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Weeknight sailboat racing

Around 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday of the summer, the grounds of Severn Sailing Association are a whirlwind of activity.

Around 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday of the summer, the grounds of Severn Sailing Association are a whirlwind of activity. Men and women of all ages scramble out of business clothes and into wetsuits. All around the crowded lot, sailors are rushing to rig and launch dinghies of all types. Vanguard 15 skipper Dave Smitley is in such a hurry to leave the dock that he almost forgets to swap his sandals for sea boots.

The Tuesday Evening Summer One-Design is just one component of the weeknight sailing scene in Annapolis, the self-proclaimed sailing capital of the world. Counting the number of raceboats on the Severn River and Chesapeake Bay from Tuesday through Friday lends credibility to that title. Severn Sailing Association set a record a few summers ago when 78 boats showed up for the Tuesday series. An average of 120 boats started during Series I of the Wednesday Night Races, the popular big-boat event hosted by the Annapolis Yacht Club. Anywhere from 45 to 60 J/22s, J/24s and J/80s turn out for the Thursday Night Series, organized by J/World Annapolis. And Eastport Yacht Club has always enjoyed consistent numbers for its Friday Night Beer Can series.

Getting out to the start line by 6 p.m. in time for the opening gun of the Tuesday Evening Summer One-Design, or TESOD, races requires some hustle, but the rewards can be well worth the effort. On this particular night in early June, an 18-knot southerly has attracted a healthy fleet of about 45 Lasers, Snipes, Vanguard 15s and Jet 14s. Sailors from the Star, Etchells and Thistle classes also routinely turn out.

TESOD organizers try to complete five or six races per night for each class on short triangle courses, with rolling starts making for constant action. Competition can be fierce, although results aren’t recorded. “It’s a great chance to get out on the water in a low-key, laid-back atmosphere,” says Bob Oberg, who sails a Laser on Tuesday night. “It’s no big deal if you get here late and miss a race or two. It’s kind of like playing pickup basketball. You just show up and join in.”

John Potter, who also answers to the pseudonym Alden Bugly, is responsible for creating the TESOD series and transforming it into a can’t-miss event. Potter sent out an e-mail newsletter that promoted the races and generally talked up the series all over town.

“Severn Sailing Association always had Tuesday night racing, but it was extremely casual and not very well-attended,” says Potter. “I just put a little more oomph in it. I accosted people on the street and asked, ‘Are you coming out tonight?’ I walked the lot on Sundays and bullied the weekend sailors into showing up on Tuesdays.”

To Potter, the appeal of weeknight racing is simple: “The powerboat chop around Annapolis has gotten so bad that weekend racing has become increasingly more difficult,” he says.

What makes TESOD unique is that beginners can get out on the course and race against high-level sailors without fear of embarrassment, since there are no series standings and no one really cares how anyone else finishes. Vanguard sailor Smitley and crew Frank Pittelli have been racing on Tuesday nights for eight years and have been bypassed competitively by an influx of collegiate sailors. On this particular night, Pittelli is joking about how he and Smitley still have not beaten the hotshot team of Renee Mehl (Michigan State) and Ali Sharpe (St. Mary’s College), who are rigging their boat nearby.

“To the younger members of the fleet, we’re known as the two old guys,” says Pittelli, who is full of self-deprecating humor. “We don’t care if we finish first or last; we’re just having fun. It’s great exercise and a wonderful way to relax.”