So what were we doing August 5 and 6 last summer? We were crewing aboard Makai in the Governor’s Cup! Our O-dock neighbor, Tony, and his wife and first mate, Cheri, had invited us to come racing with them several evenings throughout the summer and to join their crew for the “Gov Cup” in early August. Damian and I saw this as a great opportunity for us to learn, grow, and gain experience as sailors and a meaningful distraction from the sadness the summer heat had brought for us personally.
The Governor’s Cup is an annual sailboat race from Annapolis to St. Mary’s, Maryland. It is the oldest and longest overnight race on the Chesapeake Bay. The race has been running for 43 years and is one of Tony and Cheri’s favorite sailing races that they participate in each year with their 1998 Catalina 38, Makai. Ironically, the Governor’s Cup begins at the state’s current capital, Annapolis, and ends at its first, St. Mary’s established in 1634 along the St. Mary’s River, a tributary of the Potomac.
Preparations and Practice
In preparation for the race, Tony hosted practices each Wednesday evening and raced against two other sailboats who are on the Narrows. Damian had joined the practices twice over the summer, and I had only come once; but despite our irregularity, Tony and Cheri graciously encouraged us to take part and join their crew. Cheri had matching Gov Cup T-shirts made, and Tony kept us updated through email correspondence about race details as the start date approached. We were each instructed to only bring one backpack with what we needed for the three-day experience, so that the boat would be as light as possible for the race.
Friday morning of the race, Damian sat on the picnic tables at the pavilion next to the dock and the parking lot. We did not know what to expect but happy to be a part as crew. This was our first official sailing race!
Tony and Cheri drove in with their truck packed with needed supplies, yummy provisions, and essential gear. We loaded it into the dock carts and wheeled it down to O-Dock, where Makai waited eagerly in her slip. We met all of the other crew members, a total of seven: Mike (the same one who came to our rescue during our “lazy jack installation”), me, Damian, Tony, Cheri, Kerry, and Dave. Each with fun, unique personalities that would spice up the next 72 hours of life on the water.
Once we had stored everything down below, we snapped a quick group photo, and headed out. Semi-overcast with a light breeze, mid-eighties with thick humidity in the air–as always on the Chesapeake Bay. As Makai edged her way north of the Narrows to round Love Point, the crew practiced unfurling the spinnaker, a parachute-like sail that flies off the bow like a balloon and fills from behind so that the sailboat gains momentum from a light downwind breeze. Since the sail is used less often and can be tricky unfurling, Tony, our captain, wanted to take the time to go over the steps of setting it up with the crew in the event that the spinnaker would be needed during the race. Good thing we had practiced ahead of time as the spinnaker came in handy at the tail-end of the race, Saturday morning, as we rounded into the St. Mary’s River from a back wind off the Potomac.
On Your Marks
The race began at 1500, and the starting mark was between two, anchored official “race committee” boats marked with yellow flags. When we arrived, Makai was one of dozens of sailboats tacking one way and the next around each other. Attempting to maintain wind propulsion but aware of the very real threat of collision in the crowded sea space, sailboats of various classes were flying this way and that. Each sail class would race against the other sailboats in that particular class and were grouped based on type of sailboat, type of sails, and other criteria. Before long we heard the loud blast of the fog horn, announcing the race’s start.
And We’re Off!
Tony, our skipper, tireless and patient at the wheel was always keeping an eye on three other sailboats he predicted would make calculated moves that could determine their success. In addition to a visual on deck of these vessels, Cheri monitored the online chart that updated every few minutes from a GPS that plotted the positions of each Gov Cup cruiser in the race. And from land, another O-dock neighbor and former co-skipper of Makai’s Gov Cup race experiences, surveilled our progress at home and cheered us on through regular cell phone calls. The crew kept ourselves hydrated with mini water bottles, squishing them into plastic wads that conserved space in the only trashcan we had on board.
I helped Cheri prepare our first meal underway in the galley: turkey, ham, and cheese wraps in flour tortillas stuffed with tomatoes, pickles, onions, and lettuce and smothered in mayonnaise and/or mustard per each crew member’s preference. Working in the galley on a heel, while the boat is turned over on its side, is always a challenge, as you brace your hips against the counter and place the ingredients in secured spots while compiling each “sandwich” carefully but quickly.
