Down the Bay Race: Renewed interest in Chesapeake Bay classic

Published on March 26th, 2014

Greg Alden called it “the ride of a lifetime, an epic trip and the most fun I’ve ever had on a sailboat.” The Arnold (MD) skipper was referring to the 2013 Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup, hosted by the Hampton Yacht Club with support from the Storm Trysail Club.

Alden and his crew aboard the TP52 Irie took advantage of absolutely perfect conditions to shatter the record for the historic overnight race, which began way back in 1934. Powered by 20-30 knot northwesterly winds, Irie completed the 120-nautical mile course in 7 hours, 2 minutes and 32 seconds. That blew away the previous mark of 11 hours, 9 minutes that had been established in 1974 by Running Tide, the Sparkman & Stephens 60-footer owned by Al Van Metre.

“I have a feeling that record is going to stand for a long time. It’s not often that you can sail on a reach in winds that strong for 120 miles,” said Alden, whose high-tech racing machine sailed under asymmetrical spinnaker from the start off Annapolis to the finish off Norfolk and recorded an average speed of 17 knots.

Alden has since sold the TP52 in order to focus on his responsibilities as president of a technology company based in Boston, but will always have fond memories of the Down the Bay Race, calling the record-setting performance the highlight of his sailboat racing career.

“It’s an honor to hold that record because I think it’s the greatest race on the Chesapeake Bay,” Alden said. “The Hampton Yacht Club does a wonderful job and the race itself is very challenging. It’s the longest, overnight distance race on the bay so that speaks for itself.”

The Virginia Cruising Cup Race was held annually from 1934 through 1999 except for during the World War II years (1942-45) and built a sterling reputation among sailors all over the Chesapeake Bay. Known to lower Chesapeake sailors as “Down the Bay” and to upper Chesapeake sailors as “The Hampton Race,” the event drew between 130-150 boats at its peak.

After a 10-year hiatus, the venerable event was revived in 2009 and has increased in participation every year since. Organizers with Hampton Yacht Club were encouraged that last year’s race attracted 31 boats in five classes. A key element of increasing interest in the Down the Bay Race involves moving it from mid-summer to late spring to enhance the chances of strong breeze while also serving as a feeder for Southern Bay Race Week, being hosted May 30 through June 1 by Hampton Yacht Club.

“We’re thrilled the race has come back so strongly and we’re even more pleased that sailors wanted it back,” said David McConaughy, regatta chairman for Hampton Yacht Club.

Entries are currently being accepted for the 65th edition of the Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup, which begins May 23 near Thomas Point Light off Annapolis. The course takes the fleet past such landmarks of the Chesapeake Bay as Cove Point, Cedar Point, Point No Point, Point Lookout, Smith Point Light, Windmill Point, Stingray Point, Wolf Trap Light and Thimble Shoals before finishing at Old Point Comfort off Norfolk.

“There is so much history and tradition involved with this race. All the old-timers at our club have story after story of getting together with families and friends for the Down the Bay Race,” McConaughy said. “It is an event that every sailor in Hampton has on their bucket list. It is a romantic, challenging race that has become an annual pilgrimage and leads to the formation of friendship bonds that last a lifetime.”

In the early days, Hampton Yacht Club partnered with the Gibson Island Yacht Squadron to run the race. For the majority of the Virginia Cruising Cup’s heyday, Annapolis Yacht Club handled the starting duties. Upon deciding to reestablish the Down the Bay Race, officials with Hampton Yacht Club were thrilled to have the Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station step up to oversee the starting sequence.

“The Virginia Cruising Cup certainly is a Chesapeake Bay Classic and we were honored to play a part in bringing it back,” said Dick Neville, who will serve as principal race officer for the start. “It’s a proper overnight race as the distance requires crews to set up watches. It’s a full-on day of sailing that provides a true test of seamanship and skill for skippers and crews.”

Once again this year, Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station will host a welcome party for skippers and crews on Thursday, May 22 at Severn Sailing Association. As always, Hampton Yacht Club will conduct a spectacular post-race party and awards ceremony on Saturday, May 24.

Details: www.hamptonyc.com/downthebay

Bill Wagner reporting

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