When two rival sailors get into their cups, a competition is almost inevitable. Why else would the Chesapeake’s log canoes race Barnegat Bay’s A-Cats?
The discussion among the tired, damp crew of the Barnegat Bay A-Cat Wasp is quite brief, a quick consensus reached over several beers and a sweating bottle of orange-flavored rum as the big, broad cat reaches up Toms River toward her mooring at Island Heights Yacht Club. Drying myself off while perched on the windward rail, I had asked them this: Would they trade racing aboard their lovely, archaic sweetheart to compete aboard the Chesapeake Bay’s own anachronistic darlings, the log canoes? The answer: Well, no offense, but no. Quite definitely not.
“There’s the whole wet thing,” says Chris Chadwick, Wasp’s skipper. “The whole being able to flip thing. I mean, it takes a lot of wind and a little stupidity to flip an A-Cat.” Log canoes, he is too polite to say right out loud, are known for capsizing if you look at them cross-eyed, even spontaneously falling over without a stitch of canvas near them. Indeed, we’ve just watched three of the Bay’s finest tip over during this glorious day of racing on Toms River river off Barnegat Bay.
Chadwick’s crew nod sagely. Granted, they agree, the log canoes are stunning to watch and have been challenging competitors. But taking some spray is one thing; swimming is another-it just isn’t in the A-Cat repertoire. A thoughtful moment passes as the rum bottle makes another round.
“Plus, can you put a cooler on a log canoe?” asks John Ambis, one of Wasp’s runner-men. Wasp, it should benoted, has a full size, fully iced cooler sitting solid as a bus next to the centerboard trunk.
“Well, I know some of them carry a small cooler down in the bilge, you know, just for water or Gatorade or something,” I say. “But not a big cooler, no. Probably no room for orange-flavored rum.”
“Well,” Ambis says, shaking his head. “There you go. Another downside.”
And that seems to be it. The cultural exchange has ended for the day aboard Wasp. As she pulls up to her mooring and we tidy her up for the night and head to the yacht club, the talk is all about the lobster feast and party that will ensue in a few hours. There, stories will be traded, backs will be slapped, gauntlets thrown, toasts made, and everyone will boisterously agree that even though it’s a royal pain to pack up a log canoe and trailer it north four hours to sail in waters way too shallow for comfort, and even though racing A-Cats against log canoes makes about as much sense as racing Hot Wheels against stock cars, they’re all sailors in the end, by God, and wasn’t it great to see the old girls out there today? And that is at least part of the explanation as to why they do it every other year, this biennial meeting called the Battle of the Bays, which pits New Jersey’s indigenous A-Cats against the Chesapeake’s log canoes. No handicaps. Standard racing rules apply. First over the line wins. Winners take home bragging rights and the happy knowledge that they’ve made some great friends and helped perpetuate two great sailing traditions.
“It brings tears to my eyes, it really does,” says Bill Scarpitta of Island Heights, an A-Cat fanatic who helped start the regatta in 1997. “It’s just so beautiful. It looks like a hundred years ago out there.”
“This is a highlight for us. Any of the log canoe sailors who have been here know how wonderful it is,” says Peter Esslinger, who has been sailing the log canoe Silver Heel, owned by Robert M. Hewes III of Chestertown, Md., for about 25 years, the last 10 of them as skipper. Of course, this year was a bit shocking, truth be told. For the first time in three meetings, the A-Cats got what they needed: wind. A steadily building sea breeze worked its way up to about 15 knots by day’s end, and that spelled trouble for the canoes-each of which capsized. The A-Cats won two out of three races.
“It was getting to be match racing at the end,” says Esslinger as he packs up Silver Heel, which tipped over during the first race but rallied to turn in the best performance for the canoes, finishing a hair’s-breadth behind the A-Cat Spy in the final two races. “The way these guys mix it up so much, they’re good sailors up here. Really good. I didn’t expect to get beaten. And they’re building new boats.” He thinks about this for a minute, then gets a devilish smile. “Wait till we get some new sails. We’ll get ‘em back.”
So this, too, must be acknowledged as a motivating factor for the regatta. Say all you want about historic boats and clouds of canvas-make that Dacron-these people, A-Cat and log canoe sailors alike, would race raindrops down a pane of glass.
