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J/Teams triumph in epic gear-buster Annapolis-Newport Race

by J/Boats 11 Jun 2023 09:33 PDT June 2-3, 2023
Annapolis-Newport Race © Mike Keyworth / Keyworth Photography

For the winners of the 2023 Annapolis-to-Newport Race, there was a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Simply finishing the 475.0nm classic was a real challenge this time around as horribly brutal conditions in the Atlantic Ocean made for an absolutely miserable experience.

With staggered starts on Friday and Saturday, June 2 and 3, the 39th edition of the biennial race will be remembered for the fact that 31 of the 60 starters retired rather than risk damage to boat or crew in extreme conditions offshore.

Most boats pulled the plug while still in the Chesapeake Bay after carefully reviewing the forecast and confirming the worst— the fleet would be welcomed into the ocean by 20 to 30 knot north-northeast winds and 10-to-12-foot seas.

Making matters worse was the fact that heavy air would be on the nose from the moment boats rounded Chesapeake Light, ensuring an upwind pounding that would rattle the bones and try the souls of all participating sailors.

"Those first 24 hours in the ocean were extreme and really, really difficult. We had to hang on for dear life and find a way to get through that rough stretch in one piece," said one skipper.

This was a serious test of seamanship that required determination, toughness and willpower. Sea sickness was rampant throughout the fleet that elected to go offshore and not even the most experienced ocean racer was immune.

"We were just trying to survive the heavy air and big waves. Four members of the crew were seasick, two of which were really bad. At one point we thought we might need to retire," said another skipper.

ORC 3 Division

In the dozen boat division, it was a remarkable display of seamanship by the four J/Teams that swept four of the top five places. Winning was Todd Berget's J/120 SKADI and, as a result, also won the J/120 Division, too.

Berget and Team SKADI made their Annapolis-to-Newport Race debut in 2021. Berget echoed the sentiments of other skippers when discussing the strategy out in the ocean.

"We knew things were going to get hairy out in the ocean and my goal from the get-go was to not break the boat and crew during the first day offshore then get back into race mode thereafter," Berget said.

SKADI endured the rough patch much the same way and when it was over Berget along with watch captain Chris Allen did a thorough assessment. They were pleased to determine the J/120 was structurally sound and most of the crew was too.

"Once the rough stuff subsided, we really put the hammer down. I thought the boat really handled well and the crew was top-notch. When we called for a sail change at 3:00 AM, they were up and on it. You couldn't ask for better crew work."

The second place finisher was Eric Irwin and Mary Martin's J/122 ALLIANCE. They were followed by Richard BOrn's J/120 WINDBORN (a previous race winner) in fourth place and Rick Hanson's J/120 NO SURRENDER in fifth place! A remarkable performance by these four teams, congratulations to them all!

ORC 2 Division

In this dozen boat divisino, it was Ken Comerford's J/121 DARK STORM that won class honors after their bruising experience. Comerford's DARK STORM had as experienced a crew as any boat in the entire fleet. All seven sailors onboard had hundreds of blue water miles under their belts. It didn't matter once the boat started rocking and rolling during the 12-nautical mile stretch from the mouth of the bay to the Chesapeake Light.

"We had a bit of a hate mission from the tunnel to the light. We were sailing on a fetch and the bow was under water the whole time," said Comerford, admitting almost everyone threw up at some point. "We had a lot of water on the boat and everyone was pumping the water out of the bilge."

Damage to the bow pulpit caused DARK STORM to take on considerable water before Kyle Comerford could go forward to address the issue. "Kyle was completely coated with green sea water while hanging over the bow making repairs. He really saved the day," Ken Comerford said of his eldest son.

DARK STORM had six crew members who were capable helmsman and Kyle Comerford said that proved beneficial during the nearly 30-hour beat into stiff winds and heavy seas. The J/121, which was double-reefed and carrying the No. 4 jib, saw top wind velocity of 33 knots.

"No one drove for more than an hour or so. Whenever you couldn't go anymore, you tapped out and we switched someone else onto the wheel, he said.

Ken Comerford owns North Point Yacht Sales and two members of the crew — Mike Coe and Jack McGuire, are employees. Comerford considered not starting the race due to the dangerous forecast and was pleasantly surprised that the worst-case scenario never materialized.

"I was very concerned about what we were going to experience and I wanted to make sure I could keep the crew and boat safe," he said. "In all honesty, it wasn't as bad as anticipated. Once we got out there we found it was manageable."

Navigator Paul Luisi took DARK STORM east of the rhumb line and close to the coast while plotting how to get through two transition zones. DARK STORM showed double zeros on the speedometer for six hours, but did a better job making the second transition.

"We were paying close attention to all the boats within sight. We worked very hard to stay in consistent breeze," Ken Comerford said. "We have a windseeker sail that is a fully-battened jib and that sail was a tool that really helped us make it through those transitions faster."

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