The West River Catamaran Racing Association has been "raising hull" in Galesville, Md., for twenty years, attracting new sailors to crazy-fast catamaran racing.
by Ann Levelle
I could hear the wind howling outside my window when I woke up. Not a good sign, I thought. I looked at the outdoor thermometer: 45 degrees—yikes. Normally I wouldn't be concerned about weather like this on a sunny October Sunday—it was gorgeous, after all. But today, instead of being cuddled up on the couch and watching the leaves blow past the window, I'd be going for a ride on a catamaran. I would call it a sail on a catamaran, but having seen these suckers fly along the water, one hull aloft, with sailors hiking prone on the wire to keep their boats from capsizing, I had a feeling I'd be hanging on for dear life, rather than sailing.
Despite the cold and wind, I muscled through my fears and the next thing I knew I was pulling into the small field on Church Lane in Galesville, Md., a small town on the West River south of Annapolis. This is where we'd be launching the boat. I got out of the car, feeling hugely puffy in my three layers of warm clothing, and headed over to where Roger Holmes and Nathan Berger were rigging Oz, Holmes's Supercat 22. I watched as they put the sails on, but I was secretly scouting out places on the boat where I could hang on—shrouds, lines, anything that looked stable. But before I could ask any questions I was told it was time to get dressed. Jodie Perkins, Holmes's girlfriend, had been kind enough to offer me her own cold-weather sailing gear for the day, and she led me over to her car to get ready. First came the fleece pants and top (fleece, she said, would be better than my cotton clothing because it wicks away moisture and would keep me dry) and then a dry suit, followed by boots and gloves. But I wasn't finished yet; on top of it all was a life jacket (complete with a whistle and rigging knife) and harness. I looked like a cross between an astronaut and the Michelin Man, but I wasn't about to complain, because I knew I'd be warm, dry and safe.
I waddled back to the boat, which was all rigged and ready to sail. Holmes and Berger were at their cars donning their own safety gear, but soon enough they were standing back at the boat, showing me how to move around on Oz's trampoline (quickly, lightly and carefully), how to clip the wire onto the harness, how to hike out and get safely back on the tramp, what I could hold on to and where I should secure my feet so I didn't slide down the trampoline when we were up on one hull—which we most surely would be. We pulled the boat off its blocks and started wheeling her down to the gravel launch. Then we walked the boat into the water, the guys muscling it from blowing sideways into the reeds, hopped aboard and took off—quickly. I looked back at the empty field, a lot-size clearing between two pretty waterfront homes, and hoped I could hold on tightly enough to make it back.
If a field could talk, this one would have some wild stories. As the former home base for the West River Catamaran Racing Association (WRCRA), it was jam-packed with beach catamarans of all sizes for most of the last two decades. And at 4:30 on any given summer Tuesday evening, this grassy patch of land between two homes on the West River would come alive with pre-race activity—a sociable scrum of sailors rigging their boats for the evening's race, chitchatting and icing down six-packs of beer. But those days are gone, to the dismay of many. Several years ago a neighbor complained to Anne Arundel County about the boats being kept on the lot, which the WRCRA had been leasing from its owner. The lot is under maritime zoning, but apparently the wrong type to keep boats in. Now, after scrapping with the county for the past several years over its right to use the land, the WRCRA finally got the boot (irony noted).
Holmes's Supercat 22 is the last boat to find a new home, closing (metaphorically at least) the circle of the club's existence here. It all began 20 years ago, when Holmes, a longtime beach-cat sailor and Supercat dealer, decided that catamarans needed a home in this neck of the woods—and a weeknight race series of their own. He put out the word and started the Supercat Fleet 15. His goal (and hence the name of the fleet) was to get 15 cats on the starting line. And that he did. As the fleet grew and attracted more than just Supercat sailors, the club evolved into the West River Catamaran Racing Association, which welcomed all beach-cat racers. The fleet's motto became "True Blazers . . . not Blue Blazers," a pun worthy not only of the boats' blazing speed, but of the trailblazers that built a successful and fun sailing club, growing from a single sailor to a family-like gang of about 30 boats and crews.
But even before the battle with the county began, the number of boats at the field had begun to dwindle. Some members had moved their boats to the nearby West River Sailing Club, which in the past few years has accepted both the A-Cat and Nacra Inter 20 as one-design fleets (the F16 class is currently petitioning the club for membership as well). But surprisingly that has had little effect on the catamaran club, because most of the emigres have kept their WRCRA memberships and continue to race in the club's three yearly series (spring-summer, summer-fall and frostbite), keeping mixed-class racing alive. For those who haven't moved their boats to the sailing club, Holmes has made space available for storage and launching at his home on nearby Cox Creek. (Unfortunately, Holmes's launch is too narrow for his own boat, which is why he still launches his boat from the field. But he plans to widen his launch this winter.) And while the WRCRA members are clearly saddened by the loss of their home base, they're happy that they still have places nearby to keep and launch their boats, and that the fleet will stay intact and keep racing.
