For three local class winners of the 2023 Annapolis-to-Newport Race, there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Simply finishing the 475 nautical miles was a real challenge this time around as brutal conditions in the Atlantic Ocean made for a miserable experience.
The 39th edition of the biennial sailing race will be remembered for the fact 31 of the 60 starters retired rather than risk damage to their boat or crew in extreme conditions offshore. Most boats pulled the plug while still in the Chesapeake Bay after carefully reviewing the forecast and confirming the worst — the fleet would be welcomed into the ocean by 20- to 30-knot winds and 10- to 12-foot seas.
“Those first 24 hours in the ocean were extreme and really, really difficult,” said Todd Berget, skipper of ORC 3 winner Skadi. “We had to hang on for dear life and find a way to get through that rough stretch in one piece.”
This was a serious test of seamanship that required determination, toughness and willpower. Sea sickness was rampant throughout the fleet that elected to go offshore, and not even the most experienced ocean racer was immune.
“We were just trying to survive the heavy air and big waves,” said Stephen Hale, who skippered Cookie Monster to victory in ORC 4. “Four members of the crew were seasick, two of which were really bad. At one point we thought we might need to retire.”
Berget and Team Skadi made their Annapolis-to-Newport Race debut in 2021, finishing fourth overall in ORC 3 and winning the J/120 sub-class. Berget echoed Hale when discussing the strategy out in the ocean.
“We knew things were going to get hairy out in the ocean and my goal from the get-go was to not break the boat and crew during the first day offshore then get back into race mode thereafter,” said Berget, a Gambrills resident. “Once the rough stuff subsided, we really put the hammer down. I thought the boat really handled well and the crew was top-notch.”
Sam Carter served as navigator aboard Skadi, which wound up with the best corrected time among the Saturday starters. Skadi’s corrected time of 3 days, 18 hours, 42 minutes, 23 seconds surpassed that posted by ORC 1 winner Rikki (3:20:18:54).
During Wednesday afternoon’s awards ceremony, Berget and the Skadi crew were presented with the Blue Water Bowl for best overall performance. Carter received the City of Newport Trophy as navigator of the boat with the best corrected time.
Cookie Monster, a Salona 380, was among the 30 boats in five classes that started Friday, albeit five hours later than scheduled because of extremely light winds on the Chesapeake Bay. The Eastport Yacht Club entry had placed fourth in class on corrected time in the 2021 Annapolis-to-Newport Race and Hale was determined to improve upon that.
“We did the numbers afterward and realized we needed to be 1% faster. That was our goal for this race, to push the boat and find ways to get that extra 1%,” said Hale, who had four crew members return for this year’s race.
Friday’s starters had a slow trip down the bay in minimal breeze despite sailing downwind most of the way. Hale felt his team did the best it could during the 120-nautical mile inshore portion of the race and said the real test came after crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.
“We were having trouble with our weather downloads, so we tried to stay in touch with the Navy 44s,” Hale said, referencing the David Pedrick-designed 44-footers that are used for sail training of all midshipmen at the Naval Academy. “We knew those boats would outperform us upwind in heavy air, so we didn’t want to let them get away. We were going off intuition and trying to cover our competitors.”
With the bulk of the crew struggling with sea sickness, Hale and watch captain Matt Alisch did most of the driving during Sunday’s upwind slog. Those two battled exhaustion and kept the boat moving until other sailors aboard recovered.
Dark Storm, a J/121 owned by Ken Comerford, had as experienced a crew as any boat in the fleet. It didn’t matter once the boat started rocking and rolling during the 12-nautical mile stretch from the mouth of the bay to the Chesapeake Light.
“We had a bit of a hate mission from the tunnel to the light. We were sailing on a fetch and the bow was underwater the whole time,” said Comerford, whose crew also battled sea sickness. “We had a lot of water on the boat and everyone was pumping.”
Damage to the bow pulpit caused Dark Storm to take on considerable water before Kyle Comerford could go forward to address the issue. “Kyle was completely coated with green sea water while hanging over the bow making repairs. He really saved the day,” Ken Comerford said of his eldest son.
Dark Storm had six crew members who were capable helmsmen and Kyle Comerford said that proved beneficial during the nearly 30-hour beat into stiff winds and heavy seas. The J/121, which was double-reefed and carrying the No. 4 jib, saw top wind velocity of 33 knots.
“No one drove for more than an hour or so. Whenever you couldn’t go anymore, you tapped out and we switched someone else onto the wheel,” Ken Comerford said.
Ken Comerford owns North Point Yacht Sales and two members of the crew — Mike Coe and Jack McGuire, are employees. Comerford considered not starting the race because of the dangerous forecast and was pleasantly surprised that the worst-case scenario never materialized.
“I was very concerned about what we were going to experience and I wanted to make sure I could keep the crew and boat safe,” the Annapolis resident said. “In all honesty, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. Once we got out there, we found it was manageable.”
Dark Storm was the second Saturday starter to finish, crossing the line at Castle Hill Lighthouse at 2:42 p.m. Tuesday. It wound up beating Sonrisa, an XP 44 skippered by Jeffrey McCarron, by almost an hour on corrected time within the ORC 2 class.
Defiance, a Navy 44 sailed by members of the Navy varsity offshore sailing team, also took home some hardware. Midshipman first class Phil Pacheco skippered Defiance, which placed second in ORC 4 behind Cookie Monster.
Senior Dylan Medina held the title of executive officer, while junior Nicholas Widick served as navigator. Defiance beat fellow Navy 44 Integrity by 1:23 on corrected time.
“We did everything we set out to accomplish and then some. This crew came together and performed way beyond anything I could ever expect,” Pacheco said. “Success in this race was about keeping a level head and not quitting. It was just miserable out there in the ocean.”
Pacheco was among the Defiance crew members who were too seasick to actively race for a portion of the offshore passage. He credited Medina for stepping up and showing leadership during that crisis.
“I was down for the count as soon as we got out of the bay. Dylan Medina took over and kept the boat going. He is the unsung hero of this race and the reason we got these trophies,” Pacheco said.