A Midget Grows Up
Summer of 1963
By the time I turned 13, I had been sailing a Penguin for almost 7 years. With numerous summer sailing classes, and local regattas crew races my 12-foot dinghy Dormouse II. In 1963 Bobby Messick and I won TAYC's junior championships in Oxford, Maryland. And with the victory an opportunity to represent our yacht club in the Chesapeake Bay Midget Championships CBYRA. To discover if we actually possessed competitive racing skills against other Bay club champions.
During the previous 3 summers at weekly weekend regattas I was familiar with most of the junior Penguin competition on the Eastern Shore. Many were friends on and off the race course. Most of us had helped each other prepare their boats or launch them prior to races. Most had shared Saturday evening cookouts and socials that accompanied each regatta. Yet I soon realized that not having any familiarity with the Bay champs made me more anxious about the upcoming Midget series. But that wasn't the only thing that began to creep into my young psyche.
Light years away
I discovered these regional championships were to be raced at what seemed to me at the time to be a universe away. The Chesapeake's western shore meant not only crossing the Bay, but visiting a foreign port. (Annapolis was actually only about 25 miles from Oxford as the crow flies, but my teen perspective had skewed my perception of land distances. I thought I was pretty) And with the races staged for Annapolis' Severn River, I could only envision the winds, tides, shallows and shores to be similar to what I had already experienced. The breezes and the waters around the sleepy little Eastern Shore towns of Oxford, St. Michaels, Chestertown and Cambridge, Maryland were familiar places with familiar faces. Little did I know at the time, what was unfamiliar would soon give me the education I needed to be more successful on the race course. I eventually discovered I needed to be schooled.
In my limited teenage and provincial perspective, Annapolis felt intimidating. Almost as soon as I realized the championships would take place in unfamiliar waters, I started to feel nervous. Annapolis was the big time. Annapolis had grown up in my imagination as a sailing mecca - a place where supposedly another breed of sailors resided. They had owned the fastest boats and dominated the sailboat racing world.
Even the Western Shore as I had grown up had been portrayed as a more populated, civilized and citified place while the Eastern Shore was more farm and retirement community. At 13 I barely realized or recognized these differences. But there was a definite competitive feel whenever the shores clashed. Over the years I remember hearing numerous local sailors sing renditions of a song with partial lyrics that went something like "Don't give a damn about the Western Shore." An East vs West Bay rivalry had long been established long before my racing days.
While I didn't dare share it with anyone at the time, to say I was apprehensive about racing in these hallowed waters would be an understatement. As almost any first timer will readily admit, a completely new experience feels at least as uncomfortable as it does exciting.
However, as a early teenager, I wasn't totally oblivious to the world. Not unlike many teens, I thought I knew more than I actually did. I knew, after all, what a midget was, but I just wasn't sure how and why the designation "midget" racer referred to 12-13 year-olds. I asked myself, "Are we really that puny in racing expertise that we have to be referred to as small or undersized?" Amazing how a label or name affects one's perceptions.
My First Epiphany
Then it dawned on me that maybe 'midget' was appropriate as I started to feel midget-like when I was finally shown the boats we were to compete in for the championships. The Cadet felt smaller than the single sail Penguin dinghy I had grown up sailing. (Penquins were actually a few inches longer than Cadets, but Cadets sported jibs and spinnakers.) Two areas of sailing I knew very little about at the time. Suddenly I was starting to feel like I didn't know very much.
The Jack Holt designed Cadet is a three sail two-person symmetric spinnaker dinghy. Crews start at age 8 or 9 and helm at 12 or 13. The Cadet is a true international class with licensed builders in nine countries. The Cadet was apparently an ideal stepping stone to the International 420.
The Cadet is one-design; the boat itself is 3.2 meters / 10 feet 6 inches long, weighs 61.2 kg / 134 pounds 15 ounces and has a sail area of 4.55 / 4.65 square meters / 14 square feet 11 inches. For many years all Cadets were made of wood but the latest models are made of fiberglass.
Conditions and Epiphanies
The Bay championships, held annually in mid-August, sported typically Chesapeake breezes - light, fluky or nonexistent. I soon discovered the midgets were scheduled to race at the mouth of the Severn River with the looming and imposing presences of theNaval Academyand the Bay Bridge on the not-too-distant horizons. The openness and vastness of the Bay felt so different from the river-sailing of the Eastern Shores Tred Avon, The Miles, Corsica or Chester Rivers. But I finally realized that water was water even if the shores are much wider apart. Not only did the boat make me feel diminutive, but so did the surroundings and conditions.
Local knowledge is often perceived a distinct advantage for local sailors. Being familiar where the breezes are strongest and lightest. What shores are most favorable in certain wind and weather conditions. Having an understanding where the shallow and deep waters loom. Knowing where the tidal currents are swiftest. Having experience negotiating the waves from motor craft. These are all vital tidbits for any serious racer to consider when making decisions on the race course. Then add to that mix, the advantage of sailing in boats you grew up sailing. Knowing how their jibs and spinnakers function best gives any club sailor a leg up, so to speak.
Our main competition came from Charlie Scott, the brother of Jimmy Scott, one of the best junior sailors at the time and an Annapolis resident. So I knew we would have our work cut out for us. After 5 races, despite our never having sailed Cadets or having any spinnaker experience, my crew Bobby Messick and I had accumulated five 2-2-2-2-2 place finishes. My father had always said consistency would usually prevail in any endeavor. Under normal circumstances these 5 seconds would have probably been good enough for a first place in the standings going into the 6th and final race, but no. Charlie had been just as consistent with finishes of 1-1-1-1-1. So there was no way we were going to beat him overall as the 6th and final race commenced. Nevertheless, I was determined to sail our best race and show him we could beat him.
On a drifter with the only waves affecting our Cadets coming from motorboats and the only real significant and consistent water movement coming from strong tidal currents, Bobby and I somehow found ourselves at the windward mark first. As luck would have it, after our rounding the windward mark, a favorable tide moved us to what seemed like an insurmountable lead as we headed down the race course towards the leeward mark located up into the Severn River near the Naval Academy. What seemed literally like a mile lead as we could barely distinguish his sail or any of the other competitors in the distance behind us was anything but large enough.
The Last Epiphany
When the wind totally died, our sails were nothing but limp fabric on poles and our boat only bobbed up and down about a hundred yards from the leeward mark, I soon realized we were in trouble even with such a big lead. When I noticed a freshening breeze fill the spinnakers of our competition, I felt helpless. I figured if I could somehow if the tide could get us to the leeward mark, I could head towards the breeze and better fight the adverse tide first with some power in the sails. But Charlie was practically within a few hundred feet when the breeze finally filled our sails. It was almost as if the whole fleet had caught up with their own private wind.
My overconfidence turned to nervousness that he was now within range to overtake us. Even though we still reached the leeward mark first, we started the upwind leg slowly as the tide still was flooding into the Severn. I also knew that the race was only half over and Charlie had plenty of time to work his magic. And because I was so much more worried about his position and his catching us, that I lost my focus on sailing our boat as we had earlier with nothing to lose. That factor more than any other is what "turned the tide". He slowly inched ahead on the last windward leg and beat us by a sizable margin on the second lap downwind.
While elated we had finished second, it felt bittersweet as I let that last race get away. However, I learned some valuable lessons - no lead is too big in sailboat racing. I also learned how valuable local knowledge is. But most important was keeping one's cool under pressure. This was not the last time I had to learn this lesson. I knew I would improve my racing skills, and I wasn't going to be a midget much longer.