Friday morning we set out on Excitation – a Farr-Dickinson 37 for the Down The Bay Race from Annapolis to Hampton in what would be an epic race. The forecast was for north west wind moving north and bringing the wind right down the bay making for a very fast trip south. Sailing the race were 30 boats ranging in size from a 24-foot J-24 to a 52′ TP52.
The race started just after 10am in Annapolis with winds in the mid-20′s and light drizzle. We got underway in the A2 fleet and headed down the bay on a broad reach under full main and #1 (our largest headsail). Many of the boats with asymmetrical spinnakers were able to carry them and they all just took off. Some of the symmetric boats were able to carry them as well. For the early part of the race we just cruised along rarely under 8 knots and with 1-2 knots of favorable current we averaged over 9.5 knots over the ground for the first 3/4 of the race.
Every hour we switched off drivers and main trimmers. They were both working hard keeping the boat moving through the 4′ seas in the early part of the race. We’d surf waves when we could and all competed to see who could drive for the top speed of the day. At first we thought hitting 11 knots was fast. Before long we were getting bored with only hitting 10 knots in a boat that rates 87 PHRF.
About 1/3 of the way into the race the waves stabilized a bit and the wind was down into the low twenties and we tried to put a small kite up. It was a bit squirrely and we just couldn’t keep the boat under the sail. Eventually we lost it, almost broached and wrapped the chute around the head stay a few times. After a few tense minutes trying to unwrap it and get it down we got it on deck and continued under main and the number 1.
By mid-afternoon we were approaching the mouth of the Potomac. The Potomac is a very large river with a lot of current that comes out of it and into the bay. Here we found the most confused seas and with waves now 4-6′ it was a handful to keep the boat going especially with random waves that would occasionally break into the cockpit.
South of the Potomac the waves got a little more regular and the wind stayed in the 25-32 knot range. Occasionally we saw low 20′s and up to 36. Through this part of the course we continued reaching along the rhumb line.
Last year at 5:30 am we were passing the Piankatank River (our normal FBYC sailing area just south of the Rappahannock River). This year we were there by 5:30pm and making fantastic time down the bay. As we got into the lower part of the bay the wind stayed steadier in the 28-32 range and the waves built to 6-8′ and even some 10′ for the final 20 miles down the bay before rounding a channel marker and taking a right turn to sail the last 9 miles into Hampton. It was this downwind stretch that we did some of our fastest sailing. Not because we were trying to push it, we weren’t – we were trying to sail conservative and safe, but because we had to sail the boat entirely by feel with almost no light to see the waves with. It just felt right to go fast.
At one point we just dropped into a 6′+ wave and it felt awesome with a nice trough to our right and I just rode it for all I could. It was just like sailing a dinghy down waves – except this was a 11,000lb 37′ boat. We had hit some 12 knots earlier – but on that wave I hit 13.46 knots through the water. What a rush to have such a big boat slicing across the water like that.
At the final mark to the finish we’d have to go from broad reaching to close reaching. With full main and number 1 genoa up we knew that would be a challenge – and it was. With no way to carry the genoa, let alone the main, we had a very difficult time getting the genoa down so we could finish under main alone.
The course record was around 13 hours set by a 60′ boat back in 1974. We finished at 30 minutes after midnight which was in 14 hours – just one hour off the record. Over 1/3 of the boats sailing finished under the old race record. The new record holder – the TP52 Irie finished in just 7 hours. They were at the bar just after 5:30 pm. That’s an amazing record that’s going to stand for a very long time. Full Results.
We docked shortly after 1 and it was a relief to all be back safe and sound and on dry land. We swapped stories with other sailors in the bar. Only 2 boats wouldn’t finish the race – one after a demasting. Eventually we all just crashed on the boat – exhausted from an epic ride we won’t soon forget. (Update: Watch some video of our trip here)
I’d like to thank owner Mayo Tabb for doing the race this year and having me and to the other crew who did a great job keeping us going in some very difficult conditions.