A battle down the bay

The 2009 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race started at 1330 on Thursday, October 15, just south of Baltimore in Chesapeake Bay. The course is 127-miles down the bay to Thimble Shoal Light near Hampton Roads. This year 50 schooners participated, including the Schooner Virginia, of which I was the captain.

The captain’s meeting on Thursday morning stressed the weather report and the need for safety throughout the race. The wind forecast for the start was 15 to 20 knots out of the northeast, with gusts to 30. For the small schooners, this could be very challenging weather. For the big schooners like Virginia and Pride of Baltimore II, it would mean a fast start. For some vessels, like Chestertown’s Sultana, the wind and seas would delay their ability to make the start line on time. Many of the smaller schooners decided to stay in port altogether.

Leaving the docks in Fell’s Point around 0930, we began a slog into the eye of the breeze. Pride of Baltimore II and Mystic Whaler had to do some fancy boat handling to avoid a small pleasure craft that got tangled up with the start. But, for the most part, it was a parade start. As Capt. Jan Miles of Pride stated to a reporter, “The order of the start would determine the outcome of the race.” This would prove to be a prophetic statement. On Virginia, we finished tucking a single reef into the mainsail in expectation of the winds. While setting the sail, it bound up on some leather chafe gear stitched around the mast to prevent chafing where the boom jaws ride on the mast. This slowed us down a bit at the start, but we were soon catching up with the fleet.

The real story of the race, as expected, turned out to be the wind, which never reached the forecasted strengths. At the start, we saw a few gusts around 25 to 30 knots, but by the time the larger ships reached Cove Point in the late evening, the wind had settled down to 15 to 20 knots or less. The reef in the mainsail had been shaken out already, and Virginia was tearing along at 8 to 10 knots. But, a stern chase is a long chase. Pride of Baltimore II had taken the lead and was not easily going to relinquish her position.

With winds out of the northeast, we sailed the first half of the race on a port tack. Passing Cove Point at 1730, Virginia was carrying all her 6,500 square feet of sail. This includes three headsails, gaff-rigged main and foresails, two gaff topsails, and a deck-setting fisherman staysail. On a broad reach, this is a comfortable, fast ride. Virginia, a mere three quarters of a mile on Pride’s starboard quarter, was in a good position to contest the finish.

At Smith Point, another element of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race comes into focus. The Chesapeake is a major thoroughfare for large ships transiting to and from Baltimore, as well as ports in Virginia. In the northern bay, the deep water for these ships is along the Eastern shore. Here, the channel can range in excess of a hundred feet. Tugs and smaller vessels, which are not restricted by their draft, try to operate on the western side of the bay. As the race continues south, the deep-water channels begin to cross the bay. The mouth of the Potomac River is a choke point, where north and southbound vessels meet in a relatively small space. A few miles south, the Rappahannock Shoal Channel crosses half the bay from southeast to northwest. Towards the mouth of the bay, the York Spit Light and the York River entrance channel meet mid-bay. A close radio watch on both VHF 16 (hailing and distress) and on VHF 13 (bridge to bridge) is vital to prevent close encounters with ships that require many miles to come to a complete stop and cannot operate outside of the deep water channels. Virginia’s modern technology, including radar and an Automatic Identification System, allow her crew to see many of these dangers in advance and respond accordingly.

Seeing that a large southbound containership would be near our position as we crossed the Rappahannock Shoal Channel, we struck the fisherman staysail, gybed the foresail over and began sailing wing and wing to cross the channel in advance of the ship. Contrary to general thinking, Virginia does this quite well. Her plumb masts allow her to sail dead down-wind with sails eased out to the shrouds and preventers rigged to avoid an accidental gybe. It takes a steady hand at the helm and a crew that knows their business, but Virginia can imitate a square-rigger with great success.

The schooner slowly edged over towards the eastern shore as we approached the town of Cape Charles. The crew mustered in the dark, rainy night to prepare for the last drive towards the finish line. After 12 hours of continuous work, they were tired and wet. The schooner was on a port tack again, but traffic and wind required us to gybe. Hauling in the main sheet on a sail that spreads more than 2,000 square feet is a chore, even in the best of conditions. Before the end of the race, the crew would do this multiple times.

In the end, it was not Virginia’s year. Pride of Baltimore II crossed the finish line about 40 minutes ahead of Virginia, taking line honors for another year. In a surprising turn of events, neither of the two favorites would have the honor of finishing first in the class. The AA class would be won by Lady Maryland, a reproduction of a pungy schooner, which also hails from Baltimore. She crossed the line an hour and a half after Virginia, but caught both of the larger ships on corrected time.

2009 marked the 20th year for the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. It started as a small race to garner awareness for the Chesapeake Bay, its environmental issues, and the traditional craft that have made its history so rich. This year’s race proceeds benefited the educational programming of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Captain Hank Moseley is one of two regular masters of the schooner Virginia.

By Ocean Navigator