Longest distance race on the Chesapeake
Published on April 15th, 2021
Glenn Doncaster skippered Nanuq to victory in PHRF 3 during the 2017 Annapolis-to-Newport Race. The Raleigh, North Carolina resident credited doing the Down the Bay Race for getting his crew into the mindset needed to complete the 475-nautical mile jaunt.
Down the Bay is a 120-nautical mile jaunt that starts off Annapolis, MD and finishes at Fort Monroe off Hampton, VA.
“There is no question that Down the Bay is great preparation for Annapolis-Newport,” Doncaster said. “You get all the elements you’re going to get offshore except it’s condensed into the Chesapeake Bay.”
Doncaster has entered his Sabre 426 in the 2021 edition of the Annapolis-to-Newport Race and is hoping to follow the same formula for success. He is putting the exact same crew on the boat for the 71st Down the Bay Race, which gets underway May 28.
“If there is anyone who is new at offshore racing, the Down the Bay Race is a great place to start,” Doncaster said. “Anything you can imagine about sailboat racing you could wind up getting in this race.
“I’ve seen times when it was 30 knots the whole race, and other times when it was totally becalmed. I’ve done this race when it was blowing on the nose the whole way and other times when it was a downwind run from start to finish.”
Doncaster has enjoyed great success doing distance races aboard Nanuq, which he had built in 2008 and berths at Fishing Bay Yacht Club in Deltaville, VA. He has captured class honors twice and been runner-up two other times in the Down the Bay Race, which is co-organized by Hampton Yacht Club and Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station.
“I honestly believe it’s the best race we do all season. It’s a tough race because the Chesapeake Bay can be finicky and there are so many factors to manage,” Doncaster said. “Above all else, the scenery is spectacular. It’s always an enjoyable sail.”
Nanuq is one of eight boats entered in both the 71st Down the Bay Race and the 38th biennial Annapolis-to-Newport Race, latter of which has starts on June 4 and 5. Dick Neville does not understand why more boats don’t take Doncaster’s advice and use Down the Bay as prep for Annapolis-Newport.
“It’s the longest distance race on the Chesapeake Bay and just happens to follow the same course as the opening third of the Annapolis-to-Newport Race,” Neville said of Down the Bay. “What a perfect opportunity for A2N participants to learn about racing through that portion of the Chesapeake Bay, which can be quite tricky.”
Neville has been instrumental in increasing entries for the Annapolis-to-Newport Race as a key member of the Annapolis Yacht Club sailing committee. He is a longtime leader with the Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station, which was instrumental in reviving Down the Bay Race following a 10-year hiatus.
Officially named the Virginia Cruising Cup Race, the event was held annually from 1934 through 1999 except during the World War II years (1942-45) and built a sterling reputation among sailors all over the Chesapeake Bay. It became known as “Down the Bay” to lower Chesapeake sailors and “The Hampton Race” to those residing in the upper Chesapeake and routinely attracted between 130 and 150 boats at its peak.
Storm Trysail Club member Wayne Bretsch first broached the idea of bringing back the Virginia Cruising Cup Race and longtime host Hampton Yacht Club agreed to give it a go. Bretsch, Neville and other members of the Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station stepped up to oversee the start off Annapolis to reduce the workload on the Hampton Yacht Club race committee, which now only needs to handle the finish.
The venerable event was revived in 2009 and rebranded as the Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup. A solid fleet of 31 boats in five classes competed that year and entries have increased at a solid rate ever since. Neville noted that moving the race from mid-summer to late spring increased the chances of strong breeze and could serve as a feeder for Southern Bay Race Week, annually held in early June.
“For the bigger boats going to Newport, Down the Bay provides ideal preparation. For owner desiring to do Southern Bay Race Week, this is great way to deliver their boat to Hampton,” Neville said. “Racing this stretch of the Chesapeake Bay is very interesting and challenging. There are a lot of factors to consider during a distance race such as this.”
Tides and currents are always an issue, while navigators and tacticians must also consider what side of the Chesapeake Bay is favored wind-wise. Sailboat racing at night is never easy and requires a cautious approach. Commercial shipping traffic and fish traps are another concern.
Bob Fox is another skipper who has found the Down the Bay Race the perfect primer for a more extensive offshore passage. The Arlington, Virginia resident steered his XP44 Sly to a runner-up result in ORC class in the 70th Down the Bay Race then turned around two weeks later and completed the 2019 edition of Annapolis-to-Newport.
In 2018, Fox was forced to retire from Down the Bay due to a mechanical issue. He was happy to discover the problem before starting the Bermuda Ocean Race, for which Sly captured line honors.
“We always use Down the Bay as a shakedown sail to get ready for going to either Newport or Bermuda,” Fox said. “It gets us acclimated to all the various elements of distance racing. We get into the watch system and get accustomed to sailing at night. We get a chance to check out the boat and make sure everything is working properly.”
Fox has entered Down the Bay for the seventh time this year and tells his crew to act as though they aren’t stopping at Hampton and instead are headed out into the Atlantic Ocean.
“I think one of the big challenges of a distance race is maintaining energy and focus. There is a tendency during Down the Bay Race to stay up for 20 hours or whatever it takes to finish, which is not really a good idea” Fox noted.
“We treat Down the Bay like we’re going offshore. We want to get everyone in that rhythm and ready for what to expect for Annapolis-to-Newport,” he added.
“We certainly like to do well in the Down the Bay Race. That said, the priority is to make sure everything is shipshape for Annapolis-Newport or Annapolis-Bermuda,” Fox said.
Neville is serving as principal race officer on the front end and said Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station will likely conduct the traditional Skipper’s Meeting via Zoom conference call. Rich Wilcox is race committee chairman on the back end for Hampton Yacht Club, which hopes to hold a safe and responsible post-race awards party if local government allows.
Source: Bill Wagner