Want to know who I admire? Those crazy sailors who brave the winter wind to follow their passion for sailing—even in February! It’s the season for the annual frostbite series sailboat races that take place in Annapolis and other seaside towns in December, January, and February.

Photo courtesy of the author

While we ordinary folks huddle on dry land with a hot mug, frostbite sailors are actually out there living and breathing. They will tell you it’s exhilarating, daunting, mind bending, soul stretching. I believe it. And I think just maybe they’re not so crazy after all.

Sailboat racers want to race in the winter, and many will travel to Florida or the Caribbean to compete. To satisfy the desire here in the Annapolis, the Severn Sailing Association and the Annapolis Yacht Club host regular winter weekend races, labeled the “frostbite” series for a very good reason. Each race lasts about 45 minutes, usually running a triangular course marked for the day with anchored inflatable buoys. Most frostbite races are one-design sailing races, which means that each boat in a particular race is of the same design, maybe a Laser, a Harbor 20, or a J boat design, and the first boat to finish wins.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Other race divisions might be PHRF rather than one design. Performance Handicap Racing Fleet is a yacht racing handicapping system that allows different sailboat classes to race against each other in the same race. The scoring system accounts for and cancels out the inherent advantages and disadvantages of each class of boats. The idea is that the score should reflect the skill of the crew rather than the effects of the boat’s particular design and equipment.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Boat skippers and crew can enter a racing series via the sponsoring organization’s website. There are special frostbite rules. Sailors must wear the right gear, meaning a life vest over a wetsuit or drysuit with booties and gloves. Hypothermia from falling in the water is a serious danger. The Annapolis Yacht Club requires at least three sailors per boat so that if a crewmember goes overboard, the helmsman can steer while the second crew member rescues the third from the water. No spinnaker finishes and no hiking out are allowed.

There is always a race committee or chase boat with engine power on hand for rescues and for setting the racecourse. And the races are always cancelled if conditions are too extreme. (A typical AYC race cancellation notice: “With the wind, rain, temps, etc., reflecting the makings of a miserable day (direction isn't too favorable let alone plenty of yellow on the radar) we are cancelling Frostbite racing for today.”

Photo courtesy of the author.

My own time on the water is devoted to cruising and exploring, and not to sailboat racing, but I can feel the allure of racing. Being on the water gives you perspective—about life, about sublime beauty, about our place on this planet. Add intense risk and discomfort from cold, then mix in fellowship and competition among racers, and follow it up with camaraderie and a hot bowl of chili in the clubhouse, and you have the formula that gets these sailors out there on a cold winter afternoon. I can see why they do it.

If you’ve ever stood on your skis at the top of a snow covered mountain, blustery wind in your face and an iced-over lake stretching out in the distance below, you have an inkling of the exhilaration of winter outdoor activity. It sharpens you senses and crystallizes your breath. It makes you feel very alive.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Frostbite sailors will tell you that the harbor in winter gives them ideal sailing conditions—a harbor clear of moored boats and wacky powerboaters and paddlers, with wide open freedom from annoying boat wakes and chop. The wind is theirs alone to see, to predict, to anticipate. Often overhead there are puffy white clouds in a clear blue sky (okay, maybe sometimes a gray blue sky).

They will tell you that the sun’s low light is better in the wintertime, sparkling off the ridges in the water. They speak about seeing the wind gust patterns on the water, sensing the unobstructed wind direction and the tide’s ebb and flow on the surface of an otherwise empty harbor. They know the sound of the air whistling in their boat rigging and snapping against the masts of the slip-bound winterized boats at the launch.

Watch from ashore at City Dock or from the Spa Creek Bridge or an Eastport street end. You’ll see them out there, and you’ll wonder what they could be thinking. But see it through the sailors’ eyes—it’s not about the wind and cold. It’s about the exhilaration, the camaraderie, the gumption, the passion for sailing.

Photo courtesy of the author.

If you like what you see--if you’re smitten--it’s yours for the asking. Learn more about sailing at:

Severn Sailing Association https://www.severnsailing.org/ Annapolis Yacht Club https://www.annapolisyc.com/ Eastport Yacht Club https://www.eastportyc.org/ J World Annapolis http://jworldannapolis.com/