In 1979 I moved back to this area to live close to D.C. and my childhood home of Baltimore. It was only at the ripe old age of 29 that I discovered the Chesapeake Bay. Now you may think that the Chesapeake Bay has been in the same place for thousands of years, but it took moving to New York City, and then back here, to find it. My sister buying a sailboat may also have been an influence in my discovery. While I had been residing in the big city, not becoming a great success “behind the scenes” on Broadway, my sister was growing up and meeting lots of sailors.
Her boyfriend back then liked to sail, so she bought a boat, and Sundays in the summer would find us toodling around the Bay. My job was to cut up the salami and cheese for lunch and between working on crossword puzzle clues I would pull or let go of a rope (a line, in sailboat speak) as I was instructed. This continued for a few years and it was a pleasant way to while away a summer afternoon. But then life changed, as it so often does, and my sister traded her poor sailboat-loving boyfriend in for a rich powerboat (and the guy that went with it.)
All of a sudden I discovered I had developed an addiction. I raced to the sailboat on weekends, to clean and scrub and to do whatever I needed just to be around it. Taking the boat out of the slip was not an option then, because I didn’t know how to sail. Time passed and soon I ran out of excuses to go down to the boat; so I came up with a brilliant idea — take sailing lessons. I signed up with the Annapolis Sailing School and took a week-long course, and the next thing I knew I could captain a boat (although that might be a slight exaggeration of my abilities at the time). And my sister was great at letting me take out her boat.
As the months passed, I became more and more interested in acquiring sailboat stuff. I wanted to add a knot meter to know how fast I was going and a depth sounder to know when I was about to run aground. But my sister was a simpler sailor and wasn’t interested in any additions. I was also spending weekend nights on the boat which was great fun except for the backaches and the charley horses from the boat bunks that were not tall-woman sized. It was obvious I needed my own boat.
Late summer 1986, I made up my mind to buy a new used boat the following summer, but I had a winter to find one and wasn’t in a hurry. However, on the theory that looking never hurts, I started researching 30-foot sailboats which wouldn’t give me leg and back cramps and wouldn’t give my bank account a nervous breakdown. I found one boat for sale that looked promising, a J-30, but it had been raced hard and everything down below had been abused. The salesperson however wasn’t deterred. He started showing me pictures of other boats for sale, until his partner said, “How about an Omega 30?” “What’s that?” I asked. They showed it to me, and it was love at first sight. They also told me that if I bought it I would get a free trip to Sweden, where the boat was made. I thought long and hard for about two minutes and asked, “How about if I skip Sweden and you give me a bigger sail, a spinnaker (the big colorful sail for speed), shore power so I could have electricity on the boat, a knot meter, a depth sounder,” (my dreams were coming true) and anything else I could think of at the moment. They said yes. There were no Omega 30s this side of the Atlantic, and the Omega company wanted desperately for someone to buy one. And that someone was to be me. I was in heaven. I had intended to buy a cruising boat, but somewhere between the time I saw my new true love, and the day I sailed her away from the dealer, I had developed a new passion. Someone had allowed me to crew on a sailboat race, and my life had changed. Not only did I still have an addiction to sailing, I also now had an obsession with racing sailboats. And what’s more, I was now the proud owner of a boat that could race.
Of course things don’t move that quickly in real life. First I had to go through winter before I could sail again. Then when the sun finally came out I moved my boat to its new home in a little marina north of Annapolis. It was a very little marina, and the boat was lonely there especially on weekend nights, so I decided the boat and I would be happier in Annapolis. Our first choice of homes was the Annapolis Yacht Club (AYC), but it was 1987 and both my boat and I were a “she,” and the AYC didn’t accept women. So I found a slip for my beautiful boat at a marina and yacht club that was happy to take my female money. And on July Fourth, Bear Boat and I moved into Mears Marina. She was christened Bear Boat because I had a large collection of Teddy bears that had been given to me as gifts over the years, and to “bare boat” was to hire a boat out without hiring a captain. It seemed a fitting name because I was my own captain and it gave me an excuse to paint a bear in a sailor’s suit on the side of the boat.
