When authorities open the flood gates of the Conowingo Dam, releasing metric tons of liquid sunshine into the Susquehanna River, sailors certainly feel the impact downstream on the Chesapeake Bay racecourses off Annapolis. Such was the case on the opening day of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series Annapolis where the daylong ebb had a boost of southbound flow and the wind played nicer than expected.
The strong current was one of many challenges for the 152 teams that have gathered for this first big event of the Annapolis spring sailing season, and while some teams managed it well, others…well, not so much. Listen around the teeming bar at host Annapolis YC and you’ll hear numerous accounts of failed attempts to get around marks without incident.
Competitors on the Division 2 racecourse, which had its weather mark anchored smack in the middle of the channel where the river runs swiftest, had it most difficult. Sailors in the Etchells, J/30 and Viper 640 classes were fighting the full brunt of it all day long. The smaller Melges 15 dinghies failed to finish their first race within the time allowed, but shorter courses for the next two races allowed Brian Stout and crewmate Lizzy Chiochetti to knock off back-to-back wins to lead their 11-boat fleet by 5 points. Skipper Jimmy Praley, with teammates Austin Powers and Max Vinocur, did the same in the Viper 640 fleet, finishing fourth in the first race and then running the table.
Meanwhile, competitors over on the Division 1 circle, tucked closer to shoreline and out of the worst of the current, completed three to four races to get their regatta started off right. TC William’s Alberg 30, Argo, winning two of three races, took the early lead in its battle for the class’s coveted Maple Leaf Championship, but Raymond Bay’s Laughing Gull is only 1 point in arrears with two days yet to go.
Annapolis’ Aden King, skipper of the J/22 Rhythmic Pumping, with Will Farmer and Jeff Sullivan, went 1-2-2-9 for the day and summarized it as, “We went left—hard left—every race and were three-to-four boats from the pin at every start.”
Mike Beasley’s J/80 Black Sheep started its regatta with a third in the 22-boat fleet, which was a keeper in this no-discard series, but Beasley says, they “found another gear” for the second race, and it’s lucky they did so. With a second-row start behind the race committee boat, Beasley says they kept their cool and tapped into the prowess of tactician Dee Smith’s to get them back into the hunt, into the lead and across the finish line first.
“The guy has won a few championships for good reason,” Beasley says. “We got out of that bad situation by playing the shifts and playing our own game. We’ve been in that situation before, but we’re comfortable in this [light] wind range. While we knew we were deep, it was just a matter of getting one boat at a time, and then suddenly we were OK. From there, we just kept chipping away.”
That race win was followed up by two more and Black Sheep ended the day 10-points ahead of Mike Hobson’s Meltimi, which won the first race.
Black Sheep’s new sails certainly helped, Beasly says, and that extra gear he mentioned was a firm mainsheet and high-traveler setup that got them out of trouble more than once. “A high mode is a good mode to have,” he says, “but the crew did a great job switching modes and getting around the corners. I’m just at the back of the boat pushing the wood.”
As for the current on the Division 3 circle near Thomas Point Lighthouse, it wasn’t as much of a tactical factor Beasly says. While the herd mentality was to go left to get out of the worst of the ebb, there was opportunity on the right as well. “We felt the current was pretty global in the middle of the Bay and there was really no real relief anywhere,” Beasley says. “Our concern with winning the pin—and we could see it happening with the J/70s that started ahead of us—was getting locked out of playing shifts. Dee recognized that right away and we tried a bit more in the middle. It helps that he’s dynamite at finding the shifts.”
As would be expected of the J/70s, stacked with top-shelf teams gearing up for the November World Championships in Florida, the action is tight at the top and after four races Brian Keane’s Savasana leads the pack. Savasana won the last race of the day to put 4 points between them and Doug Newhouse’s team on Yonder. Savasana, which has been on a J/70 class winning streak since January, opened the series with a win and posted a 5-6 before ending the day on a high note.
“In that last race the racecourse opened up a bit,” says Savasana’s Thomas Barrows. “The left had been paying in the earlier races because of wind shift current, and downwind traffic. The port-tack layline was above the J/105s going downwind.
In that last race, Barrows says, they had a good start at the pin, went all the way left, but it was better to be middle left so they had some passing to do. At the top of the first run, they capitalized on an early jibe, got the win and ended the day
The overall theme for the day on the Division 3 course, Barrows says, was that the left side was, “Generally quite good…Yonder started at the pin and had three really good starts, so that’s why they were doing well and we had our better start in the last race. I’m sure everyone felt slow at times today because it was tricky. We were sort of in the lee of a bunch of container ships so that added another thing at the top of the course and then just racing around a lot of J/105s and J/80s made it a little interesting. “
As for managing all these variables, Barrows says they kept it simple: “it was about just setting up the boat to be a bit more forgiving and not sheeting as hard on the sails and being very active with the jib trim.”
Conditions are expected to be similar for the second day of racing with the addition of the Distance Race competitors of ORC and PHRF who certainly have their day with the current as they transverse the bay on a long course that should take them shore to shore.