There is nothing like a Wednesday night in Annapolis.
Beginning at four in the afternoon and reaching a peak about an hour later, the docks around the city are a bustle of activity. No place is more busy than the Annapolis Yacht Club Sailing Center, which launches dozens of small sailboats in a carefully choreographed procedure. By 5:30, boats are pouring out of the marinas located on Spa Creek and Back Creek. As the 6 p.m. starting gun approaches, the mouth of the Severn River is a mass of racing sailboats of all shapes and sizes. Crew members wave cordially to folks aboard the large fleet of spectator boats, which further congest the starting area.
Wednesday Night Racing has been a time-honored tradition in this town for nearly six decades and host Annapolis Yacht Club has been at the helm the whole way.
“What better way to break up the week than a relaxing evening out on the water?” said John Sherwood, a legendary Chesapeake Bay sailor and longtime Annapolis Yacht Club member. “I can’t imagine doing anything else on Wednesday night. It’s part of the weekly schedule.”
Sherwood began his Wednesday Night Racing ritual in the early 1980s when the J/22 first came to Annapolis. The longtime Gibson Island resident bought one of the hot new designs and began racing Double Nickel on Wednesday night.
“I’d heard all about the series, but had never entered before that,” recalled Sherwood, who later entered his Metalmast 30 named Witch’s Flower in the MORC B division of Wednesday Night Racing.
Sherwood, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, has been racing in the Etchells class the past 10 years. Jim Patton and Jerry Latrell have been regular crew for Sherwood, who still sails Corossol to plenty of podium finishes in the talent-laden 14-boat class.
“I always look forward to Wednesday night. The competition is really good,” Sherwood said. “It’s an interesting course that has about six different sections. Personally, I love coming up Spa Creek to the finish line.”
Annapolis Yacht Club modeled its Wednesday Night Racing program after a similar series hosted by East Greenwich Yacht Club in Rhode Island. Past Commodore Gaither Scott implemented the mid-week racing out of Annapolis in 1959 with no race committee, no results and no prizes – just a picnic supper for participants.
What was intended as a casual night of sailing grew more serious in the mid- to late-1970s when most of the top skippers around Annapolis began entering. Rob Pennington, longtime professional with the North Sails Chesapeake loft, remembers the glory days when some of the largest sailboats in town participated.
Al Van Metre raced his Sparkman & Stephens 61 named Running Tide against rival skipper Don Tate (Cayenne, Morgan 60) while Jack King (Merrythought, Frers 50) and Ralph Decker (Whisper, Canning 48) did battle.
“It was pretty cool to see all those big racing machines out there every Wednesday night,” recalled Pennington, who crewed aboard both Running Tide and Merrythought at various times.
Bill Heim, owner of the Eastport pub named Marmaduke’s, came up with the idea of filming the races and replaying them on an old video cassette recorder. That innovation attracted the sailing crowd following the Wednesday Night Racing.
“Bill Heim realized that people like to see themselves on television and the racing videos were a big part of the shtick that made Marmaduke’s so popular,” said Bruce Nairn, who has carried on the tradition.
Nairn is co-founder of T2PTV, a video production service that has been filming the Wednesday Night Racing series on behalf of Annapolis Yacht Club and The Boatyard Bar & Grill for the past 15 years. Things are a lot more high-tech these days with Nairn using the latest in video technology and Ashley Love providing on-water commentary. Those videos are still hugely popular and have helped establish The Boatyard as the hardcore sailor’s bar in Eatsport.
Thanks to the wonders of digital recording and editing, the videos shown at The Boatyard and during the post-racing party hosted by Annapolis Yacht Club are from that night’s action. In the old days, Marmaduke’s showed videos from the previous week’s racing.
“If you do something stupid, we will catch it and it will be up on the screen,” Nairn said with a wry smile. “At the same time, if you get a great start or perform a perfect mark rounding we’ll get that, too.”
Nairn used to crew for various owners on Wednesday night when he was a professional with North Sails. He was asked what has changed since the late 1970s and early 1980s when nearly 200 boats were entered in the series.