As the sun began to sink over the western coast of the Bay, Tony briefed the crew about the upcoming 3-hour night shifts. Damian and I opted to take the second shift that night and head down below earlier to get the first 3-hours of sleep from 9:00pm-12:00am (or as the sailor’s say: from 2100 to 2400). Mike decided to join us for the second shift, and three of us headed down below to get some shut eye. The aft cabin’s fans were the best part of the sleeping experience, which doused my face with a cool breeze despite the stuffy, hot air down below. Makai continued to sail on a tack, so her heel made sleeping a bit difficult. I pinned my body against the starboard side of the berth in an effort to keep myself from rolling out of a comfortable sleep position. Falling in and out of restless sleep, I awoke to the sound of Damian encouraging me to get up, because it was time to go back up on deck for our night shift.
When I climbed back up through the hatch, I was curious to see how far we had traveled down the bay in those three hours. But the mission to find out our position was interrupted by the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crew members of whom we were replacing for the shift as they stared over the sides of the hull towards the black below.
“What is it?” I asked rushing over to see for myself.
“Jellyfish,” one of them echoed.
I peered over the side and saw blueish, glow-in-the-dark colors burst with glimmers of light in small clusters that bobbed along beside the sailboat as it plowed its way forward. I had never seen anything like it! Amazing how something that causes fear from the inevitable itchy, stinging pain of making contact with one could be so beautiful with their fluorescent hues blues floating with the current in the backdrop of blackness in the night waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Mike, Damian, and I took our positions in the cockpit and commenced our night shift together from midnight to 0300. We stayed awake and alert by telling stories and laughing. Our captain decided to give himself a brief rest at the helm and put Mike in charge to pilot the vessel while Tony rested up down below. At first I thought the shift would last forever, but with all of the stories and laughter, the time flew by. Before we knew it, our shift was over and the third night shift crew was pulling their sleepy bodies back up through the hatch with their coffees to take it from there.
Back in the aft cabin berth, I fell asleep the second time much more readily than the first despite the boat’s continued lean, this time to port. The next time I opened my eyes, I could see morning light spilling in from the portholes as the sunrise had begun inching itself above the eastern horizon. We relieved our crew members once more for the final three-hour shift: 0600-0900. Tony was back on the helm, and we made our first official turn to port, as Makai aligned herself toward the mouth of the mighty Potomac.
The wind ceased to favor our route and died down the further we crept into the River. Breakfast pastries were passed around to crew members and more coffee was poured. Even though the captain and crew stayed positive in conversation, the lull in our progress and the weariness from the night left a weighted mood on all of us. The morning sunshine burned off the cooler air of dawn and carried a searing heat with it that merged with the humidity that hung above the river waters. Without another boat in sight, our skipper grew increasingly concerned that we had made our turn too soon, losing any chance of placing in the top of our class.
The chart plotter showed the entrance to the St. Mary’s River, which would be our final turn to port as Makai proceeded North on the last leg of her race journey. The other crew members joined us in the cockpit as they woke up from their slumber and checked in with our location and progress. After voicing his dismay about the dying wind conditions and our hasty turn several knots back, Tony calmly decided that now would be the time to pull in the job and unfurl the spinnaker. The crew got in our positions and prepared for its deployment from underneath the raised mainsail. The spinnaker gave Makai her final push as she glided forward from a downwind.
Ahead we could see the Dove, a historical replica of the 17th century trading vessel that first explored the area of St. Mary’s but is now featured as a museum exhibit at the historical St. Mary’s City site for tourist visitors to climb aboard. The Governor’s Cup race committee had anchored the Dove in the middle of the river and had hoisted official “end of race” flags on her to indicate the finish line. As each sailboat drifted past her bow, a race committee member would blast the fog horn, designating that the cruiser had finished the race and recording her time.
No matter whether we had placed 5th or 15th (last in our class), the crew aboard Makai was excited to have crossed the finish line! We cheered as our vessel glided past the Dove and the fog horn blared our arrival. Starting up our engine, we entered the Horseshoe Bend of the river where other arrivals had already dropped anchor and had headed to shore.
