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Rising to the challenge of a tough race

Published on August 25th, 2023

The 2023 Annapolis to Newport Race had 73 registrations, 62 on the starting line, and 29 finishers. Such were the stats for the biennial 475-mile-long race, hosted by Annapolis Yacht Club (AYC) and running from two starts (June 2 and 3) into the next week.

Competitors saw a wide range of conditions from a wind postponement for the first start, to big breeze at the mouth of the Bay. Racing sailors reported 10- to 12-foot seas as they turned north, doldrums along the way, and even thunderstorms with hail as they crossed the finish line.

Stephen Hale and his team aboard the Salona 380 Cookie Monster placed first in ORC 4. Matt Alisch, Athena Arnold, Meredith Glacken, Connor Merryman, Julius Smith, and Katy Zimmerman rounded out the crew.

“We had such a great team, and I had so much confidence in them,” says Hale. “I knew the team could handle any conditions that the boat could tolerate. The months of practice really gave us the confidence in each other to push on when the conditions deteriorated.

“To quote one of our helmspeople, Katy Zimmerman, ‘Every sail went up and down clean, and we got sick. The team filled in until they recovered, and we sailed every four-hour shift like it was the finish.’”

After the team rounded Chesapeake Light, the second night was the hardest. Hale says, “We had difficulty getting our second reef in. By the time it was sorted, most of the crew and I were soaked. By midnight, we had four people seasick to some degree, which meant I and watch captain Matt Alisch had been on the helm for hours and just absolutely exhausted, trying to keep the boat pointed into the 25- to 30-knot winds and waves, and keep in touch with our competition.

“At some point I knew I was nearly tapped out. Conner Merryman stepped in on the helm, which kept us going until daylight. We were beat up and exhausted, but by daybreak Sunday, we could see we were still in the fight with the Navy boats and knew that if we kept pushing, we had a real shot at the podium. And no one gave up.”

When asked in retrospect if he’d have done anything differently, Hale responds, “We had a lot of trouble getting the satellite weather downloads to work; I wish I’d spent more time before the start troubleshooting this. After we left the Chesapeake, we weren’t able to get WX or Yellow-brick tracking until we approached Block Island. This limited our ability to take risks and separate from the fleet, because the GFS and Euro models that we had on the exit from the Bay were not in agreement.”

Hale’s top tip for teams considering doing an ocean race is, “Teamwork. Pick the team early and find a night on the Chesapeake where it’s blowing 20-plus-knots and go out with the entire team. Practice putting in the reefs and storm sails under realistic conditions and do some man-overboard drills in the dark. Stay out there until people are wet, cold, and uncomfortable, and don’t go back until you’re confident that everyone can handle 24 to 48 hours of that weather.” – Full story

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