It started, in 1996, at a funeral. Bob Lostrum, who owned the A-Cat Bat, had died, and log canoe owner Bradford Johnson of Chestertown, who was a friend of Lostrum’s son Erik, came to the funeral. The wake was held at Toms River Yacht Club, and Johnson and Scarpitta, then complete strangers, started talking sailor trash. Scarpitta doesn’t own an A-Cat but has been completely gone over them for years. Johnson owns the log canoe Noddy and is co-owner of the canoe Persistence with his sister and brother. It’s fair to say some rum was involved, and before long, each of them was insisting his boat could whup tar out of the other’s. “He didn’t think the log canoes could keep up with the A-Cats, and I certainly told him that was a wrong-headed idea,” Johnson says. “So it evolved into, ‘Well I’ll just bring my boat up here and kick your ass,’ and he said, ‘You’re on, and we’ll have a big party too,’ and I said, ‘Well maybe I’ll just bring some of my friends.’ ‘‘
“Everyone said, ‘You won’t do that because you won’t be able to get the
A-Cats to leave New Jersey, and log canoes don’t even go to Annapolis!’ “ Scarpitta says. “But the more we talked about it, the more we started believing ourselves.”
It is a testament to their competitive fire (and perhaps the rum) that neither of them ever questioned the inherent wackiness of a head-to-head race between these two boat designs. Talk about apples and oranges. Where log canoes are as slender and delicate as a doll’s slipper, A-Cats are as broad and tough as Kate Smith. Log canoes require multiple sail trimmers and a carefully choreographed, board-throwing ballet every time they tack. A-Cats, says George Schuld of Pine Beach, N.J., need only four people to sail the boat. “The rest can be blithering idiots. If they have a heartbeat, that’s good,” he says. Where a log canoe requires sailors to dangle precariously over the water off hiking boards, A-Cat rail meat “lays deck,” which basically means you can work off your hangover in a prone position. A log canoe sprouts sails like an overwatered Chia Pet, while the Marconi-rigged A-cat is simplicity itself-one huge mainsail (so huge it needs a trimmer built like Jerome “The Bus” Bettis and two runner trimmers for tweaking). A-Cats love a stiff breeze. Log canoes love light air. And we’ve already noted the profound differences in time spent being wet and how much cold beer you can carry on one versus the other.
But all this mattered not to Scarpitta and Johnson. Pride was at stake, or at least the prospect of a serious hoot. The original scheme, hatched that evening six years ago, was to have the log canoes come to Barnegat Bay on even-numbered years and the A-Cats travel to the Bay on odd-numbered years. It hasn’t worked out that way, mainly because A-Cats, with their wide beam and long spars, are too difficult to trailer. “Someone would have to pay to carry them down on a truck,” says Bob Savacool of Toms River. “We’ve even talked about putting them on a barge and having a tug haul them down there. It’s just logistically really hard.”
So Johnson drummed up enough of the canoe faithful in 1997 to trailer three boats up the New Jersey Turnpike to Barnegat Bay. During the inaugural battle, the conditions played right into the log canoes’ hands. Light air and triangular Olympic courses-with long reaching legs that favored the canoes-left the A-cats glued to the water. Even when the breeze picked up late in the day (and after the local race committee got wise to the advantage of a windward-leeward course for the A-Cats) the canoes won all three races.
“That first year Persistence came out and showed us they could do five laps when we could do three,” says Schuld. “The wind built and we still got hammered. We had the consolation that we were drinking heavily downwind, I mean we were heavy into the rum. The verdict was in pretty early. To have this sliver dancing by us practically on plane . . . ‘‘ He shakes his head at the grim memory. It was humbling, no doubt about it, and the second meeting in 1999 wasn’t much better for the A-Cat fleet. “The log canoes killed us,” says Chase Davis, who crews on the A-Cat Mary Ann.
This year had the A-catters buzzing. All week the sea breeze had filled in daily, riffling the river into shimmering whitecaps. Even the tide seemed to be helping; it was so unusually high the water was encroaching on the parking lot at Nelson’s Sailing Center, where the log canoes-Noddy, Patricia and Silver Heel-were launched the night before the race. A-catters hoped there would be enough water to race the boats nearby in prime A-Cat waters, Wannamaker Cove. A barbecue broke out along the waterfront at Nelson’s and continued well into the night. Stories were traded from the last two meetings. Racers speculated about the weather and the competition (along with the race against the log canoes, tomorrow’s event would crown the A-Cat champion for the season). The warm, damp sea breeze, which had been steady all evening, swayed the tall grasses near the docks, and pushed fraying clouds across the moon.
