In Chesapeake Bay, the rarified sport of frostbite racing — sailing through the bone-chilling, skin-freezing, mind-numbing cold of winter — usually doesn’t start until November.
But it arrived early this season, just in time to give a little extra zip to one of the most distinctive, worthy, and fun local contests of the year: the annual Constellation Cup in Baltimore Harbor.
The Constellation Cup is a charity regatta, raising funds for the upkeep and educational programs of the USS Constellation, the 154-year-old U.S. naval frigate docked in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Now in its fifth year, the Constellation Cup is growing in both popularity and competition, and starting to gather significant contributions for the ship.
Almost four dozen sailboats, their crews, supporters and sponsors raised $21,000 for the Constellation in this year’s race — records both for the number of boats and net cash. That was a major success, given the chilly economic conditions of the day and even more frigid and threatening weather: soaking rain, gale-force gusts, near-freezing wind chill and fog.
One of the best parts of this mid-October event is the post-race evening party, held on board the Constellation itself. The evening bash is part of the fundraiser and popular with landlubber friends and guests — meaning those lesser mortals who can’t appreciate the fun of getting wet and hypothermic sailing through an early-winter storm, and who merely want to stay warm, dry and well-fed.
For those of us who raced on White Hawk, a 44-foot Cherubini ketch, the glow of this on-board celebration was especially sweet: We won the 2009 Constellation Cup.
For White Hawk, the race got under way in earnest a few days before the start, when owner Chris O’Flinn bent on its biggest, fastest headsail and had a diver go under the boat to scrub off a season’s accumulation of speed-killing moss and growth. “It’s got a nice, clean, fast bottom,” he said as we left his home port on the Magothy River and headed north to Baltimore.
Early on Saturday, Oct. 17, the day of the race, the rest of the crew showed up at the Inner Harbor Marina where White Hawk was docked: Chris’ friend Tim Clark; his son Sam Clark and friend Julia King; and Ken Dalecki, a Navy veteran who never gets seasick. As we motored slowly out of the Inner Harbor in a steady, cold rain, other boats gradually materialized out of the mist on either side of the river, everyone swaddled in foul-weather gear. By the time we passed Fort McHenry and reached the G15 starting buoy mid-river, a growing fleet of racers was hovering around the committee boat and practicing their starts.
An unusual race
Compared to the hard-core races held off Annapolis just to the south, the Constellation Cup regatta is an unusual contest. Its narrow 10-mile course starts in the middle of the heavily industrial Patapsco River, loops between legendary Fort McHenry and the ruins of Fort Carroll just below the I-695 Key Bridge, and ends inside Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Typically, the race lasts two to four hours.
Because of the wide range of boats that compete, entries are grouped by class under PHRF rules — meaning each boat is given a handicap based on its expected performance (the “PH” standing for “performance handicap”). Each boat also is given its own unique start time, which improves safety (boats are not all converging at the starting line at the same time) and creates a “pursuit race” (the supposedly faster boats start later, pursuing the supposedly slower boats). White Hawk, with its high handicap, started near the end of its class.
Because the ultimate goal of the event is to raise money, the boats also compete in advance of the race by fundraising for the Constellation. Each boat gets extra race points for the amount it raises, meaning that speed alone is not enough to claim the Constellation Cup: It takes speed and cash. A slower boat with a bigger kitty can still win.
Even though the rules of the race emphasize “friendly” competition, and “protests are discouraged,” the competition in this event is still tough. The Baltimore City Yacht Association (co-sponsor of the race) stages highly competitive races throughout the year, and members have fast boats and skilled crews. The Patapsco River is a challenge itself: one of the busiest harbors on the East Coast, with heavy commercial traffic such as tugs, barges, huge container ships, freighters, cruise ships, water taxis, tourist boats, and countless recreational boats swarming the waterway. Raceboats are required to give way to all other traffic, and the really big ships will scramble the fleet (and literally stop the wind) when they come through.
The rigors of this race are reflected in its Spirit Award: To win this prize (one bottle of Pusser’s rum), either a boat or its crew must have a near-death experience. Last year’s winner, Jim Nealey of Thrill Ride, won for “flipping his boat, being launched through the mainsail, tearing it and showing up at the party in wet clothing with a big smile on his face.”
This year’s recipient was Eamonn McGeady of Dun na NGall, whose boat “started taking on water” (marine-speak for “sinking”) from being damaged in a gale coming up to Baltimore the night before the race. Luckily, the pumps kept up with the leak long enough to reach the closest marina. McGeady had set the individual fundraising record this year and came into the race with lots of extra points; race organizers noted “he was a shoe-in to win the trophy” … had he been able to reach the starting line.
Running the course
Sam Clark was our secret weapon in this event, as he had raced on the varsity sailing team during his four years at Harvard. Although our crew had never sailed together, he and Chris helped straighten out our dismal early efforts with the unruly headsail, coordinated functions in the crowded cockpit, and directed the sail trimming for maximum speed. Serving as helmsman and tactician, Sam also timed our 11:44:29 start almost to the second, wasting no time on our first leg beating upriver.