“There aren’t as many big boats (40 feet or longer), and today’s sailors aren’t nearly as dangerous. There used to be a lot of crashes during Wednesday Night Racing,” he said.
Annapolis Yacht Club has implemented numerous changes designed to make the series safer and more sailor friendly. At one point, a cap was placed on the number of entries that were accepted. Drop marks enabled the Race Committee to create shorter courses on nights when the wind was light. A separate course was established to accommodate classes of smaller boats such as the Hereshoff 12 ½, Etchells and Harbor 20.
“I think the Race Committee has gone to a lot of trouble to make the racing more fair and more fun,” Nairn said.
Bobby Frey is the longtime chairman of the Annapolis Yacht Club Special Events Committee, which oversees the Wednesday Night Racing program. One relatively recent innovation involved splitting the series into three parts, which enabled skippers to take time off without compromising their overall score. Series 1 starts on April 27 and concludes on June 1, Series 2 runs from June 8 through July 20 while Series 3 wraps up the season.
“Scoring the series in three parts instead of two has made things more interesting and been quite popular with owners,” said Frey, in his 11th year overseeing Wednesday Night Racing. “We have a lot of big boat owners that enter events elsewhere during the summer. This allows them to participate in Series 1 and 3 while skipping Series 2 to do their off-the-bay stuff.”
Under Frey’s direction, the WNR Race Committee is proactive about cancelling if the forecast calls for thunderstorms or winds so light as to produce a drifter. “Technology has given us the ability to stay on top of what is happening weather-wise and make decisions before all the boats leave the dock,” Frey said.
Former AYC Commodore Peter Gordon serves as Race Committee chair for the “up-river course,” which provides flexibility for the big boats as well. “If the wind dies out and we need to finish the fleet out on the Severn River, we now have a race officer outside at R8 to do that,” Frey said.
While some things have changed and evolved over the years, one element of Wednesday Night Racing has remained the same since its inception. Under normal conditions, all boats finish off the Annapolis Yacht Club just shy of the Spa Creek Bridge.
For years, it has been an Annapolis tradition for spectators to gather on the AYC clubhouse deck, on Spa Creek Bridge and at waterfront restaurants such as The Charthouse and Carroll’s Creek to watch the sailboats glide through the harbor while skillfully avoiding the dozens of boats on moorings.
“After all these years, I still get a thrill from sailing up Spa Creek. It’s just a beautiful scene and you feel like the whole harbor is watching,” Sherwood said.
Stadium sailing is now the rage around the world, especially after being utilized so successfully during the last America’s Cup that was held in San Francisco Harbor. Most recently, the America’s Cup World Series drew huge crowds to Navy Pier in Chicago.
“Annapolis Yacht Club pioneered stadium sailing without even realizing it by having the Wednesday Night Racing series finish in front of the club,” said Paul Parks, chairman of the AYC Sailing Committee. “Annapolis Harbor, with so many great vantage points for viewing, serves as somewhat of a natural amphitheater.”
This year, Wednesday Night Racing has 132 boats competing in 14 classes and for many sailors it is their only competitive outlet. Changing work schedules, time demands and family commitments have conspired to prevent many owners from doing weekend racing, largely due to the difficulty of finding competent crew.
Wednesday Night Racing is less of a time commitment – less than three hours from boarding to disembarking – followed by an evening of socializing over cocktails at either the yacht club or the various local pubs.
That being said, there are still owners who use the series for the purpose for which it was originally intended: training crew for weekend regattas.
“That is what we do on Blockade Runner,” said Scott Dodge, tactician for owner Taran Teague. “We get new folks out there in the more casual environment of Wednesday Night and teach them how to work their position.”
Dodge is another grizzled veteran of Wednesday Night Racing, having started as bowman aboard the Heritage One Tonner named Goldfish that was co-owned by Don Zinn and Dr. Alan Harquail. The longtime Annapolis resident moved to the middle when crewing for Ennio Staffini aboard his IMS 40 Uarshek and Rod Jabin on his Farr 40 Ramrod.
“Nothing beats going out sailing on Wednesday night. It’s hump day and the start of the Annapolis five-day weekend during the summer,” Dodge said.