Not even the coronavirus could cancel an Annapolis tradition that dates back to 1959.
Annapolis Yacht Club has announced that its popular Wednesday Night Racing series will get underway on June 3. Commodore Jonathan Bartlett said several precautions have been put in place to protect the safety of all involved — participating sailors, race committee volunteers and boatyard staff.
Bartlett made the decision to start Wednesday Night Racing after hearing recommendations from the Annapolis Yacht Club sailing committee and consulting with race committee co-chairs Sandy Grosvenor and Kevin Reeds.
“I’m very adamant that we don’t rush back to regular sailboat racing. We need to make sure we don’t jump into this too quickly,” Bartlett said.
Annapolis Yacht Club will not conduct the standard post-race party at its main clubhouse and will split the fleet in half to reduce the number of boats on the water each Wednesday night.
“By rolling this out slowly, we don’t have all the boatyards filled with sailors launching or otherwise getting prepared,” Bartlett said. “The well-being of the sailors and our staff is foremost.”
Reeds said most of the one-design classes — J/105, J/30, J/80 and Etchells — will begin Wednesday Night Racing next week. Handicap classes in the PHRF and ORC rating systems will get going the following Wednesday. Two classes that race on a short course set up on the Severn River — Herreshoff 12.5 and Harbor 20 — will also rotate weeks.
Bobby Frey, who has served as principal race officer for Wednesday Night Racing for almost two decades, will finish the big boats on the Severn River instead of having them sail into Spa Creek as accustomed. That is to discourage having crowds gather at the AYC clubhouse, on the Spa Creek Bridge or other spots along the harbor to watch the finishes.
Normally, Annapolis Yacht Club’s Wednesday Night Racing series would have started in late April. It was delayed due to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources prohibiting sailboat racing. That restriction was removed on May 15 when Governor Larry Hogan lifted the stay-at-home order.
“We want sailors to get out and have some fun again. I think people need a distraction from all this,” Bartlett said. “For the sport of sailing to continue, we need to get back to the basics. Nothing is more grassroots than the Wednesday night series.”
Bartlett emphasized that Annapolis Yacht Club is not making any political statements by organizing and managing Wednesday Night Racing. Skippers and crews must make their own decisions whether to participate.
“Some sailors might say I’m not ready for this and we completely understand that thinking,” Bartlett said.
Department of Natural Resources mandates that no more than 10 people can be on a boat and very few racing crews exceed that number. Bartlett believes some skippers may choose to sail with fewer crew than normal because of the coronavirus.
Steve Siska is part of a syndicate that owns the J/30 Cannonball II, which is berthed at a private pier of the Winchester-on-the-Severn neighborhood. All five owners are willing to start racing, but two other regular crew members are not.
There has been talk about racing without spinnakers among some skippers in the J/30 fleet, which had 14 entrants in the 2019 edition of the Wednesday Night Racing. Not having to hoist or douse the massive headsail would enable boats to sail with fewer crew than normal.
While a crew of seven is ideal, Siska said a J/30 can be raced with a minimum five sailors.
“Personally, I’m anxious to get out there. I think it’s time to get back to our normal lives,” Siska said. “That said, I completely understand the guys in the crew that are not prepared to go sailing just yet.”
Reeds, who will be succeeding Grosvenor as AYC race committee chair, said Series 1 of Wednesday Night Racing would last eight weeks and conclude on July 22. That means the two separate divisions of boats would get a maximum of four races each. Series 2 will get underway on July 29 and run through September 2, which is six weeks or three races per fleet.
David Malkin is owner of the J/88 M: I-2, which will be racing under ORC this season and therefore starting the Wednesday night series on June 10. He held an informal poll of his normal six-person crew and received mixed reaction.
“We’ve started to have some conversations and I’m not sure where it will go at this point. We have crew on both sides of the spectrum,” Malkin said. “Some said they cannot possibly go out on a boat with other people. Others are not concerned at all. You must respect all viewpoints.”
Malkin, who works for North Point Yacht Sales, is personally looking forward to getting back into the routine of a recreational activity he enjoys on a weekly basis during sailing season.
Lifelong friends Cedric Lewis and Fredrik Salvesen have been racing the J/105 Mirage with a crew of close friends for years. Crew members have been participating in virtual happy hours to stay in touch since they are not seeing each other every Wednesday as usual.
Lewis is confident every member of the crew has been following all government guidelines and is not concerned about catching the coronavirus as part of their interaction at the dock and on the boat during Wednesday Night Racing.
Nonetheless, three major Annapolis charity regattas — Hospice Cup, Leukemia Cup and the Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating Cup — are forging ahead with dates in August and September despite the devastating impact on the local economy caused by the pandemic.
“I think for the most part people are chomping at the bit to start racing,” he said. “There are some that still are not comfortable, but I think we are probably safer on our boats with people we know than shopping for toilet paper at Giant.”
Organizers of all the other weeknight series held out of Annapolis have made plans to start the season. J/World Annapolis will launch Thursday Night Racing on June 4 and made it clear in an email to competitors this a personal choice.
“By offering racing we are not issuing an opinion about whether it is appropriate for you and your crew to participate,” wrote Bill Simon, Director of Thursday Night Racing. “There will be a release for each crew and owner to sign specifically accepting it is their decision to participate.”
Simon will host a virtual meeting with boat owners to discuss the parameters being put in place for the series that has been hosted by J/World Annapolis for almost four decades. Series 1 will last six weeks through July 16 with Series 2 the same length from July 23 through August 27.
“We just want the sailors to go out and have some fun,” Simon said. “Those that feel comfortable will come out. Those that don’t, won’t.”
Eastport Yacht Club will kick off the Fawcett Friday Night Beer Can Series on June 19. EYC race committee co-chairs Sharon Hadsell and Val Pedrick will start the fleet off C Dock and will divide the fleet in half. Instead of four starts each Friday night, there will be two starts on alternating Friday nights. Last year, the Fawcett Beer Can Series drew 66 boats and organizers don’t want that many out on the water every Friday night.
“The DNR decision to allow sailboat racing really raised our spirits because we all want to be back on the water,” Eastport Yacht Club commodore Liz Filter said. “However, we are being very cautious about doing so.”