Thursday, October 21, 2010

21st Annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race - A Retrospective by John Beauchamp

John Beauchamp aboard the schooner "Spirit of Independence."
With a budding interest in sailing and only a few days of training on a 2 person dingy sailboat, I took a leap of faith and signed on as passenger aboard the Spirit of Independence, stationed in Portsmouth, VA for the 21st annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. My girlfriend, Esther Simpson, with even less experience, signed on to the voyage as well. We visited the boat’s home port twice before the race and were able to meet some of the crew that we eventually worked with on the race. We also had the opportunity to go through safety drills, learn about the rigging and quarters, and get a feel for the boat on the water. This helped build confidence in our decision as the Captain and crew demonstrated a thorough knowledge, a willingness to teach that knowledge, and patience with us through our learning curve. We also sensed the confidence each of them had in each other, the vessel, and even us. We felt very comfortable joining such a friendly and competent crew.
Schooner "Spirit of Independence" with the schooner "Lynx" during the 2010 "Parade of Sail" in Baltimore Maryland's inner harbor. Picture by Allen B. Graves
We boarded the Spirit, as we affectionately call her, in Fells Point, MD for our one way “race down the Chesapeake” to Portsmouth, VA. The weekend before the race, we dropped a car off in Portsmouth so we could have transportation back. We joined the Captain and crew in the early afternoon on Wednesday the 13th of October, 2010 where the boat was tied at dock with many other schooners taking part in the race. The schooners all took part in a “Parade of Sail” that evening, gliding and showing off in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore. We had a wonderful dinner that night for all of the participants, at the Latin Palace, listened in on the race meetings, and sang some “sea shanties” (with much help of course) at a local Fells Point pub, the Wharf Rat. We felt welcomed and a part of the crew.

Following a final race administration meeting the next morning with historic “Town Cryers”, we took our turn to pull out from the dock and make our way to the starting line of the race near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge close to Annapolis, MD. The weather had turned cloudy and it began to rain shortly before we left the dock. We helped hoist the sails and prep the boat for the race as we left toward the starting line. Captain JC Waters had maneuvered the Spirit so we were one of the first boats across the starting line. It was still raining with 5-10 knot winds out of the north (an estimate of my own). Just after a very good start the winds faded to calm and we sat almost motionless with the other boats in the race. With what wind we had directly behind us, we spread the main and foresail on either side of the boat in a wing-on-wing set to maximize the sail area catching what wind there was. This worked very well and we made our way south, slowly.

 Port view taken from the deck of the schooner "Spirit of Independence" during the beginning of the 21st Annual Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. Photo by Allen B. Graves.
 Going below deck was not even considered at this point as watching the boats, breathing in the salty air, and enjoying the conversations of the rest of the crew was exquisite. The sun set beautifully as the rain faded to nothing. What a wonderful experience!!

"Spirit of Independence" ship's bell. Photo by Allen B. Graves
We learned the ringing of the bells to define the crew shifts. Esther and I had a dog shift from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, a normal shift from 4:00pm to 8:00pm, another from 12:00am to 4:00am, alternating every 4 hours throughout the race. Or at least that was the plan…

Esther and I had completed our 4:00pm to 8:00pm shift in light winds and moderate seas and felt part of an incredible experience with some great sailors and a wonderful boat. Knowing that we had to be up for the 12:00am to 4:00am shift I had a cup of wine (from a box we had brought aboard) and we went to our cabin and fell asleep. I truly slept solidly. We awoke at about 11:30 to lots of commotion, requests for eyes on deck, and a boat truly lurching in the water. We scrambled to put on our foul weather gear as we were knocked against the walls of our cabin. Lesson learned: Fasten down your foul weather gear around your neck, wrists, and ankles before you head out on deck. As we came on deck the Captain and other watch crew were wrapping up the topsail that we had set earlier in the day when the winds were calm. The seas were stormy with 10-12 foot swells (that is purely my own estimate), winds of 30 knots (again, mine), and salt spray and waves crashing onto the deck of Spirit. I took a position on deck to watch for other boats as we had come dangerously close to one while the crew was scrambling to keep the sails in order. We had learned later that Spirit had reached a new speed record for being under sail (11.2 knots); the auto pilot shut down not being able to calculate under those conditions; and the shift in course caused an unexpected jibe. The jibe of the staysail fouled the rigging of the jib. This series of events forced us to lower the staysail and jib in the rough seas and winds. Esther took over watch (on hands and knees) while I helped out with the sails. While the Spirit handled the pounding of the waves with ease, it was not so easy on the rest of us. In pitch black, boat lurching in every direction, waves pounding in on us, sails flailing in the wind, the Captain showed his metal. He helped and directed us how to lower the staysail, secure it and move on to the jib.

All of the crew was heroic in taking control of an extreme moment. We brought the sails under control, rerouted the Spirit toward the finish line, and sped on into the night.

Spirit crew tries to stay dry wearing foul weather gear. Photo by Allen B. Graves.
 My feet, chest, and shirt sleeves wet, we stayed our watch as the waves lessened to 6-8 feet (another estimate). The stars came out incredibly bright. Following a truly harrowing experience I felt exhausted yet renewed. This was one of those life affirming moments that make you understand what it is to truly participate in something great.

My shift ended sometime near 5:00 am. Wet, cold, and tired, I collapsed in our bunk and slept solidly again until the bell rang 6 times (7:00). I had my morning coffee and was on deck to watch the sun rise. A true beauty. 

We sailed across the finish line 20 hours 11 minutes after we started the race, more than a three hour improvement over Spirit’s time last year.

Once reaching Portsmouth we stayed through Sunday participating in the various events, dinners, and parties as were planned. We enjoyed sharing our stories of the race, talking with the other crews, and quiet calm nights aboard the Spirit of Independence.

On this trip we got much more than we bargained for. We gained a true appreciation for sailing and instead of making acquaintances aboard a sailing vessel; we made extraordinary friends with the family of the Spirit of Independence.

I was asked several times whether I would do the trip again. My response: "In a second."

My thanks to: J.C. Waters, Joy Waters, Jim Dyson, Allen Graves, Whitney Rayl, Faye Bailey, Peter Mulhern, Esther Simpson, and the Spirit of Independence.

John Beauchamp, passenger/crew/sailor


  1. John,
    Thank you for the retrospective account of your time on the Spirit. It was a lot of fun having you and Ester with us and I hope we will all be part of the adventure in 2011.
    -- Allen

  2. This is a fantastic blog Dad! I couldnt have enjoyed hearing about it more, seems like you didnt miss a detail! I hope that I can join on this voyage next year, I would be honored to help with the crew. Love you. Bean