Wednesday Night, The Race of Choi

This year the Annapolis Yacht Club expects 150 boats to compete in the often fiercely competitive, albeit friendly, sailboat races known as the Wednesday Night Races. If a spectator were standing on the Spa Creek Bridge when the wind is blowing from the north, the onlooker is likely (and lucky) to witness the fleet of sailboats flying spinnakers-either streaking or squeaking-across the finish line in front of the clubhouse, less than 200 meters from the bridge. This is universally acknowledged to be an "exciting finish" and a hoped-for bonus in what has become the sailboat race and entertainment event of the week during the summer season.

Mid-week sailboat racing on Spa Creek, smack in the middle of the colonial town, harks back to the late 1950s. Then, a handful of boats would gather in front of the Clubhouse at the lower end of Compromise Street on the north side of the creek; someone would blow a horn and they were off on a short course, always the same one. Little concern was given to the direction of the wind. In other words, the classic Olympic triangle was sacrificed for the sheer joy of friendly nautical competition.

"Bing" Downing (AYC commodore in 1978) noted that in 1958 Gaither Scott (commodore in 1974-75), while attending the America's Cup Races in Newport, R.I., observed the East Greenwich Yacht Club Wednesday Evening Race Series. Scott suggested to then Vice Commodore Jack Martin and Past Commodore H.H. Benson (1950-51) that the Annapolis Yacht Club initiate a similar series. Downing wrote, "Wednesday Night Races were inaugurated in the summer of 1959." Those who remember the first races recalled there was no race committee; a volunteer started the boats from the clubhouse, where they also finished. Informality was the order of the evening. Not only were there no prizes, there was no scoring. Downing added, "The highlight of the evening was a picnic supper on the AYC dock after the race-where the race was sailed over and over."

Early boats to sail in the series included Racing Division boats-"S" boats, H23s, 5.5s, a 6- meter and a Bermuda One-Design. Annapolis sailing entrepreneur Jerry Wood began building Rainbows and secured a start for this class as well. Oral historians of the Wednesday Night Races repeat over and again names of those enthusiastic AYC members who campaigned for early Wednesday Night Races, including Tom Closs, Raul Frye, Ed Hartman, Bert Jabin, Sonny Smith, Mike Ashford, Ron Council and others.

By 1965, interest in the series was waning. Three persuasive members, Larry Newark, Arnie Gay and Al Bruce, suggested opening the series to all classes. Their idea was that the larger, faster boats skippered by sailors with more experience could have their competition and those helmsmen with smaller boats and less experience could take their first steps. Even today, large boats with many layers of "go fasters" race alongside, but not in competition with, small class boats helmed by much less experienced sailors. By 1966-68, boats grew in number from 50 to 112.

The races in the 1970s were followed by a buffet available to all who raced, captains and crew. The sociability continues to this day with after- race parties at the AYC and at local dining and drinking establishments in Eastport, and on Main Street and the City Dock.

Dan Spadone remembers becoming involved in the mid-1960s when only 60 to 70 boats were racing. He was vague about the year he became chair of the Special Events Race Committee, but admitted he served, "for a long time." He resigned from the position in 1990 but remains active. He recalls vividly how tales of successful race management brought representatives from other yacht clubs on junkets to learn how the AYC ran its races. "They came from New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. We emphasized to them what a great opportunity these races were for newcomers to practice their starts. Everybody always had fun. During social gatherings after the races, sailors talked about what they did, didn't do and what they should have done." Spadone takes full credit for going out into the Bay before races, saying his wooden Italian beads and finding the wind. He admits that as time passed it was apparent that the races were becoming more competitive, no doubt because of improved boat design and technically improved equipment.

Invited by Spadone to join the committee soon after he became a member of AYC in 1974, Bob Wohlfarth took the chairmanship of the Special Events Race Committee from '95 to 2000. During the span of his leadership, Wohlfarth remembered "above all, the camaraderie during the races and the buffet on the third deck of the yacht club."

