Head to Wind!

Ready for salt in your hair and sea spray in your face? Chesapeake Bay yacht clubs are looking for intrepid racers.

Photography By Robb Scharetg

They’re wearing weathered t-shirts and shorts, not ascots and double-breasted blazers. And while a few of them might have grown up splashing around in a family boat or hanging out on the yacht club pier, chances are that the man or woman standing on the deck of a 36-foot racing sloop pushing its way out to the Chesapeake waters has only just learned what it means to yell, “Starboard!” and to feel the pull of a jib sheet.

In 1844, prominent New Yorker John Cox Stevens invited eight friends to his yacht Gimcrack, anchored in New York Harbor, and toasted the founding the New York Yacht Club. It was one of America’s first yacht clubs. Today, there are thousands of yacht clubs around the country—but sailing and the yacht-club experience still hold a rather exclusive niche in our sporting world. For an obvious reason: It’s darned expensive to own a sailboat.

But now, like a freshening breeze, a new breed of sailing enthusiasts is making its way down the venerable boards of the yacht club docks. No longer are fat bank accounts and a good family name prerequisites for the chance to hoist the spinnaker for the downwind leg of a race. Sailors and the clubs that have embraced them for generations are trying to add to their ranks, and they’re not looking in the usual places. “We want to see more boats on the starting line,” says Richard A. Bauer Jr., previously the vice commodore of Fishing Bay Yacht Club in Deltaville, founded by nine Richmond yachtsmen in the spring of 1939. “We are reaching out to find anyone who has a boat, or the least notion of sailing and racing, to come give it a try.”

The Fishing Bay Yacht Club has dispatched several of its 324 members—armed with glossy brochures depicting sailboats slicing through the blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay—to the Richmond Boat Show, held annually in January at the Richmond Raceway Complex. There, the yacht club members have persuaded dozens of prospective sailors to sign up for the club’s crew training program. “Serving as crew on a member’s boat is an excellent way to learn sailing,” explains David Hazlehurst, the club’s former participation chairman. “On a typical offshore racing boat, a skipper needs from four to nine crew members and will almost always have room for one or two absolute beginners.”

And the only job they’re not likely to get is captain. “We are looking for crew who will learn to do it all,” says Hazlehurst. Even novice crew onboard a 46-foot racing sloop will find themselves hoisting sails, trimming sheets (the lines that keep the sails set) and keeping track of time. “It’s incredibly exciting,” says Liz Arnold, a 2006 graduate of Fishing Bay’s crew training program. “You might get wet from time to time, but it’s worth it.”

Fishing Bay and other yacht clubs that dot the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, including the even older Hampton Yacht Club (since 1903), aim to spark new interest in both sailing and boat racing and raise their membership numbers. Active racers often must scramble to find good, dedicated crewmembers. “It’s a persistent dilemma for skippers,” says Bauer, who estimates that there hundreds of regular racing skippers in Virginia. “The sport sort of peaked a few years ago, when the America’s Cup race was in the news. Then we saw interest dwindle. We want to grow the sport again, and we’re doing everything we can to make that happen.”

At Fishing Bay and Hampton yacht clubs, as well as other sailing clubs along the Bay, the racing program for the larger boats (including J class, Ericson, Beneteau, C&C and assorted other 20- to 50-foot racing sloops), known as offshore racing, generally starts in mid-April and continues through mid-November. For smaller boats—typically Lasers, Optimists, Flying Scots and 420s, launched from trailers and raced closer to shore—the season begins two weeks later and finishes two weeks earlier than the offshore season. Offshore and one-design racers see an average of 20 race days each, with typically two to three races per day, weather permitting. In addition to a full series of club races, there are a number of large regattas each season. Screwpile Regatta in Annapolis, Southern Bay Race Week in Hampton, Stingray Point Regatta at Fishing Bay and assorted charity fund-raisers such as the Leukemia Cup and Hospice regattas make for a full calendar of racing.

At Fishing Bay, potential crew can attend a couple of onshore training classes before venturing out on the water. “All they need are sneakers or boat shoes, warm clothing, a waterproof jacket, life vest and a change of clothing,” says Hazlehurst. “We’ll bring the coffee and doughnuts for pre-race nourishment and even offer soup or chili after the race.”

As Arnold points out, lack of experience shouldn’t be a deterrent. “It’s a great sport. I’m convinced if more people knew how much fun this program is, and that it’s free, they’d have all the crew members they need.”

Fishing Bay Yacht Club: FBYC.net

Hampton Yacht Club: HamptonYC.com

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