One of those already anchored was a classic boat with a ribbed hull and pirate-ship-looking design and matching rowboat. It obviously caught my eye and I turned toward Damian. He had seen it too and was gawking at it with that sparkle of glee that seemed to say, “One day we’ll have one of those.”
Makai dropped anchor, and her crew began putting the boat into shape with canvas, cushions, and all the other amenities that had been stripped to facilitate our fastest speed during the race. The one thing on my mind was: a hot shower. A local fishing boat had been employed by the race committee to pick up racers from their anchored sailboats and ferry them to the docks, so we grabbed our backpacks and hopped aboard one of them.
The Governor’s Cup Yacht Race is hosted by St. Mary’s College of Maryland along the banks of the St. Mary’s River. The college offers its empty dormitories to the crews of the racing sailboats for the night, and we trudged up the walkway to gain our “welcome packets” and find our respective dorm room. Let me just say: a shower never felt so good!
Damian and I were so exhausted that we fell asleep immediately; when I awoke, I was completely shocked that the afternoon hours was gone and sunset was settling in. We joined our other “nap-happy” crew and walked down from the dorms on the hill towards the tent that was hosting live music and dinner for the evening.
The best part of the evening was sharing celebratory drinks called “Dark and Stormies” with Tony and Cheri and crew in the cockpit of Makai and learning from our skipper that Makai had placed 7th out of the 15 cruisers in her class, which was much better than any of us had anticipated when we had crossed the finish line that morning. What rejoicing there was on board that evening! We were all so proud of Tony, our skipper, and each other for working together to successfully finish the race well!
The Way Home
Our captain, Tony, has a tradition on the sail home from St. Mary’s not to touch the wheel the whole way back. So each crew member takes his or her turn at the helm as he enjoys . I took the first shift at the helm and piloted her out of the St. Mary’s River and back into the Potomac as we trekked east toward the wide, open Bay. Our captain-turned-cook, made a delicious breakfast for all of us! Cheri and Tony served each crew member with breakfast burritos loaded with eggs, sausage, cheese, and salsa with a dollop of sour cream. Good food, drinks, and conversation filled the boat on our journey back to Kent Narrows. With light-to-no-winds, we decided to keep the engine running and motor-sail as we ascended the climb northward toward home.
No one went hungry! In fact, lunch was just as good as breakfast! Mid-day, Tony went down below to the galley to begin the Texas brisket barbecue and wings, which was a five-star meal considering they had been hand-made by a real Texan himself. We chowed down and listened to music piped out from the speakers mounted in the cockpit. Everyone was thoroughly enjoying the cruise back.
Running Out of Fuel
Makai had reached the mouth of the Choptank, when we noticed the fuel gauge showing that we were rather low. We kept monitoring the fuel gauge periodically, but no one seemed too concerned. That is until Damian was on the helm, navigating us through the narrow channel between Poplar Island and the Tilghman peninsula. This was an unfamiliar stretch to Damian and myself as we had never traversed this way before. But we had learned from Tony and Cheri that this channel provided a resourceful short-cut to shave off time in Eastern Bay.
The engine coughed. It chugged, and then coughed. After that, it quit. We were out of fuel, drifting in the narrow channel with shallows on either side. Thank God for TowBoatUS! A quick call from Tony to the dispatcher and within a half-hour, the tow-boat had come to our rescue to refuel us. Even though the fuel price was significantly inflated, Makai’s engine was back in business, and we were on our way home. This time with a deadline: the last bridge opening was at 9pm (2100). Would we make it from Eastern Bay, Prospect Bay, and Crab Alley with enough time?
Makai’s engine was on full blast, and the crew decided to postpone “dinner” until after we had reached the safety of the slip in the marina. The focus of everyone on board for the next three hours was getting home. We caught site of the bridge, but we had only thirty minutes remaining. From a distance we watched it open and close for the 8:30 opening. The sun lowered, the shadow of the mast grew longer on the surface of the water, and the darkness rolled in from the east. The roof of Fisherman’s Inn never looked so good as we motored closer and closer toward the bridge. The final stretch. Tony made the call to the bridge master, and he confirmed that we would make the last bridge opening of the day.
Home at last!