Should I Enter HYC's Down the Bay Race?

Greg Cutter contributes this article to help you determine if the Down the Bay race is for you.

Of course it is!

Should I do the Down the Bay Race/Virginia Cruising Cup?

Greg Cutter, Norfolk, VA

You’ve heard talk about this race (, the longest distance in the CHESSS series this year, or seen the articles in Spinsheet or Scuttlebutt, but should you try it out? It’s clearly for those who want to try shorthanded racing, but there is a cruise involved too – either getting to Annapolis for the start or coming home from Hampton after the finish, and it’s in the name! If you’ve already tried a CHESSS race, then it’s a no-brainer, you’re set, but I’d argue that even a newbie can do it. It is a challenge and a bit of an adventure, but sailing is not for couch potatoes and since you are a sailor, you’re already into the challenge and adventure part. But doing this race, just like a long cruise, will make you a much, much better and experienced sailor – you’ll know the wind, waves, tides and how to use or conquer them better. And, because it’s really a round trip, you’ll know your Bay much, much better. What’s stopping you could include:

The cost? The maximum entry fee before 11 May is $150 based on boat length, a little bit of an ouch, but consider two big parties, one the evening before at Severn Sailing Association clubhouse and the big blow out dinner and awards party at Hampton Yacht Club (HYC) Saturday evening with all you can eat and drink. Plus, free dockage at HYC for a few days after you finish – floating docks, nice heads, a few bicycles to borrow, and southern hospitality on Memorial Day weekend. Oh, and my wife Carie helps you dock after the finish and has a cold bottle of champagne for you and your crew. OK, so that’s a cheap vacation.

Fancy racing stuff? Well, I’ve assumed that you want to try shorthanded racing, so you already need the jacklines, harness, usually combined with inflatable PFDs and tethers (you should already have these even if you don’t race), and that leaves a radar reflector – ahhh, the Davis fold up one is $26 at Defender and a good idea even if you don’t race but sail at night on the Bay. Just to be safer, let’s add a horseshoe buoy with light; most boats I’ve seen already have one to throw if someone goes over, and the light is really good at night for finding them. But, use the harnesses and jack lines and you completely avoid the rescue routines (But, sooner or later you really should know them and more importantly practice them).

Scary starting routine? Nope, we’re the first start along with the crewed non-spinnaker fleet so maybe 12 boats on a huge line – no biggie. All the other racing boats have to stay back until we start. And, it’s a 120 mile race so plus or minus seconds at the start is trivial.

Navigation? Go south and don’t run aground – that’s about it. But, here’s the secret course: start to Thomas Point Light, to Cove Point, to Point No Point Light, to Smith Point Light, to the first buoy at York River Channel, to the finish. Now, put it in your GPS course plotter.

Autopilot? They are nice and they are legal for CHESSS races, but you really don’t need it. Two bungies to the tiller or tighten the wheel brake and you’ve got a minute to adjust lines, grab a cookie, wake your crew, etc.

Watches and sleeping? First, don’t drink much at the SSA party and get a long night’s sleep on Thursday. It’s only a 24 hour, maybe 30 hours at the most, race so you can get away with little sleep. As much as possible, race doublehanded, not single, until someone has to take a break. So, I’m suggesting for this short race don’t bother with set watch routines. Some people are night owls while others are day trippers, so use this to your advantage and plan who stays up while the other takes a SHORT nap, maybe 1-2 hours. Plan on 5 minutes for the hand off, and make sure to give the relief your heading, way point, and all things navigation, a bit about the weather you’ve seen and think it will be doing (check the weather report every hour, but otherwise keep the VHF on 13 (ship to ship) and 16), and most importantly discuss the traffic (competitors, tugs and barges, freighters). Okay, this in fact is the only hard thing about the race.

Weather? You already sail on the Bay so there should be no surprises here. It is late May so there should not be any thunderstorms, but there are frontal passages. The wind will be either on the nose and a beat to Hampton or from the northwest to northeast, so a fun run down the Bay! Last year in 2017 we had both, a strong west to northwesterly for the first half, turning into a mainly southwest and every other direction drift-a-thon for the second half. In 2016 it was a howling southwesterly, and so it goes because the weather is another reason why we sail – we try to figure it out and turn it to our advantage.

Family’s Memorial Day plans? You’ll end up in Hampton near the center of all things historical (Williamsburg, Yorktown Victory Center, Jamestown, the Colonial Parkway, and nearby Fort Monroe with its moat and museum…and a brew pub!), but if you’re boat’s big enough, you’ll have free sleeping accomodations!

Safety? The CHESSS Sailing Rules cover lots of safety aspects, so it’s built into the race. And, you’ll have plenty of boats around you to help out if you need it; we’re just a VHF or cell phone call away. And finally, it’s the Chesapeake Bay, so if you get uncomfortable, pull over, drop the hook, and take a break. Or, pull into Solomons, or Reedville, or any of your favorite anchorages. This is not an offshore race so it’s easy to figure things out. But think of it this way: you will be sailing the equivalent of 1/5th of the way to Bermuda. So it’s a great learning experience in a safe environment and who knows, maybe Bermuda might be in your future.

There you go, everything explained, so now you have no excuses not to try it. And, if you have any more questions, just contact me,

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