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Boaters World

Aboard the schooner Farewell during the 20th anniversary run of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race

Courtesy Lloyd Robbins
Lloyd Robbins, a member of the Farewell crew, weathers the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race.

Posted 10/28/2009

Linda Gunn is standing at the chart table at the bottom of a short, steep ladder on her schooner-a two-masted traditional sailboat-the Farewell. It's night, and it's cold and dark. The wind is blowing around 20 knots from the north, which is good, because the boat is traveling south, but also bad, because the schooner does not hold a course well at this angle, and the two large sails depending from the fore and main masts are arranged in a wing-and-wing formation, stretched out toward opposite side of the boat. Too far off course in either direction and one of the sails will jibe across the deck with a force that shakes the boat. It takes an experienced helmsman to keep the boat straight as it is lifted by following seas.

The sails are reefed-shortened by tying short lines around the bottom-because 20 knots is a bit strong to carry the full sails, but Gunn has been trying to decide all day whether to take out the reef. If the wind strengthens during the night, it will be tough to put them back in the dark, but more sail would give the boat more speed. As the fore sail jibes across accidentally again, she has decided it's best to leave the reef in. This isn't just a boat, it's her home, and breaking things can get expensive. Best to err on the side of caution.

The rain and chill descended on the Chesapeake just hours before, as Gunn and the captains of 32 other sailboats began the journey from Fells Point to Portsmouth, Va., as part of the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race. The race, now in its 20th year, started Oct. 15 and ended on Oct. 17. The race was founded, according to the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race Inc., to promote the heritage and preservation of the bay. Proceeds from each race are donated to charitable organizations that work to conserve the bay's natural resources.

As of Friday, Oct. 16, as the boats neared their destination and Gunn stood at her chart table, the Liberty Clipper, a 125-foot long schooner from Boston and one of the larger "Class AA" boats in the race, is the only one visible from the deck of Farewell.

The Farewell, a "Class C" contender with a length of 47 feet, has been slowly gaining on the Clipper, to the point where the two boats are even with each other, although the only sign to betray that fact is the red light on the Clipper's bow as the two schooners skirt the western edge of the shipping channel.

Gunn, now 48 years old, says she's run this schooner race 15 times. For the past 11 years, she has made the trip as the captain of the Farewell, with the exception of 2008, when her boat's engine blew a head gasket the night before the race and she joined the crew of the Norfolk Rebel as a deckhand.

She remembers one race in particular-her second-aboard the A.J. Meerwald in 1998. It was the year she was diagnosed with cancer. That year, the Farewell and its previous owner won pretty much everything at the schooner race. Gunn saw it at the dock and told her husband, "Wouldn't it be cool to own that boat? We could do it on our own and not have to work for anyone else." She went into surgery shortly after the race, and while she was in recovery, learned that the Farewell was for sale. "I decided I had to have it," she says. Her husband was less enthusiastic. She says she told him, "Look, if I die, you can sell it."

She lived, and two years ago when she and her husband separated, she moved her things onto the Farewell and began living there full time, docked at a marina along Bear Creek in Dundalk. Her divorce was finalized a few weeks before this year's race, and she held onto the boat. Between the new engine, and missing the race last year, she says she's more nervous than usual about this year's race. She would like to win, but more importantly, she tells the crew, she wants everyone to be safe.

The Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race started with a 1989 challenge from Lane Briggs, the captain of the Norfolk Rebel, a tug boat with sails added to the deck, which he called a tugantine. He issued his challenge to the Pride of Baltimore II-a race from Baltimore to Briggs' home port of Norfolk. The Pride was in Europe, but other boats joined in. Briggs died in 2005, and the Rebel is now driven by his son, Steve. Gunn brought out a bottle of rum as the Farewell started the race, passing it quickly around before pouring some in the Bay as a tribute to the elder Briggs. "This one's for the Captain," she said.

High overhead flies a pink flag bearing a skull and crossbones that Gunn flies because she sometimes drives a pirate boat for tourists in Fells Point. It's one of the ways she keeps the money coming in for the constant repairs necessary to keep her home afloat. (She also works part time as an education supervisor at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.) Gunn has a running checklist of things that need to be done. Last week she was adjusting the rigging, which is no problem for her, but this winter a friend will help her sort out the electrical system, which she is less familiar with.

Underneath the pink pirate flag is an Australian flag, there because Gunn's brother Carl, who lives in Australia, is also aboard the boat. This is his third time racing with his sister. The crew also includes Lloyd Robbins, aka "Duncan McGuyver," who runs database equipment for a living and heads a crew of pirate re-enactors; and Dave Tebera, who is also called "Diver Dave" because he is a recreational diver, or "Crazy Dave" because he practices his recreational diving in Baltimore's Inner Harbor ("Something in the Water," Feature, July 29). Tebera was last seen before the ship passed under the Francis Scott Key Bridge, leaning against a bulkhead with his eyes closed, an outward sign of the seasickness that kept him suffering below under a blanket in one of the forward bunks for much of the race.

Jim Roof, a tugboat captain, serves as the ship's navigator. His knowledge of the bay is augmented by a laptop he brought, connected to a GPS receiver, which places a tiny red triangle on a nautical chart to indicate the position of the Farewell.

The final member of the crew-a City Paper writer asked to come along by the captain, whom he has known for many years- is on deck with Duncan, trying to read the lights of the ships in the darkness. Roof and Carl Gunn try to sleep on a pair of benches below. They have just come off watch-two hours on, two hours off. In this visibility, the main threats to the ships in the schooner race are the larger, faster commercial vessels making their way through the shipping channel. The larger ships can't venture outside the buoys marking either side of the deeper channel.

Much of the night aboard the Farewell passes without incident beyond the rain and the wind and the rocking of the waves. In the morning, the Farewell nears the finish line of the race. The crew hasn't seen another boat since the Clipper headed off to the east. There's no way of telling whether they are winning, or hopelessly behind. As the Farewell passes the Thimble Shoal Light marking the channel leading to Portsmouth, the ritual of the rum is repeated, and as the boat motors in to a Portsmouth dock, Linda Gunn tries to work out the handicap formula for the race. Another Class C boat, the Quintessence, is up ahead, so she knows the Farewell isn't first, but she's hoping for second or third. "Win, place, or show," she says. The winner of the schooner race gets bragging rights, and an additional handicap for next year's race.

The Farewell has docked, and the party has begun on the dock in Portsmouth-a bull roast to feed the hungry crews. A band is playing sailing songs at one end of the large tent, as old friends greet each other at the long picnic tables.

The race results aren't in yet, but when they are, Farewell will be listed third in her class across the line with an elapsed time of 14 hours, 30 minutes, fifth after the handicapping formula has been applied. The bigger boats have seen an upset-Lady Maryland, from Baltimore, takes first place beating the Pride of Baltimore II and the Schooner Virginia, which come in second and third on corrected time.

With the Farewell safely at the dock, Linda Gunn is already planning for next year's race. She will be ready, and so will the Farewell. "I'm not one of those people who own boats who are like 'Ooh, I want the next boat and the next boat," Gunn says. "I'll keep her until I'm done being cold and wet and want something with a climate-controlled wheel house. But I'll always be a boat person, that's for sure."

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