May 28, 2018

Down the Bay Race, a Chesapeake Classic

Greg Cutter will always remember the 68th Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup, and there are two reasons why. Cutter achieved a couple personal milestones by capturing class honors for the first time in 12 attempts while also completing the Down the Bay Race double-handed.

“I’ve been doing the Down the Bay Race for almost three decades now and thought it was time to put a new spin on things,” Cutter said. “It was a really exciting race and my crew and I had an absolute blast.”

In 2017, the Down the Bay Race started in 20 knot winds out of the west-northwest. It was gusty for most of the day with many competitors reporting readings in excess of 30 knots.One might think such conditions would really test a two-man crew racing an Andrews 28, but Cutter and Dave Godwin were more than up to the task.

“We were across the Potomac River by five in the afternoon, which is the fastest I’ve ever done that. We were able to get the boat on a plane during the downwind run in strong breeze and were just flying,” said Cutter, whose boat named Diablo finished the 120-nautical mile race with an elapsed time of just over 23 hours, ahead of many fully-crewed entries.

Diablo took first place among five entries in the PHRF Double-handed class, which is relatively new for this classic Chesapeake Bay distance race. Cutter would love to see the class double in size for the 69th Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup, which will begin off Annapolis on May 25, 2018.

“I’m a little biased because I’m the one that pushed for the double-handed class, but I believe Down the Bay is a perfect race for this type of sailing,” said Cutter, a professor at Old Dominion University. “I think this is a nice step up for short-handed sailing from the usual round-the-buoys racing. If you have ever been tempted to try double-handed racing, this is a good event to start with. Down the Bay is fairly cheap, relatively easy and very safe.”

Cutter would certainly add the word challenging to describe Down the Bay, as the mere distance combined with the various navigational hazards on the Chesapeake Bay are a test for all crews no matter what the size.

“It does take roughly 24 hours to complete, which is pushing it a bit for two sailors,” he said. “You have to be mindful of the commercial traffic and various shoals, but that’s no different than being aboard a fully-crewed boat.”

Cutter admitted that Godwin was a bit skeptical of doing Down the Bay double-handed, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience and is very excited about helping Diablo repeat as class champion.

Entries in the double-handed division of Down the Bay compete under Chesapeake Short-handed Sailing Society (CHESSS) guidelines, which require all sailors to have harnesses and jack lines. Rich Acuti, who founded CHESSS in 2015, said the organization has grown from 18 members to 112 in just three years.

“Other short-handed sailing associations do distance races that are considerably longer than Down the Bay,” Acuti noted. “To my mind, Down the Bay is ideal for adding more challenges to what we do. We are encouraging our members to give this race a try and see how they like it.”

If more members show an interest in point-to-point distance racing, CHESSS is considering adding a coastal competition such as Cape Charles to Cape May.

“There is a growing need for organizations like ours because a lot of boat owners are having difficulty getting large committed crews,” Acuti said. “Short-handed sailing is a way for skippers to continue competing in the events they enjoy without worrying about finding a full crew.”

Organizers with Storm Trysail Club see great growth opportunity with the double-handed class for the venerable Down the Bay Race. Competition will once again be offered in ORC (Offshore Racing Congress), PHRF and Multihull classes as well.

“We are really hoping to get the attention of the double-handed crowd,” said Rich Wilcox, chairman of the 69th Down the Bay Race and a Hampton Yacht Club member. “There are a lot of reasons why it makes a lot of sense. If you have the boat and want to go racing, it only takes one other person.”

The 69th Down the Bay Race, from Annapolis to Hampton, will welcome double-handed sailors as well as offering PHRF, ORC, Multihull starts.

Storm Trysail Club and Hampton Yacht Club have joined forces to revitalize interest in Down the Bay, which was once the largest distance race on the Chesapeake Bay. Wilcox would like to see more owners consider using Down the Bay as a feeder for Southern Bay Race Week, which is being held the following weekend.

“I think there is some potential there to join forces to benefit both events,” he said. “Down the Bay used to attract 100-plus boats and our goal is to get back to that level of participation. Those of us who love this great race would like to see that energy regained.”

Jeroboam, an Annapolis-based Farr 400 owned by Laurent Givry, captured the prestigious Virginia Cruising Cup as overall winner of the 2017 Down the Bay Race. Jeroboam completed the course with an elapsed time of 11 hours, 9 minutes and 30 seconds and took first place in PHRF A with a corrected time of 13:47:18, which was almost two hours better than the runner-up entry.