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The Amazing Race on Water

Story by George Newman
Photography by Robert Tinari

At St. Mary's College of Maryland in 1974, three young sailing enthusiasts looked for a way to spread the word about the beauty of Southern Maryland. They hit on the idea of organizing a race from Maryland's modern capital, Annapolis, to the colonial capital, St. Mary's City.

"We just thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could do this?'" recalled Dale Rausch, one of the trio. Rausch had graduated from St. Mary's College three years earlier and had been hired by the college as waterfront director. Along with two undergraduates, Russell Baker and Peter Sarelas, Rausch got the backing of then-St. Mary's College President Renwick Jackson. Thus was born the St. Mary's Governor's Cup, the oldest and longest overnight yacht race on the Chesapeake Bay. Fewer than 50 craft raced that year, but more than 150 are expected for the 35th running on August 1.

At 6 p.m. on August 1, 2008, the racing yachts will form a kind of aquatic rugby scrum as they bob their way into position in the choppy waters off Annapolis, surrounded by dozens of spectator craft. From the starting boat (this year, the schooner Adventurer), a cannon will boom at intervals of five minutes, launching the racers in eight classes, from fastest to slowest.

About nine hours later - more or less, depending on the wind - the first boat will cross the finish line near Church Point on St. Mary's River, having traveled 70 miles, almost all on the Chesapeake Bay. As the winner of each class arrives, another cannon will sound, this time from the Dove, a replica of a 17th century square-rigger that is part of the outdoor museum at Historic St. Mary's City. In contrast to the controlled chaos at the Annapolis start, bucolic peace marks the St. Mary's finish, as the fastest boats usually arrive before dawn. In fact, living spectators are often outnumbered by the gravestones in the Trinity Church cemetery atop the point.

Life, however, quickly returns to the riverfront. By late morning, when all the racers should be in, the St. Mary's College campus will be the scene of a huge celebration, famously described by Sailing World magazine as "one of sailing's 10 best parties." This year it will feature two rock bands - one in the afternoon, a second in the evening - with food and drink available for sale.

The racers can attend a post-race dinner as well as the party. Along with the chance to win a trophy, those are the sole rewards for participating in the Governor's Cup. The race awards no cash prizes. Considering the investment in time, money and muscle required to compete, non-sailors might wonder what motivates the racers.

Jim Muldoon, holder of the course record of just over six hours set in 1993, said that although professional international yacht racing exists, the sport in the United States remains largely amateur, fueled by the love of sailing and an appetite for challenge.

In this age of global warming, it's also worth noting that sailing requires no fossil fuels. Keith Mayes, skipper of the fourth-place yacht in his class last year, put it modestly but accurately: "We broke nothing and hurt no one."

The race provides an opportunity to bring the thrills of competitive sailing to many who might not normally take part. Students from Patuxent and Leonardtown high schools crewed on a boat that won its class last year. The skipper, Stovy Brown, plans to include students in his crew again this year. Muldoon's Donnybrook counted two Special Olympics participants, one of them blind, in its 2007 crew.

For Rausch and his friends - all from urban parts of Maryland - the aim in 1974 wasn't racing glory so much as a desire to bring the yacht-racing world to their adopted region. With the backing of college staff and volunteers over the years, their idea of a capital-to-capital race has succeeded beyond anything they could imagine 34 years ago. In a sense, said Rausch, "we look on ourselves as victims of history," by which he meant that they had been given too much credit. "We really didn't have a whole lot to do with (the race's success), but we're pleased at how it turned out."

The latest information about the 35th anniversary running of the Governor's Cup can be found at http://www.smcm.edu/govcup/.

This site contains select articles from our hardcopy magazine from the past ten plus years.
As such, some of the information in this particular article may no longer be current.

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