Bay Tripper

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Trading the helm for the remote

Trading the helm for the remote

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

— “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot

Forward to the future? Could this be me some years hence — being shuttled in a retirement community van and then transferred to a golf cart for transport to a puddle of water in the woods to compete in my yacht club’s regatta?

This regatta, which I “covered” in late October, was far removed and greatly reduced in size — two acres — from my regular sailing venue, Mother Chesapeake’s vast playground. The yachts, too, had shrunk — to 31 inches — and were remotely controlled by club members gathered on a small dock.

The event was the season’s final regatta for the Black Swan Yacht Club, one of more than 100 different special interest groups in Charlestown, a large middle-class retirement community in the Baltimore suburb of Catonsville. Several of the 10 or so active members, all over the age of 70, had sold their full-size yachts before relocating to apartments in Charlestown. They downsized to the Victoria Class of model racing sloops, which are dry-docked in a small storage shed on shore built specifically for the club’s use.

This nautical coming of age, so to speak, awaits many active, gung-ho sailors, some of whom temporarily dodge the inevitable by going over to power or paddle to extend their dwindling participatory time on the water. But time, alas, catches up sooner or later to everyone in one way or another, no matter how indestructible we imagine ourselves. We grow slower and weaker, our balance becomes tenuous, and knees go wobbly. Fortunately, however, sailing is a sport that can be handled primarily from a seated position, with no need to run, jump, throw, kick or hit a ball.

I had sailed on the Bay the day before the regatta and was determined more than ever to sail the day after, before being sidelined by winter. I am not ready for any retirement community, even one as attractive as Charlestown, and playing on a restrictive pond with a toy I cannot sit in and with lines I can’t pull is not my kind of substitute for the real thing.

Feeling a bit tormented and picking up on J. Alfred Prufrock’s worries about growing older, I thought about wearing a cap to the event to cover a bald spot in the middle of my hair and prevent friends from wondering, “My, how his hair is growing thin!” Or, even worse, “How his arms and legs are thin!” In short — again, with apologies to Mr. Eliot — I felt as if I were seeing a future moment of my (presumed) greatness flickering, with the eternal footman holding my coat and snickering.

***

Charlestown’s kidney-shaped pond, called Lake Charles, is, indeed, an enticing retreat for one drawn to the water. A white Tundra swan is a year-round resident, having lost his mate and a pair of cygnets to a fox. (A black swan once inhabited the pond, hence the club’s name.)

Rune Engblom, an Annapolis Power Squadron member who sold his Mainship 34 trawler before coming to Charlestown, often comes to the pond alone. “I was not allowed to bring my trawler with me and moor it in the pond,” he explains. Instead, he sails his Victoria sloop or putters about the place with his radio-controlled PT boat or Chris-Craft sportfisherman with twin screws.

Mary Hollenbaugh, club secretary and race committee chairwoman, “does not permit stinkpots to operate during the races because of the wakes,” he says, laughing. A landlubber, Mrs. Hollenbaugh is vague on the nautical meaning of “wake.” (Incidentally, I checked on her yachting credentials by asking her for the proper terminology for the “front” and “back” of a boat, and she got them both right.)

There is no shouting during the races, and means of protesting are not covered in the club’s constitution. The only voice heard in the silence of the pond was that of Mrs. Hollenbaugh, identifying racers who crossed the starting line early. During one of the races a large migrating flock of Canada geese, announcing their coming with loud honks, descended onto the far end of the pond, but races went on regardless.

It was difficult to report a blow-by-blow account of the racing because the boats were often stalled for long periods of time while awaiting undependable winds or tiny cat’s paws of puffs that sent one boat zooming ahead and kept the others dead in the water. Even Tucker Thompson, the on-water broadcaster in the recent America’s Cup matches in Valencia, Spain, would have been at a loss to call these races. The only person keeping track of progress (or the lack thereof) other than the skippers themselves was Mrs. Hollenbaugh. It just wasn’t that kind of regatta, even when boats collided.

Commodore Tom Linton is the most experienced racer in the group, having owned a Condor 40 trimaran and a Freedom 44, both named Alcyone. A former member of the Eastport Yacht Club in Annapolis, Linton won several national championships in the Shark 20 (catamaran) Class when he lived in Ohio. “I now sail as a passenger, where I once preferred being the skipper responsible for everything,” he says. “I miss the sport, but reality has turned me to model-boat racing, which I thoroughly enjoy.”

Linton’s last big Bay outing was as a paying guest aboard Imagine in the 2005 Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race from Annapolis to Portsmouth, Va. The gaff rigger won the race in 12 hours and 28 minutes — still a record time. The commodore has briefed Mrs. Hollenbaugh on the finer points of yacht racing to where she knows port from starboard and even the rules of right of way.

Peg Norman, a widow and newcomer to the club who used to race a Cal 25 on the Chesapeake with her husband, was expected to be named the champion racer of the club’s 2007 season. But once Mrs. Hollenbaugh checked her records, she realized she had to penalize her for starting late and for missing a couple of races. Vic Harwick was crowned champion, followed by Bob Thomas and Mrs. Norman.

***

Charlestown was created in 1983, the first of 21 other Erickson Company retirement communities. Some 2,200 residents live on a historic 110-acre campus that includes several original buildings from the days when it was the St. Charles campus of St. Mary’s College and Seminary.

The Black Swan Yacht Club was founded in 1993 by Jim Cosby and Charlie Martin. Races are conducted in May, June, September and October. Other active racers include Bob and Barbara Hampton, and Don Morey. In the early days, the racers had to launch their boats at the muddy, slippery water’s edge after negotiating a slight hill. Some wound up a bit water-logged when they splashed their boats, so Charlestown built a small dock for them to dry-launch by lowering the boats from the dock into the water by their mastheads.

No longer needing to roll up their trousers to reach the water’s edge because of the new launching arrangement that keeps them high and dry, the yachties slogged off to the storage shed at the regatta’s end, boats tucked under their arms. Inside, the sloops were placed on shelves to be sheltered on the hard until the return to campaigning in the spring on little Lake Charles.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.