Wednesday Night Melges Sailing
I love all kinds of sailboat racing–inshore, offshore, dinghy, keelboat, one-design, handicap (well, I don’t really LOVE handicap–you shouldn’t need a stopwatch and a spreadsheet to know how you’ve done). But the type of racing I think I love above all others is casual weeknight racing. It’s got just enough of an edge of competition to keep it intense and exciting. But it’s also got the laid-back, playing-hooky-from-the-work-week and it’s-okay-to-have-a-beer vibe. That is a unique, and perfect, balance. There’s nothing like getting out on the water mid-week to help you survive until the weekend, when you can be on the water all day.
The problem is that I hadn’t been doing any weeknight racing lately. Before I had a family, it was a staple of my week. But as each kid arrived, and getting to a dock mid-week became more complex, it slowly disappeared from my life. I didn’t really notice it wasn’t there, or that I was failing to fight against the dying of the light, until my family and I decamped to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay for a chunk of the summer. Suddenly, I was back in weeknight-racing territory, running into old friends who take for granted the fact that, if it’s Wednesday, they’ll be out racing. And then–even though a decade had passed–I realized how much I missed it.
Thankfully, Alex Schlegel, the proprietor of Hartge Yacht Yard in Galesville, Md., took pity on me and asked me to come out racing on his Melges 24 last week. Alex has been sailing his entire life and knows the waters of the West River better than anyone I have ever met. He likes to do things right, and like the rest of the world likes to win, but he is also pretty calm and easygoing as a skipper, so it’s always a fun evening on Bufflehead. Racing with Alex were his two sons, Sterling and Xan, and a friend of theirs, Kelsey Averill. They are all good sailors, and didn’t really need any help from me. But with the wind blowing 10-plus out of the west-northwest at the start with some nice gusts, my extra weight on the rail came in handy.
The Pirates Cove Race Committee checks boats in.
Bufflehead has been a regular in the Pirate’s Cove Wednesday night series for years, and I used to race with Alex before I got distracted. Pirate’s Cove always gets a pretty good turnout, and starts lots of classes, making it easy for any type of boat and any type of crew to sail. Bufflehead is in the sportboat class, and the main competition is another Melges 24, a J-105, and a Columbia 30. After launching by crane from the end of a pier at the Hartge yard, we sailed to the start off the Pirate’s Cove marina. It was a beautiful summer evening, and I couldn’t think of a place I’d rather be.
For this race, Alex turned over the tiller to his son Xan. With boats criss-crossing everywhere and setting up for a reaching start, we managed to be late to the line, and trailed a pack toward the first mark.
A Casual (Maybe Too Casual) Start
Xan settled in nicely, and steadily gained ground on the leaders as we worked our way around the course. Eventually, we were almost bow to bow with the other Melges. Unfortunately, that was as advanced as we got. Heading back up the West River on a tight spinnaker reach, hope triumphed over experience (and our own eyes), and we tried to squeeze past a mark without dropping the spinnaker. It just wasn’t going to happen, and while we didn’t technically hit the mark (Sterling fended off nicely), we ended up on the wrong side with a 360 to do.
That was the end of our race, as we were deep in the fleet by the time we sorted it all out. But it being Wednesday night, we stayed philosophical. Heading back to Hartge’s the talk didn’t dwell on our mis-steps. Instead we talked about the Ken Kesey novel, Sometimes A Great Notion, which Sterling had recommended to Alex (it features a stubborn, half-crazed patriarch, whose motto is “Never Give An Inch!” so it was an interesting choice).
Sterling helping keep us ahead of Sassy.
We got so wrapped up in an easy conversation, while enjoying the dying breeze and the fading light of a summer Wednesday, that we plowed the keel bulb into the mud approaching the pier. “Yeah, it’s only about 4 foot in here,” Alex noted drily, about a minute too late. No one seemed to mind, and we heeled the boat way over and sculled our way the final six feet to the pier. When the crane lifted Bufflehead from the water there was a nice, fat, blob of Chesapeake mud to hose off the bulb. We couldn’t say we had the race we had hoped to have. But it was Wednesday, and we were out racing instead of sitting at a desk. That makes it impossible to have any regrets.