Yawl Come Back!
By LCDR Dick Kammann, Jr., USN
A former Naval Academy yawl and midshipman reunite for the Governor's Cup
It had been at least 14 years since last sailing a U.S. Naval Academy Yawl.
Then, a midshipman on the offshore sailing team, I spent many memorable moments
racing and training on the classic, tradition-laden, Luders 44 yawls. Designed
in the 1930s, these were the first fiberglass versions, built in 1965
specifically for the Academy. As with many experiences from my Academy years,
the significance of participating in sailing history was quite lost on my
overburdened, midshipman soul. It has taken over a decade, and a recent
Governor's Cup race experience on Chesapeake Bay, to fully comprehend the magic
of those Naval Academy yawls.
In the late 1980s, the Academy again modernized its fleet by replacing the
aged yawls with specially designed sloops, now known as Navy 44s. My current
duty station, Naval Air Station Patuxent River, situated about 50 miles south of
Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay, benefited from the Academy's transition by
acquiring two of the retired yawls. Ever since, ALERT and VIGILANT have been
serving their second tours of duty as the flag ships for Navy Patuxent Sailing
Club (NPSC). Recently assigned to the base, I inevitably found my way to the
waterfront, as I always do while exploring a new place. The unexpected sight of
the two blue yawls berthed at the Club instantly captured my thoughts and
memories. With an unusual case of goose bumps, my mind's video replayed scenes
from past Academy sailing days, complete with a marked sense of nostalgia. It
occurred to me those very yawls had fulfilled so many of my sailing needs years
ago, not to mention the needs of thousands of other midshipman over the decades.
As if defying any plans for moth balls, the two vessels floated proudly at the
Navy Patuxent docks; competent, experienced, and eager to share their magic with
unsuspecting sailors. After all, the yawls had seen it all.
At that moment, I was overcome with a yearning to return aboard the yawls,
and relive our Academy days when both they and I were, perhaps unwittingly, at
our peaks. A couple weeks later, I found myself committing to join Club members
on ALERT to compete in the Governor's Cup overnight race from Annapolis to Saint
Mary's College in Maryland. Many that know me could not understand my decision
to race on a 36 year old yawl, despite the other, more competitive opportunities
presented. I was not sure I understood either.
The NPSC crews that warmly welcomed me comprised of relatively
inexperienced racers. Nonetheless, it was obvious that this group, which had
gotten to know ALERT and VIGILANT quite well, was special. Since I was a late
comer, most pre-race details were already handled. Eager to contribute in some
fashion, I suggested to Club members that I could intervene in the effort to
locate a pre-race staging location for our two former Academy yawls somewhere in
Annapolis. My objective, of course, was the sacred Santee Basin, home of the
Naval Academy Robert Crown Sailing Center, and the new Navy 44s. I drove to
Annapolis the following day, and met with a very understanding Assistant
Director of Naval Academy Sailing, who also happened to be a former Academy
sailing team member. Although we didn't speak the sentiment, I am convinced he
shared my reverence in the idea of temporarily bringing "home" two former
Academy yawls. Mission accomplished.
The sight of the classic ALERT and VIGILANT in Santee Basin, berthed among
several of their successors (including the "new" ALERT and VIGILANT!), stopped
many an onlooker during the busy summer day before the race. Indeed, most
uniformed and non-uniformed roamers of Naval Academy grounds had sufficient ties
with blue and gold tradition to contemplate the yawls' presence.
As we eventually set out for the starting line, my rooted connection with
the boat, Bay and surrounding action was undoubtedly sensed by ALERT crewmates.
The result was an offering of the helm; which, when accepted, seemed to
consummate my entire experience. The "pig" still exuded the same sluggish
response, high inertia and wide sheeting angles. But now there was an
associated pleasure that could only come from having been a midshipman; not
being a midshipman. As the intensity of pre-start maneuvers increased, so did
the coordination on ALERT. It was apparent that the relatively green crew was
somehow succumbing to the blue yawl's magic. It wasn't about performance and
winning. Rather, it was about the experience and people. The only race for us
was going to be against the 21 hour time limit. Besides, it was looking like we
would be tacking all the way down the Bay; the scenario offering the least
possible advantage for the antique yawl relative to the modern racing fleet.