It's all about the racing for these people—that and speed, of course. Real speed, none of the 7- and 8-knot business. Twice that fast. Sometimes almost three times that fast. As Perkins put it, "It's such an adrenaline-charged experience every time." They all say pretty much the same thing—that they've been hooked on speed since their first sail on a cat, and never want to go back to the turtle's pace of what some call "half-boat" racing. These lightweight boats can actually sail faster than the wind is blowing. And they're actually pretty darn stable—though you'd never come to that conclusion after watching them in high-wind action, up on one hull, looking as if they might take flight at any moment.
You can watch any given WRCRA race from the raised observation deck at the end of the Inn at Pirate's Cove's dock (which is one end of the fleet's start/finish line and the place to be if you want a good view of the action) and instantly be amazed at the boats' speed. Even on days with little wind, as the cats silently glide along the river, you may see a small rooster tail coming off a hull or two. But that's nothing compared to watching a cat "fly a hull" and scream across the water with its skipper and/or crew radically hiked out, high above the water. From the high deck at Pirate's Cove or the fuel dock next door, you'll see them fly right at you as they tack upwind, then dart away only at the last second. Just watching them gets your adrenaline pumping. You won't see a committee boat on the water during a regular weeknight race here. The sailors communicate via VHF for the starting sequence, and after that, everyone is on his own for keeping time. So you won't hear any start or end guns, but that doesn't mean the race isn't any less fun.
During any given WRCRA race day, you'll mostly see three types of boats on the water: A-Cats, Nacras and F16s. A-Cats (which stands for A-class catamarans, a name that stuck from when catamarans were divvied up by size into A, B, C and D classes), easily identifiable by the A on their sails, are 18 feet long and 7 feet 6 inches wide and are single-handed, nonspinnaker boats. F16s, at least on the West River, mostly feature Bs on their sails (which, confusingly, doesn't stand for B-class, but for the brand name, Blade). The F16 is a little shorter—16 feet 4 inches long, and 8 feet 2 inches wide and has spinnakers. A Nacra 20 has a symbol that resembles an Omega (it's actually a stylized lowercase n) with a 20 next to it. As the name suggests, this cat is 20 feet long and 8 feet 6 inches wide and is also designed to fly a spinnaker. That's the "big three," but you'll also see Hobie cats, F18s, Supercats (like Holmes's 22, easily identified by the Westfield logo on its mainsail) and others.
Because there are so many different types of boats on the water in a WRCRA race, line honors are just that: honors. Once the times are corrected, it's not necessarily the winner who wins. The fleet uses Portsmouth ratings (similar to PHRF) to determine how much time they owe one another. After each race, everyone turns in his time and the numbers are crunched to see who won (more on that later though).
These are sailors, of course, so naturally the race ritual includes migration of the herd to a post-race watering hole, the location of which changes from time to time. This past year it was Thursday's Bar and Grill, right on the water in beautiful downtown Galesville. The typical post-race scene (Tuesdays at Thursday's, you might say): racers trickle in and head over to official scorekeeper and head of other official club doings Keith Chapman, who logs in everyone's times into his laptop. While everyone else starts drinking beer, ordering food and recapping the night's on-the-water happenings, Chapman (who also runs the fleet website) quietly crunches numbers and calculates the winners. Usually by the time everyone's on their second drink, Chapman is ready to announce the race results. After he calls out the scores, he then gives everyone the really important information—how much time they'd have needed to beat the winner. Closer to the end of a series, he might also update everyone on preliminary standings for the series, giving everyone an idea who's in line for the coveted trophies—impressive hand-carved catamaran models, courtesy of the club's own founder, commodore and spiritual leader. Holmes, a professional carpenter and heck of an artist, creates all of the fleet's trophies, awarded to the top three boats for each of the year's three series.
Gripping the nearest shroud tightly and tucking my feet farther under the red hike strap, I turned my gaze forward, out into the West River, where hefty whitecaps promised a roughly 20-knot wind. The second we emerged from the lee of the point of land alongside the launch, the port hull popped out of the water and off we went. Holmes and Berger hooked themselves onto the port wires and hiked on out while I scooted as far outboard as I could and held fast to the nearest shroud. It didn't take me long to realize that it wouldn't be a matter of holding on for dear life—just holding on (a good idea in general) and enjoying the ride. "This is freakin' great!" I yelled to Holmes, who only nodded and grinned knowingly.
I saw only two other sailboats on the water, one of which had everything furled up tightly and was motoring up the river. The other boat's main was ballooning up on its boom, as though they'd tried to sail but had too much wind and were now trying to douse and tie down the main before things got really ugly. But here on Oz (named both for a dear departed dog, as well as the place Dorothy and Toto went), we were sailing steady and fast—a bit upward of 20 knots, Holmes guessed. On our next tack, I decided it was time to hike out myself. I hooked in, straightened out my legs and leaned back. It was exhilarating, and despite being probably six feet up in the air and five feet wide of the boat, I felt perfectly secure. Soon enough, we ducked in behind Curtis Point so that we could put the daggerboards down and then turned around to go downwind. Talk about a thrill ride! Going downwind was seriously fast, albeit flatter and quieter.
