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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 bumps.

 

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.