We nailed the start, but were quickly shuffled to the rear by the faster, newer
yachts. After a couple crossings with others in the class, it was obvious that
those favoring the Eastern shore were making out. Armed with only those data
points, plus a lifetime of Bay racing, and nothing to lose, we were compelled to
become "the" eastern-most racer on the course. Following hours of dark,
independent sailing, and my reassurances that our strategy was justified, ALERT
finally reunited with other racers, and actually crossed ahead of several. It
didn't matter, though, because the sailing was pure joy all night long. The
crew members were not strangers anymore. We discovered each other's diverse
backgrounds, positions, and interests. We shared sailing tasks and sea stories.
I wondered about my fellow midshipmen sailors from years ago on these same
yawls. What were their stories? What were they doing now? Perhaps ALERT knew.
Shortly after the wind gave us the thrill of an early morning close
reaching blast, it tapered off to merely a few knots, and left us ghosting along
with 15 miles of race course remaining. According to the on board mental
calculations, we would finish within the 21 hour time limit despite making only
2.5 knots over ground. We were in for a long, hot day. As numerous boats
around us dropped out, giving in to the lack of wind and abundance of heat and
sun, my ALERT crewmates never considered quitting for a moment. Their display
of unconditional determination was reminiscent of a squad of typical first-year
midshipmen, or Plebes. I don't know how ALERT managed 2.5 knots of speed with
less wind. It was as if she, like me, was moved by the crew's resolve.
Well into the Saint Mary's River, within a mile of the finish line, and an
hour of the time limit, successful completion of the race was all but assured.
The anticipation was severe for this crew that had endured the heat, doldrums
and lack of rest. Morale was building towards a crescendo. Then, it happened.
We drove ALERT aground, trying to cut the last bend in the river as close as
possible. How could this be? Getting off the sandbar without disqualifying,
and then still finishing the race in time would require miracle. My heart sank.
I hastily put in motion the standard actions to free ALERT of the bottom,
all the while mentally preparing for the inevitable DNF after nearly reaching
the finish line 20 hours into the 21 hour limit. My heartache was much more for
the other crew members than myself. I have been aground approaching the
Governor's Cup finish before. I have had races fall apart before. But this
crew didn't know any better. They had invested themselves completely up to this
tragic point. Surprisingly, though, I noticed them waving off local boaters
coming to our aid. They shouted to the potential rescuers that we were racing,
and had to get ourselves off ground in order to finish. Somehow, that
observation convinced me a miracle was a likely possibility. ALERT affirmed the
notion by pivoting, albeit the wrong way, as the wind provided a slight puff.
Privately ashamed for thinking about fetching a tow line, I turned around and
dropped the mizzen sail, leaving power only in the genoa to spin us properly.
That, along with bodies already on the boom to leeward, and a kedge of the
anchor, broke us free after the longest 26 minutes of my life.
Moments later, we became the last racer to cross the finish line, barely within
the time limit. Needless to say, we erupted in cheers, hugs and high fives.
Even the race committee, who had clearly witnessed our sandbar challenge,
cheered for us. We sailed beyond the finish, toward the anchored racers,
bewildered and euphoric as if just reaching safety after battle. I glanced to
port and recognized one of the power boats that had offered a hand during our
grounding. Everyone on the passing boat was giving us a standing ovation. It
was then crystal clear why I had signed on for the race aboard the yawl. The
old Naval Academy icon had performed its magic again. Our corrected 16th place
out of 33 boats in class was respectable, but, of little importance. The crew
and I will forever remember this Governor's Cup experience on ALERT - with goose
Author's Sailing Biography
LCDR Dick Kammann, Jr., USN has been racing and cruising sailboats with
family and friends since age eight. He has accumulated nearly 15,000 offshore
miles, including four Bermuda races. During his first class (senior) year at
the Naval Academy, Kammann was full time skipper of the team's Peterson 43,
CONQUEST. After graduating in 1988, he remained as a sailing instructor at the
Academy until reporting to Flight School in Pensacola, FL. Today, Kammann
continues sailing with his wife, Caryn, and children, Ryan, Daniel and Emma, on
his parents' C&C 41, SPARTREK, and Tartan 4100, ROUNDABOUT, on Chesapeake Bay.