Still Waters

A skipper’s nightmare.

Every Saturday or Sunday I spent sailing in Southern Maryland was an adventure. The only constant was the boat I crewed on – A yellow Columbia 26 playfully named “Banana”. The weather, of course, was the sole arbiter of whether there would be a race and of its character. We might have great fun or be thrown into real fear for our lives.

On one Saturday, just as everybody was getting ready to launch their attack on the start line, the wind just stopped and fog rolled in, making it impossible to see anything more than about thirty yards away. But, avid sailors don’t give up easily and, having done what it took to prep and get there, all who came were content to wait in case things changed before before the race window closed.

Nothing changed. But the waiting evolved into a thing of occult beauty.

There was not so much as a whisper of wind and the water at the mouth of the Patuxent River was literally as smooth as glass. All the skippers were forced into the loathsome act of motoring in order to keep the river’s current from carrying them aground, into docks, or into one another. We could all see each other on port side as we gently circled, but couldn’t see anything beyond or above.

It seemed to me that the entire universe had been rendered in animated greys and kneaded into a small and quiet ball. Just before the fog began to dissipate, there was a short period of rain the likes of which I had never seen. The raindrops were huge and heavy and widely scattered and the dim silence was broken by the fairly thunderous sound of their impact on smooth water, limp canvas, hardwood decking, and fiberglass hulls.

On a following Sunday, however, the wind played a really strange trick on everybody.

“Banana” and twelve or so other boats were taking part in an invitational which was to start and end just outside the mouth of the Patuxent, with a course which would take us to the eastern side of the Chesapeake, around one channel marker, then down bay to another marker, and back. We were expecting fair skies, high afternoon temperatures, and variable light winds (aka “shifty” and “iffy”) and that’s what we got.


Our skipper’s sense of timing was so good that when the start time was signalled by the Committee boat’s air horn we were within feet of the start line and by his seamanship we were in a position of advantage ready to steal the air from anyone who came up on us. Once assured of our line for the first leg, we looked astern to get some idea of who and what might be coming up on us and were astonished to see that there was and there would be no-one behind us at all. Only our Columbia 26 and a Columbia 50 had made it across and the 50 was only a few yards ahead of us. The wind that had gotten us across the line was carrrying us across the Chesapeake, but it had abandoned everybody else. The remainder of the fleet could only be moved by motor or current.

Since all it takes to have a race is for two boats to cross the start line, we were delighted, especially since the wind was nearly perfect for the 26 and marginal for the 50, putting victory easily within reach. If we could overtake the 50, it would be an outright head-to-head win. If that didn’t happen, we could still win by weighted time just by staying close to her. You know – big sail versus small sail. But that all changed just after we both had rounded the first marker when the wind fell away and the entire bay went flat.

Four hours later, with race finish time rapidly approaching, the Race Committee motored out to move the finish line to a point a few dozen yards down bay of the two boats, taking care to set it with calculated fairness.

After one more hour, with neither boat getting near to, much less across the finish line, the 50 was declared the winner. We could not overtake her and win outright. Nor could we get close enough to win by weighted time because the current had been moving the heavier and larger 50 ever so slightly away from us the whole time.

All that was left for us to do was to motor back across the bay shaking our heads and grousing about the manifest caprice of all the Gods of the Winds…