|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.
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.|
|"Spirit of Independence" ship's bell. Photo by Allen B. Graves|
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 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