At the tip of Fort McHenry, we rounded the G3 turning buoy and took off on a close reach for Fort Carroll, four miles downriver, overtaking other boats. Just before the Key Bridge we passed the unique red-white-and-blue Francis Scott Key Buoy: This marks the spot where Key watched “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” over Fort McHenry during the 1814 Battle of Baltimore and wrote the poem that would ultimately become our national anthem. Chris serenaded the buoy with a rousing (if off-key) baritone stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as we churned past.
Passing under the north span of Key Bridge, we smoothly jibed around Fort Carroll, edging out two other boats as we did so. But coming out from below the fort and heading back upwind toward the bridge, a small raceboat ahead tried to block us from passing, using a standard racing tactic called “luffing up” — common in match racing but sort of pointless between two boats (like ours) in different classes. In this case the maneuver squeezed us between the smaller boat ahead and the eye of the wind, forcing us onto a collision course with a massive concrete bridge piling less than a hundred yards ahead.
From years of racing practice, Sam waited for the just the right mix of wind and wave action and suddenly cut downwind of the smaller boat, breaking for open space. Seconds later the smaller boat entered the bridge’s wind shadow, which literally knocked the wind out of its sails. White Hawk surged past and another boat was left behind.
Heading back upriver to Fort McHenry, we continued to advance through the fleet, as gale-force gusts buried the boat’s port rail into the waves. As we passed just downwind of a few slower boats, with White Hawk’s starboard hull lifted far out of the water by the stiff wind, the other boats got a good view of the diver’s bottom work from two days before.
“Nice clean bottom!” yelled out a sailor in one boat we passed. “Clean bottom!” said another. “Clean hull!” said a third.
The Cherubini 44, with its classic, graceful lines, is such a fast, well-
designed and beautiful craft that it’s listed in a coffee-table book modestly titled “The World’s Best Sailboats” (Ferenc Máté, 2008), and it typically draws compliments wherever it goes. Chris O’Flinn’s Cherubini 44 in particular is a historic boat: His 2003 restoration of White Hawk literally saved the Cherubini family boat business from liquidation. (See the August 2005 issue, “Cherubini comeback born in a Dumpster” or search SoundingsOnline.com, keyword: Cherubini.)
But this was a race, and no sailor likes to be passed. Neither White Hawk nor its crew heard any praise on the water today. “That’s all they can say?” wondered Chris. “ ‘Nice bottom?’ ”
Tacking to victory
Reaching Fort McHenry, we faced the most difficult and crucial part of the entire race: tacking up through the narrow entrance to the Inner Harbor. The wind was directly against us; the very slender harbor entrance allowed little room to maneuver; the shallow water off Fort McHenry threatened a grounding; and the rest of the fleet was arriving quickly behind us, some with right of way over our boat.
Plus, fast tacking was White Hawk’s weak point, especially given the big headsail we had struggled with all day. Every time we crossed the wind, we had to roll in the big sail, come about without losing momentum, unroll the sail again, and quickly trim it down to catch the wind, an exhausting process repeated quickly several times under the skipper’s urgent orders.
But this maneuver is also the weak point of most other boats, which is why upwind “tacking duels” often decide a race. Somehow, White Hawk and its crew fought to windward quickly, with no mistakes and little delay. We squeezed around the last upwind mark inches ahead of another boat and quickly bore off downwind toward the skyscrapers of the Inner Harbor and the finish line a half-mile away.
White Hawk crossed the line in 1 hour, 46 minutes, 58 seconds — the second-fastest elapsed time of the race (Jakrabit, a 1974 C&C 35 skippered by Mike Boniker, posted the fastest overall elapsed time about five minutes faster and was also first in the fin keel class). On corrected (handicapped) time, we came in fourth in the full-keel class (Encantada, a 1966 Ludders 33 skippered by Mike Albert, won the Perpetual Trophy for overall first place).
But White Hawk had also raised the second-highest total contributions for the race. By sailing a fast race and cashing in our Green Stamps, as it were, White Hawk took home the 2009 Constellation Cup.
Later that evening, at the awards ceremony held on the gun deck of the USS Constellation, drinks (including but not limited to buckets of rum-laced grog and painkillers, a concoction of dark rum, coconut cream, pineapple and orange juice) were liberally dispensed to guests under tents on the main deck. Groaning boards of food and a lively band were squeezed into the gun deck below, between cast-iron cannons, ramrods, coils of rope and other authentic ship’s gear. The two remaining lower decks, including officers’ and crew’s quarters, sick bay (complete with well-used amputation saws), and the claustrophobic, evil-looking brig, are also open for exploration. Great swag (such as Constellation T-shirts) was handed out.
White Hawk’s proud owner O’Flinn was presented with the gleaming silver Constellation Cup, also known as the George Colligan Memorial Trophy, after the late volunteer who first organized the regatta.
“Maybe this year,” suggested one of White Hawk’s tired crew, “they should just call it ‘Chris’s Clean-Bottom-Boat Award.’ ”
Stephen Blakely is a writer based in Washington, D.C., who sails his 26-foot Island Packet, Bearboat, on the Chesapeake Bay.
This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters Seciton of the February 2010 issue.