. After giving his boat to the Boy Scouts last year, the avid sailor advertised on bulletin boards in boat shops and wandered the docks looking for a spot on a racing crew this spring.

Just before the start of a recent Wednesday race, the atmosphere around the 02 Juliett was intense. Because the boat with the best starting position often wins the race, crews work quickly to trim the sails, check their stopwatches and maneuver to be first across the line when the starting gun booms.

The 02 Juliett approached the start, an imaginary line between the committee boat and a buoy known as Green 15, with some problems. The speedometer was broken, the tactician had a terrible case of poison ivy and a crew member had left the racing flag in his other pants. But the racers reminded each other this was for fun.

"This is 100 percent stress management for me," Mr. Lappalainen said. "You can't get too Type-A about it."

During this race, he and the four other crew members joked about throwing lighted flares in the direction of passing power boats, steering the competition off course and punishing those who blocked their wind.

After a close race, the 02 Juliett finished third. Crew members could be found later that evening drinking beer at Marmaduke's Pub. The sailing hangout usually stays packed for hours while competitors watch videotapes of the evening's races on televisions by the bar.

The 02 Juliett's sailors vowed to do even better in the second half of the season. But Mr. Lappalainen accepted the night on its own merits.

"It was such a close finish," he said. "And the important thing is, we didn't make any really big mistakes."

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