The bay breeze whips at the sails. Nearby, a small group of government workers chats amicably. The college students look over their fleet and the gray skies beyond. They want to get in one more practice before the Naval Academy Mids get on the water.
It's a scene right out of Annapolis. Only this is Essex.
As the Eastern Baltimore County area continues to shed its rusty image, it has become home to waterfront estates and marinas filled with yachts. Now, Essex is hosting its first collegiate regatta -- a signal to the sailing world that it might have overlooked a spot.
The two-day race that begins today, sponsored by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County sailing team, is being held at the Baltimore County Sailing Center at Rocky Point Park. It will draw a dozen college sailing teams, including the Ivy League's Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Event organizers are hoping that the race gives exposure to the county's waterfront amenities, such as the sailing center, and to the athletes studying at UMBC in Catonsville.
"It gives exposure to the team and the county, not just locally but from far afield," said Marc Zupan, a UMBC mechanical engineering professor and faculty adviser to the sailing team.
No one imagines Essex as the next Annapolis or Newport, nor would the natives or the sailors necessarily want it to be.
"It's nice here, less boat traffic," said Rick Dunn, a UMBC senior on the team and co-chairman of this weekend's regatta. "Down in Annapolis, it's hard to find a spot for spectators."
But county officials and local sailors say there's no harm in pointing out the features of the Essex waterfront.
"One of Baltimore County's often-overlooked treasures is its 175 miles of pristine waterfront," Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said yesterday during a short ceremony at Rocky Point Park. "Baltimore County's east side offers so much for people to do."
Members of the Glenmar Sailing Association founded the Baltimore County Sailing Center in 1993 as part of the Back River Neck Recreation Council. The center offers programs for Girl and Boy Scouts, summer camps, and youth and adult classes from its facility at the park.
Several of the UMBC sailing team members gathered yesterday at the park, along with their coach, Heath Berlin, and a handful of county and university officials to promote the regatta.
The UMBC team, with about 30 participants, usually sails from the Inner Harbor, where members have access to about five boats.
They have hosted fall and spring regattas in the past, said Medora Zimmerman-Crumbaugh, a UMBC junior on the team and co-chair of the event. But the team wanted to hold a race that would allow teams to qualify for the America Trophy held at U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York. To host a qualifying regatta, the team needed to have a fleet of 12 boats.
The Baltimore County Sailing Center has a dozen 15-foot boats that it was willing to share. And the UMBC Open was born.
The first of about 24 short races that make up the regatta begins about 9 a.m. today. The competition will continue until about 5 p.m. and resume at 9 a.m. tomorrow.
Located on the Chesapeake Bay's Hawk Cove at the mouth of the Back and Middle rivers, the area is ideal for sailing and kayaking, said Bill Fannon, president of the sailing center's Board of Advisors.
Fannon and others said they expect that the collegiate sailors will enjoy their time in Baltimore County.
"Once they come here," Fannon said, "they'll come back.
If you go: Baltimore Sailing Center is at 2200 Rocky Point Road in Essex. Phone: 410-391-0196.
Parking is in the lot to the right of the gatehouse.