By Bill Wagner
Not many skippers have done the Down the Bay Race as often as William "Sled" Shelhorse.
The legendary southern bay sailor completed the Chesapeake classic for the 36 time over Memorial Day weekend. Shelhorse has captured class honors on many occasions over the past four decades, but one goal has eluded him.
That box has now finally been checked.
Shelhorse and his veteran crew aboard Meridian X1 captured line honors during the 71st Down the Bay Race for the Virginia Cruising Cup. The Virginia Beach resident steered the Carkeek 40 across the line at 12:06 on Saturday morning to beat Rival in an epic battle to be first to finish.
It was an accomplishment Shelhorse has sought for some time and he's had boats capable in the past. He's owned a Holland 42, Tripp 41, Farr 36 and Farr 400 that were all among the fastest boats in the fleet for Down the Bay.
"Unfortunately, there has always been one bigger boat that got line honors," Shelhorse said.
This time around, Shelhorse had the scratch boat and his top-notch team sailed her to full potential in completing the 120-nautical mile race, which starts at R2 off Annapolis and finishes at Fort Monroe off Hampton. Meridian XI completed the course with an elapsed time of 14 hours, 1 minute and 33 seconds - 33 minutes ahead of Rival.
"It means an awful lot because we've been chasing it for so long," Shelhorse said of taking line honors. "All credit to my crew, which is first-class. We encountered some extreme conditions and they never blinked."
Veteran Quantum professional Dave Flynn, who served as tactician and mainsail trimmer aboard Meridian X1, credited the other Carkeek 40 Rival for pushing its sister ship the whole way. Skipper Bob Cantwell and crew sailed in proximity to Meridian X1 almost the whole way.
"Those two boats are very evenly matched, and it was nice to have another competitor to pace against," Flynn said. "We had a long, knockdown, drag-out fight with Rival the whole way."
Turning point in the match race came around sunset on Friday evening when a major squall blew through, bringing winds of 35 to 40 knots. Flynn said Meridian XI and Rival were about 15 miles from Wolf Trap Light at the time.
"It was survival conditions for about a half hour. We had water breaking over the boat and were getting blasted with huge sheets of spray," he said.
Shelhorse was amazed the crew kept the boat moving toward the finish throughout the powerful squall. "We never lost control of the boat, never rounded up. We kept sailing fast and straight," said Shelhorse, noting the Carkeek 40 was doing 20 knots of speed while under reefed main and genoa.
Meridian XI had been ahead of Rival by approximately six minutes at Smith Point, which is pretty much the midway mark of the race. "After the squall went through and things calmed down, we could no longer see Rival," Flynn said. "We put about a half hour on Rival during the storm."
Boat captain Will Van Cleef, headsail trimmer Maxwell Plarr and bowman Greg Gendell were the other professional on Meridian XI along with Flynn. The 73-year-old Shelhorse has turned helmsman duties over to his son Graham Garrenton, whom he praised for "doing an outstanding job."
Michael Collins (pit), Jeremiah Dull (spinnaker trimmer), Mark Stephens (floater) and Harold Warren (runners) completed the crew, which enjoyed cheeseburgers and cold beer after arriving at host Hampton Yacht Club.
"This race has always been a favorite of Sled's and Hampton is his home club, so we all knew this meant a lot to him," Flynn said.
Shelhorse took Meridian XI to Florida over the winter and did the Fort Lauderdale to Key West Race, the Palm Beach Race and the Nassau Race.
"We logged about a thousand miles this winter and learned a tremendous amount about the boat," Shelhorse said. "It's a sophisticated, complicated boat and we finally have it figured out and dialed in. We're just going so much better than we were before."
Down the Bay Race - photo © Bill Wagner
Meridian XI also corrected to first place in the 11-boat ORC class over Rival, to which it owes time when handicaps are figured in. For Shelhorse, finishing first and securing the overall fleet victory in the Down the Bay Race ranks alongside his 1992 victory in the prestigious Lloyd Phoenix Regatta as the top accomplishments in his long sailing career.
"I've always loved this race because it's such a great challenge coming down the Chesapeake Bay. Every time is a little different," Shelhorse said. "One thing we've learned is that you have to protect the west side of the course."
