Sea story: Ice Off the Mark (1967)

“Turn to, crew!” I barked, as I passed the Plebes’ room (Plebes are first-year midshipmen/cadets at US service academies). I kept jogging toward the stairs, confident that the two underclassmen would be scrambling after me, and catch me before I reached the door to Bancroft Hall. I knew well the exhilaration they must feel to be done with classes for the day, and heading away from upper-class harassment for a couple of hours.

We hit the bronze doors on the north side of the Hall together. A frigid blast off the Chesapeake Bay whipped the hoods of our sweatshirts and set our noses running. We shifted from a jog to an easy run. The two Plebes trotted behind me in step, one on either side. Overhead, the grey sky was turning darker, as snow-heavy clouds bore in from the North-northeast.

Although only a year older, I was as much of a sea-daddy (mentor) as these two 18-year-olds had ever known. As soon as we reached the Dewey Sailing Basin, we dropped the formalities and slipped into first names. Between 1600 and 1800, we would be bound only by our loyalty to each other and a crazy attraction to sailing, freezing water, ice, and cold wind.
The 12-foot Rainbow sloops were bare-bones boats, built for the Naval Academy to train midshipmen in sailing. It took no time to inspect the gear in the open fiberglass boat, shove off, and hoist the jib. The stiff wind caught the sail handily, and sent us out the opening of the basin like a stone from a slingshot. It was blowing up the Severn River, raising whitecaps and throwing freezing water into the air against the side of our boat as we hoisted the mainsail and tacked upwind to the mouth of the river. Clearing the edge of Thompson Field, we moved into the open water of Annapolis Harbor. Turning to starboard, we made a broad reach for the starting line near the Annapolis Yacht Club (AYC) on Spa Creek.

It was the last day of the AYC Annual Frostbite Sailing Series. It was not well-known that midshipmen were welcome to participate in AYC races, but I happened to be a “townie” (Annapolis resident), so I knew about it. This was almost the only invitation that we could accept. The spring and summer races found us at sea or training in distant cities.  The Frostbite Series took place when the Academy’s ocean-racing boats were laid up for the winter.

By now, Gary, Tom and I did not have to talk to move as a unit. The little open boat flew across the waves, as Gary trimmed the mainsail, and Tom the jib. I was at the helm, an unusual position for me, because I had always worked foredeck before coming to the Academy. I steered us around the occasional small ice floe to the starting line off the Club. Most of the boats were already there, and they were the standard commercial Rainbows, with cockpit covers and other luxuries. Their owners had probably been at the Club all afternoon.

“Ready about!” I shouted, and put the helm over to starboard. The boat heeled over and passed through the wind, as Gary and Tom handily let go of one sheet and pulled in the opposite one. The sails snapped as they filled with wind, and we hardly lost any speed as we approached our place in the starting line.

rainbow racingWith the racing fleet assembled, we all tacked back and forth for a couple of minutes. I had us pointed at the starting line again just as the gun went off. Gary and Tom hauled in on their sheets, and I steered us a couple of points closer to the wind. They needed no orders from me to watch their sails and keep them perfectly trimmed for maximum speed. We sat on the windward gunwale, ready to lean back if needed to counter-weigh a gust, or to milk a knot or two from the stiff breeze.

With no cockpit cover, no extra gear, and a lighter crew than the other boats, our nameless, government-issue sloop pulled up quickly to the head of the fleet. Still, the members of the yacht club were both older and far more experienced than the three teenagers in our boat. There were two boats in particular that worried me, both captained by very aggressive AYC members, who had already damaged other boats in the inevitable game of “chicken” that happened when two boats approached a mark at the same time. The marks were small buoys that indicated the place where one had to turn for the next leg of the race. The corners were often acute angles, and boats were required to pass each mark on the correct side.

One of the two troublesome boats was already behind us, but the other one, captained by a man whose ego and sea manners pleased no one, had crossed the starting line right at the gun and was several boat lengths ahead of the pack. We were going to have to try to pass him in the middle of a leg, or risk playing chicken with him at one of the marks.

The wind picked up, making the race more exciting, both for us speeding up, and for the spectators standing on the piers and seawalls. On every leg except downwind, water and spray mixed with ice came over the gunwales and kept us thoroughly drenched. We hardly noticed, partly because our young bodies ran hot, and partly because we were too busy. Having sailed twice a week in winter weather since Christmas, we were getting used to it.

It took until the next-to-last leg to pull even with the leader, and it looked like we were headed for the mark together. Our boat had the weather gauge, meaning that we were upwind from him with his boat between us and the mark. It felt like skating on a razor blade to keep our boat far enough from his boat to avoid a collision, but close enough to take the mark before he did, perhaps stealing his wind in the process. Looking ahead, I could see ice packed around the buoy, an additional hazard to avoid.

Just before the mark, he pulled upwind sharply, probably intending to bump us off course, and clear some room for himself to get around the mark without us. He knew full well that I could not afford damage to a government-issue boat that I did not own. We were lucky: our lighter boat jumped sharply in response to my helm. His boat slowed in our lee, and ours sped up as my crew pulled in the sheets.

“Jibe-O!” I shouted as I put the helm over. Gary and Tom matched the boat’s smooth move as the wind passed across our stern. and the boom swung quickly from the port side to starboard. We crossed his T, and headed around him and the ice packed against the mark. I could not believe that we were pulling off one of the classic maneuvers of war at sea, which we had only read about in naval history books.

His crew was too slow letting out the sheets to ease the sails when he turned out of the wind to counter my move to the mark. The boat heeled over, hit the ice, and capsized, with the mast and mainsail landing next to the buoy.

As we came around the mark, Gary and Tom trimmed the sails to starboard, and we settled into a fast broad reach, racing for the finish line. The race command boat motored over to the capsized sloop, while I thought I heard cheering from the other boats still making their way to the last mark.

After confirming that we were duly recorded as first across the line by the Race Committee, we executed a fancy 270° turn for the benefit of the spectators, and raced back to the sailing basin. The others may party after the race, but we had to be showered, changed and ready for evening meal inspection in 30 minutes. The threatened snow began falling as we trotted back to the Hall.

By 1800, Gary and Tom were Plebes again. I was just another Youngster (second-year midshipman) in the middle of the squad, no longer the captain of my ship.

We took third place in the AYC Frostbite Series that year. The tiny pewter cup with the AYC burgee serves as a pencil caddy today.

Next week, we will return to the subject of living and working on the road. This period between the Northern Trek 2014 and Europe 2015 is also an excellent time to reevaluate this blog. I am preparing to make changes in both the subject matter and the way I present it. I would love to hear what you like or don’t like about the blog, and what you would like to see more of. Until next week,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


(Note: the names Gary and Tom are fictitious)

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