Now that we were on the lower-decibel level downwind run, I turned to Holmes and asked if he'd ever flipped the boat. "Oh sure," he replied, and then proceeded to tell me about the time he and Berger, who have been racing together for more than ten years, pitched twice in the same race. "Yeah, we've had a lot of bloody adventures on this boat," he said, meaning it literally. I wondered as the boat shuddered downwind, breaking through the waves, why the thought of pitch-poling at this speed didn't scare the pants off me. But I had no ready answer, and I was in fact very much enjoying the absence of terror. As we got closer to the launch I wished we could just keep going. We'd been out nearly an hour though, and the guys had to drop me off before they headed back out for today's race.
Back at the field, I stepped safely back on land with a giant smile on my face. Perkins, who had been watching us from shore, started laughing when she saw me. "It's fun, isn't it?" she asked, obviously having experienced the sheer rush a few times herself. "Gee, how can you tell?" I said, having trouble actually forming words due both to the smile plastered on my face and my frozen-by-the-wind lips.
Perkins helped me out of the dry suit and back into normal clothes. Then, while the guys went back out on the water to race, she showed me around Galesville a bit: the "clubhouse" next door to the field, where the fleet holds its annual awards party (which is actually just a member's house); Holmes's shop, where he carves all of the trophies and plaques for everyone; and Holmes's house, which he calls Birdland, because of the flocks of chattering birds that wake him up every morning. Here several cats were up on their blocks awaiting a warmer day to race. It's not wide-open land like the Church Lane property, but at least it'll fit a few boats so that their owners have a place to keep them.
Before we knew it, the four boats that opted to race were finished. The wind had died down a bit since I was out on the water, but there was still enough to make it a quick race. After the guys had de-rigged the boat and changed into their civvies, we headed over to Thursday's for post-race festivities.
Based on the silly grin plastered on my face, the consensus at Thursday's was that I would never again want to race an ordinary sailboat. Plus I'm apparently spoiled now, having sailed (and gone faster than 20 knots) on Oz, the biggest and fastest boat in the fleet. The A-Cat and F16 class boats are considerably smaller than Oz, which boasts a 12-foot wide trampoline compared with a 7-foot 6-inch tramp on an A-Cat. But that doesn't mean those boats don't scream just the same. The A-Cat will "fly a hull" in eight to ten knots of breeze and can go up to 22 knots in a 12-knot downwind breeze. Insanity, I say. A catamaran's speed can even pose a problem on the water from time to time. Holmes told a story about one powerboat that was clearly surprised by his presence. "We overtook him so quickly, and he was probably doing twelve knots. He didn't see or hear us . . . and they didn't expect something to come up on them that quickly and that quietly."
"Right," said someone from the far end of the table, "a motorboat expects a sailboat to be like an immobile object. But they don't realize that we're going to be there. We have to think of them as immobile objects!"
But talk of unaware powerboats was halted by the day's results, after which, Chapman showed the table the most recent Spinsheet, which had published a small piece about the fleet's eviction from the beach. As people passed it around to read, Chapman asked if I'd enjoyed my sail today. "Absolutely," I said, "I loved it! I want to go again in the summer too. In fact, is there a crew list I can get on?"
Yep, that's right, I've got fast cat fever. I want more! And while I won't get to share in the fun of launching at the field that the longtime cat racers have, that spirit lives on in the fleet. I think Holmes put it best in a recent letter to the fleet about the eviction: "All that is left of the once great Mecca of cat sailing in our area is a handful of open-class beach cats. If you think about it, that's exactly the way we started. The vision is almost complete. . . . All the changes that Fleet 15 has gone through over the years has never kept the die-hards from racing on Tuesday nights. . . . An era is ending and another one begins. Long Live the Fleet 15. I'll see you on the start line."
Yes, you will.
The WRCRA is the biggest and most active catamaran fleet on the Bay, if not the Mid-Atlantic. They have three race series starting at the beginning of May and going through the end of November, plus they participate in other CBYRA-sanctioned Bay races as well. For more information or to get on the crew list, go to the club's website, www.wrcra.org. For more information on catamaran racing elsewhere on the Bay, check out the Catamaran Racing Association of the Chesapeake website, www.sailcrac.com, where you'll find other clubs and area regatta information.
To find out more about the various types and brands of beach cats, here are the websites of some of the more prominent manufacturers.
ARC/Supercat Catamarans: www.aquariussail.com
Hobie Cat catamarans: www.hobie.com
Mystere Catamarans: www.mystere.ca
Nacra Inter 20: www.performancecat.com or www.nacra.us
Vector Works (Blade F16 and others): www.vectorworkssail.com