Current co-chairman of the Special Events Race Committee, Jim Coleman, recalled that he participated in his first race with U.S. Navy Capt. Leif Ericson on a Tartan 27, Windermere, in 1968. Fellow co-chair Fred Dersch recalled sailing as crew, a youngster in the late 1970s. He feels the local limitations add to the racing challenge, and "because of these limitations, the race series is successful."

The Special Events Race Committee today numbers 20 men and women, volunteers who organize what is touted to be the largest mid-week race evening series in the country. Their tasks include registration, course selection dependent on wind and weather conditions, placing marks on the course, starting six classes of boats (ranging in length from 121/2 feet to over 50 feet), monitoring the racing activity and recording the time and sequence of finishing-and inevitably hearing protests by one boat against another. In the friendliest situations, offended boats will yell to the nearby offender, "You owe me one," thus eliminating the protest.

Race Committee member Edie Walsh has a special job-starting the Herreshoff 121/2s, lovely gaff-rigged wooden racing boats designed by Nathaniel Herreshoff of Bristol, R. I. Because of their diminutive size, the Herreshoffs have a special start and sail a shorter course, one intended for them to finish without interference from larger boats. Walsh "wears" the selected course-that is, she dons a T-shirt with the course letter emblazoned on the front. And she claims the Herreshoffs usually do finish unhindered by their larger sisters, but not always.

Wednesday nights are so precious to many racers they must be assured that they may leave their jobs in time to make all boat preparations and get out on the starting line in time for the 6:10 p.m. first gun and yellow shape. With 150 sailboats averaging four crew (small boats may have two crew and larger boats as many as 12) participating in 19 Wednesday evenings from May to September, that's many hundreds of celebrants-all hungry, thirsty and eager to explore again the course, weather, tactics and the "shouldas" and "wouldas."

Spectators take to the water as lustily as racers. Many non-sailors feel equally committed to watch the starts, progress and finishes. If not in spectator boats, visitors-first time and repeaters-line the harbor edges, waterfront office buildings, Spa Creek Bridge and Naval Academy seawall, and they are hungry and thirsty as well. Restaurants and businesses welcome the impact on Wednesdays.

Lucky are the guests who are invited on a boat to watch (and often participate as crew) as the 150 sailboats jockey for position at the start, maneuver around the buoys and marks in tight quarters and finish in a drift or a rush.

Limitations of length on the start and finish lines, as well as daylight, have constrained the AYC to limit registration to AYC members. "Because of our concentration on safety," explains recent Past Commodore Art Libby, "unfortunately we had to cut back." Libby adds, "It's the race of choice now. Many people who used to do the outside races are now racing only on Wednesday evening. It's a great experience."

What happens after the races? Sailing under the AYC burgee, nationally recognized racer Melinda Berge says, "Get the boat put away and head for the big party at the Annapolis Yacht Club's new and refurbished tented terrace where you can listen to the music, enjoy special food and drinks, buy T-shirts and other sailing gear-all with the WNR logo-and socialize. So what if you're tired on Thursday at the office. You just had another special Annapolis night on the Severn River and in the Annapolis Harbor. If you're really lucky, you may have won your class, too."

The junior/intermediate members (those under 36) add great exuberance to the fleet as testified by racer Molly Hughes. "It's every Wednesday. It's always different-different weather, different people and different boats. But it's always got that Wednesday night feel: it's summer, it's Wednesday, and I'm not working. I'm sailing. It's fabulous!"

After more than four decades, Wednesday Night Races have matured from small to large and the after-race celebration from buffet to bash. "Wednesday Night Races are a tradition that we hope will always remain good fun," says AYC Commodore Jeff Scholz.


What event in the Annapolis area are you most looking forward to in 2006?

Powerboat Show
Sailboat Show
Renaissance Festival
Seafood Festival
County Fair

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