The next morning was still, a thick fog draped over the river. The sailors gathered gradually at Island Heights Yacht Club, a historic and lovely building with hardwood floors smoothed by the footfalls of generations, and a long, centerline hallway that looked out over a broad porch to the river beyond. It smelled of old, oiled wood and seemed to ring with the laughter of children who have learned to sail here with their parents since 1900. By about 9:30, as the skipper’s meeting was called on the porch, a light breeze was funneling down the river, and the sun was burning off the fog. Scarpitta rattled off some general race information, adding a few jibes where he could. “Another point that may be of more interest to the log canoes than the A-Cats,” he said, “the water temperature is seventy-two degrees.”
“Hey! Hey now!” came the general protest from the Chesapeake entourage. The skipper’s meeting ended with the call from Scarpitta, “Okay, everybody, have fun!” and the crews dispersed.
At the starting line of the first race were eight A-Cats, three log canoes and two sandbaggers (another historic and overcanvassed boat design; see sidebar on page 59), and it was no holds barred. At the first start in what was still fairly light air, the line was so bunched up and the competition so fierce, the yelling was clearly audible upwind, and several boats were shoved over the line early. In the light air, Patricia and Silver Heel started legging out over the A-Cats (Noddy was over early and had to go back and restart), and the race was a match between these two until Silver Heel capsized suddenly and inexplicably after a tack. At the end, it was Patricia first, followed by the A-Cat Vapor and then Noddy, who ate up the whole fleet to nail third. As the fleet waited for Silver Heel’s crew to pump out the boat and rerig her, the sea breeze started to fill in, picking up to 10 to 12 knots, and the A-Cat crews were sharpening their claws. Here it was, the chance they’d been waiting for.
Race two started cleanly and at the first weather mark it was an A-Cat parade-four of them, led by Spy-with the canoes in hot pursuit. But it didn’t last long; in the building breeze, Patricia crashed just after the jibe mark, a long, slow, agonizing capsize that no one could do anything to stop. Noddy soon followed suit. Only Silver Heel was left to avenge the Chesapeake fleet in the breeze that had now built to about 15 knots. The A-Cats reveled in it. Spy won the second race, though Silver Heel’s well honed teamwork earned her second by just half a minute.
For the third and last race I hopped aboard Wasp and realized immediately this was not your average sailboat race-I was barely seated when someone offered me a swig of rum. The deck was wet, the non-skid was nonexistent and I had nothing but flip-flops on my feet; in a spasm of common sense, I declined to imbibe. Skipper Chris Chadwick and his team were a well oiled machine-he had sailed with his main trimmer Brent Wagner for nine years. This relationship is the most important on the boat. With a mainsheet 180 feet long on a six-to-one block system controlling the enormous sail, the main trimmer more or less drives the boat and must be in deep cahoots with the skipper.
The last race was a windward-leeward two times around, and those aboard Wasp uttered a collective groan. Why became evident on the last leg, when Wasp and Ghost locked into a brutal tacking duel that had Wagner’s shoulders burning and the whole crew flying back and forth. Once again, the quick A-Cat Spy took the gun, with Silver Heel doing the Chesapeake proud right behind her. Ghost was third and Wasp, fourth.
Back at Nelson’s Sailing Center, putting the log canoes away for the trip home, the Chesapeake sailors and their Barnegat brethren are trading tales of joy and panic. “At one of the starts I said, ‘We’ll duck ‘em,’ and I look and say, ‘My God, there’s twenty more feet of boom! We can’t duck!” Peter Esslinger laughs. “Well, at least there’s no jellyfish here.” Bob Savacool, who took his rookie log canoe ride aboard Patricia in the second race, experienced the wet side of log canoe sailing. “Suzy got tea-bagged out there,” he says, referring to a crewmember behind him who got tossed off the hiking board during a blown jibe that precipitated a long, slow crash of the entire boat. Up until then, he says, it was sheer exhilaration. “It was extremely entertaining. It’s like going surfing on a longboard.” So, is he ready to trade his first love for his new one? “Absolutely not! But I can’t wait to go sailing on one again.”