THE LABOR DAY Regatta sponsored by the West River Sailing Club in Galesville features three days of sailboat races interspersed with social events.
In a tradition begun more than 70 years ago, about a dozen Chesapeake 20s take to the river in a series of races. This classic one-design sailboat was born on the West River in the days when boats around here were mainly used for work.
Bill Heintz, 94, of the tiny community of Bayfields remembers how it all got started.
"I must have been about 18 years old that first Labor Day when we decided to have some races on the water," Heintz said. (If you do the math, that would be 1926.)
One of the events that day was a sailboat race. "We wouldn't have called it a regatta," said Heintz. Also held were a powerboat race and a dog-swimming race.
Watermen from the West River communities of Galesville and Shady Side rigged their flat-bottomed work skiffs, called bateaux, with more sail than usual and raced them. "Capt. Ed Leatherbury put a great big sail on his boat called Do It, and beat the dickens out of us," said Heintz.
Human nature being what it is, the watermen became more competitive, and each Labor Day the work boats were a little bit faster. But Vanity, a design by the famed Connecticut yacht designer Charles Mower, inspired Dick Hartge to create the Chesapeake 20. The Galesville designer and boat builder took the rounded hull of the Mower design and tweaked it into a truly local boat.
"My father was up to his ears in the design evolution into recreational boating in that era; they were exciting times at the boatyard," said Totch Hartge, 54, of Easton about the Hartge Yacht Yard, a Galesville landmark.
Dick Hartge's yard built dozens of the 20-footers, and the men who worked on the waters of the West River had their racing fleet. The West River Sailing Club was formed with Heintz as the first commodore, and the fleet raced all over the Chesapeake Bay starting in the 1930s. This was not your typical yacht club fleet. In fact, Heintz recalled the year that the West River contingent was "disinvited" to a race in St. Michaels.
"We carried on something awful, but it was all in fun," said Heintz, whose boat Windward sailed with the number 57 in a playful reference to the Heinz products.
Today's Chesapeake 20s carry on the tradition of the original fleet on and off the water. Many current owners of the boats are professionals in the marine trades who spend hours after work finding new ways to enhance their boats' performance.
Bunky Hines, 54, of Galesville races Bunky's Boat most Sundays. During the week, he runs the engine shop at Hartge Yacht Yard.
"How's that for strange?" Hines said. "A mechanic who races sailboats."
One of the top sailors in the group is considered to be Alex Schelegel, who happens to be Dick Hartge's grandnephew and the current owner of Hartge's yard.
"Hartge Yacht Yard has kept the fleet alive," said Rob MacAdam, 49, of Harwood, the unofficial historian of the fleet.
MacAdam has restored two and repaired three of the original wooden 20s and today sails Jade, built in 1946.
His boat cannot really compete against the new, lightweight fiberglass boats, but he accepted the inevitability of the switch to fiberglass.
"There are not too many nuts around who will maintain a 50-year-old wooden boat," said MacAdam.
New, old or restored, the Chesapeake 20 is what most of us imagine when we think the word sailboat - graceful and elegant, heeled over catching the wind in puffed sails.
"The thing that makes our group unique is that we all really like these boats, we take pride in the beauty of the boats," said Hines.
These boats sail most weekends (except in the winter) on the West River. From the West River Sailing Club dock you can spot them by the swirl insignia on the sail.