photographs by Rick Bannerot
The temperature hovers around forty degrees on a late Sunday morning in November. The wind is picking up and the sky is gray. It’s a moment Kurth and Becki Anderson of Shippan have been looking forward to all week. They pull on their dry suits and head down to Long Island Sound to launch their boat. The Andersons are part of a lively community of sailors who gather on Sundays for frostbiting, a fitting name for racing sailboats during the winter months. “The temperature doesn’t really affect you,” says Becki. “It’s just part of the experience, even though we may have a couple of snowy days.”
When the fall season kicks off in October, many afternoons combine a warm sun and brisk wind—perfect sailing conditions—and the water temperature is still mild. A dozen or more enthusiasts arrive at Stamford Yacht Club at noon and start rigging their two-person, fifteen-foot JY-15s. Meanwhile, the race committee prepares the rescue boats and sets the marks for the day’s races. A rapid series of horn blasts alerts the sailors that the five-minute starting sequence is about to begin. Boats jockey for position, crowding the favored end of the starting line, often amidst loud hailings of “right of away.” With a good breeze, there can be as many as six or seven races in an afternoon. Then, after sails and rudders are stowed, everyone heads for the clubhouse for snacks, hot soup or hot toddies as they hear the results of the day’s races, discuss tactics and attend any protest meetings that may be called for. Stamford Yacht Club embossed tumblers are awarded to the top-three finishers each week.
The sport draws those who not only enjoy racing and the companionship of fellow sailors but revel in the fresh air, even the discomforts of winter weather on the water. They come from far and wide to join the SYC fleet, most from lower Fairfield County, but some from Westchester and Manhattan. “Anyone can get into the game,” says Kurth, who runs the frostbiting program. A winter frostbiting membership at SYC is open to all, regardless of sailing experience, “Novices are welcome,” says Becki. “We’re always looking for new people. It’s a great way to learn how to sail.” (Other clubs using single-handed boats like Lasers and Dyer Dinghies may require more experience; see the sidebar.)
It can also be a great way to meet people. Kurth often forms teams by introducing skippers to crew through an online system. Once in a while, the perfect match happens on the water: Kurth, who joined the SYC frostbiting program when it launched in 2000, met Becki on the dock a year later. “It was really windy and his boat was coming in quite fast, so I reached out to fend him off,” Becki recalls. “He asked me to race with him that day. We started sailing together and were married a year later.”
Married couples, Becki says, seem to have a competitive edge; though they are in the minority, they tend to win. Three of the top four finishers for the 2008 JY-15 season at SYC were married pairs. The secret may be well-honed communication. Years on the water together gave Rowayton racers Julie Nightingale and her husband, Billy, a habit of sharing information that helped them clinch first place for the 2008 frostbiting season at SYC. “We always talk through everything we’re doing, so that we’re both on the same page and there are no surprises,” says Julie, who began frostbiting with Billy, a veteran racer, in 2001. She was soon addicted to the sport, practicing with him every weekend, year round.
“The first couple of years, he was teaching me,” she says. “Now that I know what I’m doing, we race together as one.” In June 2008 the Nightingales won the pinnacle of JY-15 racing —the nationals, which took place in Niantic, Connecticut. “The husband and wife team is an advantage for us,” says Billy. “It was an accomplishment that we could share together.” Adds Kurth, who took second place with Becki for the 2008 season at SYC, “It’s a great test of your marital relationship.”
“Racing requires both analytic and athletic skills; you need to think several steps ahead,” says Scott Brooks of Darien, who plans to take his teenage son, Charlie, frostbiting this fall. Sailing a windward-leeward course around racing marks may seem straightforward; however, it involves intense concentration to spot subtle wind shifts, even tidal currents, and to be aware of your position relative to the competition at all times. In heavy air you have to think fast—and make sure your crew knows what to do. The harder the wind blows, the more quickly these small boats respond, and the greater the chance of capsizing. Although Scott had crewed for his father as a boy, he plans to let his son take the lead: “He’s a very enthusiastic sailor. Soon he’s going to ask, ‘When are you going to start crewing for me?’ ”
Young racers love the adrenaline rush of getting their boat planing at ten to fifteen knots in a high wind, water spraying from the bow. “When you’re going that fast, you feel like you’re going to break the sound barrier,” says Dave Martens of Darien. “There is a lot of action at that level. Everything happens very quickly, especially a capsize.” He started frostbiting with his teenage son, David, a couple of years ago and hopes to have his middle son, Matthew, crewing soon.
The kids also learn a few tricks from Dad. Before Dave Martens set out in a particularly strong breeze with David one day, he tied a Styrofoam float to the top of the mast. This was to prevent “turning turtle” if they capsized, flipping all the way over until the mast gets stuck in the muddy bottom of Stamford harbor. As it turned out, capsize they did. Crash boats came to the rescue and were able to deliver father and son to the dock and tow their boat ashore. When the water is as cold as it is, especially in March and April, sailors need to be pulled out of the water quickly to avoid hypothermia. “We could not frostbite without crash boats,” says Scott Brooks. Safety comes first, and the Race Committee relies on a 20/20 rule: If it’s twenty degrees or colder or if the wind is blowing twenty knots or more, sailing is off.
Despite the winds and chills, frostbiters return season after season for the sheer fun of racing. Nancy McGuire of Rowayton had never sailed before she started frostbiting with her husband, Mike, four years ago. “I really love it. The competitive aspect is fun,” she says, “and the rivalries are friendly.” Becki Anderson recalls once when someone had capsized and McGuire, an experienced skipper, turned his boat around to help. “Mike knew full well that he couldn’t finish the race, but it didn’t matter. The safety of the other contestant was more important than winning,” she says. “It’s a gentleman’s sport.”
Frostbiters relish the bond they form from racing, the refreshing cold winter weather and reviewing what they did right and wrong at the end of the day. Those who frostbite will tell you, it’s something great to look forward to all week.