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2020 Wednesday Night Races: A blessing for all

I am hopeful that sometime in the near future, when we look back at this pandemic summer, we will remember with fondness those experiences that allowed us to feel close to normal.

I single out Wednesday Night Sailing Races for this category. They have taken place for as long as I can remember (and frankly that’s a long time), starting off the breakwater in Greenport just north of Dering Harbor. 

The races were defiantly held this year amidst the debris of canceled sports and cultural and learning events. Truth be told, I felt giddy at the normalcy of seeing an armada of boats, as many as 30 during the long summer nights, many less as the season wanes, circle the starting line, jockeying for a good position as they waited for the 6 p.m. start-siren from Greenport.

All over America, towns with sailboats and their clubs designate one night a week to what is affectionately known as “beer can racing.” Along with encouraging the consumption of said beverage (by crew, but only on the way home) these races celebrate the informal. You just show up. There is no “check in.” There are no entrance fees.

One can look long and hard, assisted by high-power binoculars, but no committee boat will be in sight. The entry requirements boil down to … if it floats and has a sail, it qualifies. Engineless one design daysailors race against world-class boats — single handers against crews of 15 and rack spinnaker gybers with Mylar mains are pitted against boats with soft Dacron jibs.

Boats from Shelter Island and its yacht club are always well represented, but everyone is welcome and boats from Greenport and Orient show their enthusiasm, too. You can come once, or every Wednesday; no one is keeping track and there is no cumulative results tabulation.

An element of libertarian anarchy runs through the fleet as strong as the current found in the Greenport channel. This is evident in the method of scoring. Imagine deciding how long you will need to take the SAT College Boards, or how much you will send in to the IRS at tax time. Well, scoring Wednesday night is a little like that. Captains make their own decision on when to head back to the finish line. Lore and custom has it that you can respectfully head for home after the fastest boat rounds the finish buoy in the Peconic Bay.

However if you turn homeward to get back earlier, that’s O.K., too. (One of the regulars has decided to do this handicap in reverse. He often starts an hour early. The other captains just smile.)

Proof that everyone’s goal is the simple enjoyment of being on the water is this: If you don’t have one of the fast boats like Bravo, Bella, Alliance, or Barleycorn, you know you are going to “lose.” They will be heading home while you are still heading out; you wave and smile as they stream past you.

It’s not all about boat speed. Local knowledge plays a big part. Understanding the tides, currents, eddies and back eddies makes a difference. Sometimes the shortest distance is not the smartest since a strong current catching your boat out in the open can set you way back. Often it’s smarter to hide behind a point of land, out of the current.

There is a human need to participate in rituals that steady us. I am profoundly aware of the sacrifices made during this pandemic. I fully understand how privileged and fortunate so many of us are to be healthy, not in an ICU, or suffering from long-haul syndrome.

When I look out at the Wednesday night fleet in all its informal glory and see my fellow Islanders and nearby northern neighbors on the water for a few hours, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude calms my mind.

When this pandemic is over, I will definitely relive the fear, the sadness for the lost lives. I will lament the economic devastation, the curtailed activities. But the memory of Wednesday night races in the year of COVID-19 will be a welcome feather on the scale of summer 2020.