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A cruiser takes in the J/22 Worlds

The perspective from a Boston Whaler chase boat is ‘bone-rattling,’ but intense

The perspective from a Boston Whaler chase boat is ‘bone-rattling,’ but intense

Assuming it would be less confusing and more instructive to closely observe the final races of the J/22 Worlds with race commentator Tucker Thompson and video man Bruce Nairn aboard their small, speedy chase boat, I invited myself along for the ride.

A few days earlier I had gone out alone in my Sailmaster 22 to watch the first of three days of racing in mid-May off Annapolis, but I had my hands full just staying out of the way of two fleets numbering a record 130 boats, zipping back and forth in a brisk breeze across my intended path.

But in close action in boat-tight surroundings with racing insiders and local racing celebrities like Thompson, 30, and Nair, 52, I was right in among the brother- and sisterhood, and sometimes we had to get out of the way smartly. We were close enough for Thompson to carry on brief conversations with his racing buddies during lulls.

Thompson wise-cracked with sailors who came over to say hello and was particularly entertaining when racer and racing writer Dobbs Davis stopped by. He managed an amusing impersonation, pontificating about weather patterns and winds in a deep, serious voice.

Speeding to meet boats at turning marks on a 24-foot Boston Whaler Outrage powered by a 225-hp Mercury outboard was as jarring and bone-rattling a ride as I have ever had on Chesapeake Bay.

At 35 mph, even in a small chop with light air, the Whaler slammed and pounded as I held on for dear life with wild man Thompson at the wheel. At least he gave warning before taking off, with a quiet, “Hold on.”

It sure wasn’t like observing an America’s Cup regatta in a large press boat with a comfy lounge, live TV coverage and bar service while trailing along slowly and amiably in the wake of only two sailboats to track. Even clueless writers quickly understood what was going on under match-racing conditions, especially with TV broadcaster Gary Jobson doing the play-by-play and explaining anything that needed explanation — and then some.

Jobson, of Annapolis — who is battling cancer — has been Thompson’s mentor. Relatively new as a racing commentator, Thompson supplies the words for partner Nairn’s post-race videos shown regularly at Dick Franyo’s Boatyard Bar & Grill in Eastport/Annapolis, which owns the chase boat, and is a sailors’ hangout.

At times even Thompson had to play catch-up at every mark in keeping up with this huge fleet of identical boats. But at the end of the regatta, as the boats were crossing the line, he snared the winner, Alec Cutler.

“Hey, Alec! Congratulations! If I’m not mistaken, I think you won the regatta.”

Annapolitan Cutler, 38, replied, “Really?” He had chartered an older, seldom-sailed “Legally Blonde” from Henry Libby, who can now claim bragging rights that his boat won the J/22 Worlds.

In contrast, last year’s world champion John den Engelsman of the Netherlands, came in

second in a brand new boat right out of the box. In third place was David Van Cleef, of Annapolis.

Each J/22 wore large bow numbers, and Thompson constantly popped questions about who-was-who to production assistant Blair Gallagher, who hurriedly answered while scrambling to match numbers with names from wet computer printouts in her hands. At least the fleet was divided in two, preventing 130 boats being lined up on the same starting line — but that did not stop the confusion.

Skipper Cutler (with crewmembers Max Skelley and Paul Murphy) had never sailed a J/22 until a few weeks before the worlds. Racing conservatively to stay in the top 10, they achieved their goal of not winning one race, yet winning the regatta.

Luckily for safety reasons, there was but one day of brisk wind because racing a tender J/22 keelboat calls for great balance and nimble feet (especially for the bowman) with toe rails barely an inch high and no lifelines. J/22 sails are not rigged for reefing while racing. They go flat-out or not at all, and can capsize.

Racers used to lifelines who grab for things that aren’t there can wind up in the water. And Cutler (who has a J/105 with lifelines) threw himself right off his boat while tacking in an earlier practice sail in big winds prepping for the April 30 to May 2 Sailing World Annapolis NOOD Regatta featuring 80 J/22s. He came in seventh in his first J/22 regatta, a warm-up for the Worlds that followed. The dunking in 43-degree waters apparently did him no harm.

The final day of racing in Chesapeake Bay off Tolly and Thomas Points was in shifting light air that came and went and came again in different directions. One race was actually abandoned by the race committee.

Speeding around the course to keep track of things, Thompson and Nairn, partners in T2 Productions, finally settled by the committee boat at the finish line to keep count as repeated blasts of an air horn signaled boats that crossed the line.

Chasing and filming races up and down the East Coast and in the Caribbean, the dashing duo regularly film and report on the Annapolis Yacht Club’s Wednesday Night Races, and show their product and do post-race interviews at the club and at the Boatyard Bar & Grill.