This win was especially sweet considering he has been battling Parkinson's Disease. That debilitating illness hasn't seemed to slow the grizzled sailor, whom Flynn described as "one tough dude."
"My goal is to outlive Parkinson's," Shelhorse said matter-of-factly. "Everything is harder to do than it used to be, and I lose my balance on the boat sometimes, but I love sailing way too much to give it up. It's my one release."
Skipper Scott "Gus" Ward and the Crocodile crew captured the PHRF Spinnaker class, which attracted 18 entries. The Beneteau First 50 finished fifth across the line and corrected to 20 hours, 29 minutes and 37 seconds - almost three hours ahead of the runner-up in PHRF.
That performance earned Ward the Virginia Cruising Cup for the second time in his career. He previously was presented with the cup in 2013 when he was racing a Beneteau 40.7. This was the Solomons resident's first Down the Bay win with the current Crocodile, which he bought in 2016.
"I'm absolutely ecstatic. This is one of the true classic races on the Chesapeake, so it's always an honor to win. My crew did a fantastic job," Ward said.
Shane Morast was navigator while Steve Cohan was the leeward helmsman. Pancho Gonzales (main), Aaron Seligson (headsails) and Stephanie Caldwell were the trimmers. Rounding out the crew were Ted Williams (grinder), Jackie Rolleri (pit), Hawk Caldwell and Phil Weiser (floaters).
Storm Trysail Club-Chesapeake Station started the Down the Bay Race at 10 a.m. on Friday morning in 7 to 12 knot easterly winds. Crocodile reached down the Eastern Shore side of the bay all the way to Cove Point, sticking to the rhumb line as much as possible. After getting hit by squalls at Smith Point, Crocodile faced 16 to 20 knots on the nose the rest of the way.
"We had the current against us the entire race," Ward said.
Ward uses the Down the Bay Race to prepare the boat and crew for the Annapolis-to-Newport Race. He's installed a roller furler system that allows that makes changing sails much faster and simpler.
"We can adjust and change gears more quickly because we don't need to drop sails," Ward said.
Bad Cat, a J/111 skippered by James Whited, was the winner of the Chesapeake Racer-Cruiser Association class, which was contested under the ORRez rating system. Whited, who did his own navigation, only had a crew of three with Robert Herbig sharing steering duties and working the pit, Rob Miller working the foredeck and Eric Andreas trimming.
"We were a bit light and began to tire quickly after Smith Point," Whited admitted. "One of our crew was so exhausted he needed to go below for a while to recover.
Battling through squalls and heavy air challenged the short-handed crew and at one point Whited decided to hove-to for about five minutes to check the boat's position and the wind conditions.
"I've only done that once before in a race, but it was a break we needed and allowed us to get a little further west before the winds dropped into the teens and we had a beat to Hampton," he said.
Bad Cat posted a corrected time of 20 hours, 4 minutes and 48 seconds almost three hours better than CRCA runner-up Wind Dancer (C&C 37, Paul Clifford).
"I think the keys for us were the paths we took around the first rain squalls then the reefing down before the frontal passage," said Whited, a Solomons resident. "We really had a wild ride after the front passed but we were going directly down the course and were under control."
Skipper Greg Cutter was victorious in CHESS, which stands for Chesapeake Shorthanded Society. He and crew Benedikt Zihlmann needed only to finish as the other two boats in the class dropped out.
"We survived and won without any competition," Cutter said. "We had plenty of opportunities to drop out but kept pushing instead."
Cutter has now completed the Down the Bay Race 20 time since 1986 and called this year's one of the toughest. He and Zihlmann had to reef the main five times, perform six headsail changes as well as five spinnaker sets and douses. They were becalmed multiple times during the race and finished in 28 hours, 21 minutes.
"I would say the summary was too much or too little wind," said Cutter, noting that Diablo was becalmed off the Potomac and Great Wicomico rivers as well as in Mobjack Bay. "I would guess we had about five hours of zero wind - at the Potomac, the Great Wicomico and Mobjack Bay. We were just spinning around in circles."
Cutter and Zihlmann motivated themselves to keep the Andrews 28 moving by setting a goal of beating as many crewed boats as possible. "We changed the game," said Cutter, who won the Doublehanded Class during the 2017 Down the Bay.