When I sailed into my new marina, the first person I met said, “Hi, nice to meet you, want to race with me tonight?” I of course said “yes” as I have hundreds if not thousands of times since then. What was even more exciting was he told me there would be another race the next day and that I should race my boat.
Next day we went out and surprised ourselves and our new yacht club by coming in third place. A couple of the new yacht club members were not too pleased by being beaten by a woman. Thus began Bear Boat’s racing career. For the next two years I raced in the local club races on my boat and the important Chesapeake Bay races on someone else’s boat.
In 1989 I finally decided to kick my racing up a notch and brought a friend out to teach my crew how to fly a spinnaker so that we could go out and play with the “big boys” in the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association. Sailing with a spinnaker makes the boat much faster, especially when the wind is behind you. It also makes it much more complicated to race and maneuver. Memorial Day 1989 was to be my first spinnaker race.
The sun was up and the wind was behind us so we put the spinnaker up and we were looking good. We just were moving right along when the woman trimming the spinnaker pointed behind and said “look.” The sun may have been up in front of us, but there were some big, mean-looking clouds coming up the rear.
I called to the crew “drop the spinnaker now!” My crew, who had just been through spinnaker lessons a couple of weeks before, said, “but we’re supposed to put the other sail up first.” By this time I was thinking of myself as not only not an expert but someone who at that moment wasn’t afraid to admit that she was petrified. I reiterated, “take it down now!” just in time for the wrath of God to vent on the Chesapeake Bay. I watched three or four spinnakers around me get destroyed. The wind gusts were up over 50 knots at times, which, for landlubbers, is close to 60 mph, so the next short period of time felt like an eternity. We survived the initial fury without losing a sail and we still had our mainsail up so we were still racing. We were sailing very quickly only not in exactly the right direction. Soon we were approaching points of land I didn’t think we should be that close to and I asked someone to go down below to check the charts, only it seemed I was the only one on board who could read a chart because after all I had been to sailing school. Then we saw someone near us with only a mainsail up, like us, take a knockdown. That’s when although the mast is supposed to be perpendicular to the water, the wind thinks it should be lying down in the water, and even though the keel has enough weight in it to make the boat go back upright while it thumbs its nose at the wind, it’s scary as hell. “Okay,” the call went out from my throat, let’s drop the sail and turn on the engine and go to the party (a very important part of racing) without finishing the race. The sail came down nicely, but the engine wouldn’t start. That was when I discovered that one of the jib sheets (a line that controls the sail) was hanging overboard and going under the boat, tangling the prop and stopping the engine.
The next logical step was to call for help. Someone went below and discovered that the radio had taken a bath and no longer worked. I pointed the boat in what I thought was the right direction and, without sails but with a perfectly functioning knot meter, found that we were crossing the bay on sheer will power at 4 knots.
The wind slowly diminished so I put up a little sail, then I put up the mainsail, and then I took down the little sail and put up a bigger sail, and I thought we were actually going to get to the party, when the wind died altogether. And now we weren’t going anywhere. Fortunately another racer came by and gave us a tow into St. Michael’s and we were very grateful until they dropped us off two miles from the party. Well, we finally got to the party and got to hear everyone else’s tales of near death and destruction on the high seas and the next day we got towed out of St. Michael’s, put up our unshredded spinnaker and had a fabulous sail home.
Now, almost 35 years after my discovery of the Chesapeake Bay, and 25 years after that harrowing first sailboat race, two years after my retirement and my first Social Security check, the sweetest words you can say to me are the ones I heard that first day Bear Boat and I pulled into our new marina. “Do you want to go racing?” And my answer is still, “What time do you want me there?”
– Bonnie Schloss