Upper Bay sailboat racing has come a long way.
Drive across any bridge around the bay on a clear afternoon and you’ll see groups of sails splashing in the water, racing from sign to sign in picturesque combinations of white on blue. Sailboat races are ubiquitous around the bay from spring through late fall, but it wasn’t always this way. A current project at the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, in coordination with the Havre de Grace Yacht Club, highlights the early days of small boat racing in the Upper Bay, after its evolution from a sport for the wealthy to an everyday pleasure within the reach of the post-second world middle class. And they have the boat that shows that.
Windsurfing has been around as long as there have been boats, says Al Caffo, an avid history buff and former columnist for Havre de Grace Yacht Club, when I meet him one summer afternoon at the HdG Maritime Museum. “It’s like that old joke: What do you call two boats on the same track? A race.”
According to Cafu and the museum’s executive director, Juliet Moore, the nation’s interest in yachting was already ignited in 1851, when three New York businessmen set sail on a schooner. America Across the Atlantic to England to take part in a race during the World’s Fair. They won the Cup, and the Regatta, now known as the America’s Cup, remains the oldest international sporting event in the world. (The modern Olympics didn’t begin until 1896.)
The hype around the race led to the development of yacht clubs along the east coast and eventually around the bay. With its location at the confluence of the bay and the Susquehanna River, Havre de Grace was an ideal location for a single, the HdG Yacht Club was founded in 1907, with primary goals of “socializing, boating, picnics and camping”.
Like many clubs across the region, the club started with high hopes but its resources dwindled with the onset of World War I, Cafu said, “wars tend to end yacht clubs, and then come back again.” And so he went with the HdG Yacht Club, whose initial capital of $1,000 had dwindled to $185 by 1913. The club was loosely reformed in 1927 and formally reincorporated in 1930 with the goal of creating the annual Regatta.
At the time, regattas focused on speedboats—usually on daring outboard-engined machines that revolved around speed. The yacht club’s first race was held on June 14, 1930. A program of regattas a weekend later that summer, on display in the museum, lists a series of powerboat races, along with rowing, rowing, and even swimming races for men and women, But fiery sailboat racing. Along with the cash prizes and silver trophy cups, gifts were donated from local businesses, including a stopwatch from Pitcock Bros. Hardware, a fountain pen desk from Green’s Pharmacy, and no less than four silver-tone cocktail shakers, from Democratic Ledger, the local Kiwanis Club, Hecht’s Hardware, and Susquehanna Hose Co.
The regatta was a rapid success, likely buoyed by the city’s reputation as one of the premier destinations for East Coast horse racing. Known as The Graw, the Havre de Graces Racecourse ran from 1912 to 1950, attracting spectators from Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York to see winning races by Man o’ War, War Admiral, and Seabiscuit, among other thoroughbred breeds. “Sports culture at the time was a great social event, from horse racing to boat racing,” Moore says.
By 1933, Motorboat Magazine Caffo declared the HdG Yacht Club race the largest in the East. The 1936 Seventh Annual Regatta Program lists 32 separate powerboat races, with multiple classes and distances, along with a few sailboat races roughly as an afterthought. “The sailing course maps were not what we would refer to as neat,” Cafu says, and they didn’t take into account wind speed or direction.
This is not to say that the boats were not racing under the power of sailing in other parts of the bay. Wooden sailing boats have been documented since the late 19th century around St. Michaels. But it would take another world event to bring the popularity of small boat racing as we know it today. In the aftermath of World War II, returning soldiers created a new middle class, greatly increasing affordable housing, household appliances, cars, and, yes, sailboats.
In Havre de Graces, Bob McPhee was among those returnees. He grew up sailing at the top of the bay, joined the Merchant Navy, then joined the Army at the start of World War II. Upon returning safely home, he was eager to get back into the water again. So, along with two fellow sailors, Marshall Palmer and Steiner Pierce, he invested in a used sailboat Hampton One Design (HOD).
This classic sailboat was designed from the Chesapeake in Hampton, Virginia, in 1934 by local boat builder Vincent Serrio. According to the Hampton Museum of History, the Hampton Yacht Club wanted to start a one-class boat sailing competition. They chose Serio to design a small sailboat that could be used in regattas and racing. One of the main elements was the center plate, rather than the keel, so the boat could maneuver through the shallow waters of the lower bay. The main factor was also the generous size of the sail, to take advantage of the light winds of the Chesapeake summer. Best of all, the price: Built as a boat per person, later available as a set, one new retails for $324.
McVey will likely buy his counterpart for much less, given his condition; He was said to have drowned in the water, a ramshackle hull full of sand, when he found him in Chesapeake. Bring it home and start working on restoring it and naming it ringer. Despite their humble beginnings, McVey and ringer It became quite the team, and in 1952 they raced to win the Admiral Byrd Cup in Cambridge. He continued to be a prolific racer and supporter of the yacht club until his death in 1994. His passion and memory are celebrated annually with HdG Yachting Club’s Bob McVey Memorial Race, the club’s final race of the season.
But his legacy includes more than race. Fast forward to 2019, when an all-volunteer boat crew at the nearby Havre de Grace Maritime Museum built a wooden Opti car that was then donated to a local youth sailing program. For their next project, what if they can find and restore HOD similar to ringerThe sailboat that put Bob McVeigh in his racing career?
Under Cafu’s informal guidance, the team got down to business. HODs remain an active class, with an estimated more than 700 boats still racing (although they switched from wood to fiberglass in 1961). To find out more, the team headed to the Hampton Museum of History, which had an exhibit on HODs. The exhibition included a fully renovated and furnished 1947 HOD on display in the lobby, along with tools and antiques from Serio’s original workshop. During the visit, they met curator Allen Holman and shared their hopes of restoring the HOD as it would have happened when McVeigh began racing in 1948. Holman knew people with wooden HODs who might be willing to donate them. David Wingfield had inherited 1938 from his father, Charlie: Hal 117, built by Sirio himself. The structure was rotted into pieces, due to which it was stored outdoors, and the original fixtures were replaced with modern ones. The mast, boom and rig were removed and used to build the boat displayed in the lobby of the Hampton Museum. Wingfield agreed to donate the hull and his brother Ben, who built the HOD on his own, donated a set of related blueprints to help rebuild.
Holman also linked them with Mike Evans, who in the 1940s added Hood to the effort. This boat still had its wooden mast, boom, longitudinal shaft, and bronze fittings. By combining elements from the two boats, they will be able to create a compelling replica of what McVey sailed on in 1948.
Restoration work was carried out in the basement of the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum, much of it completed during the pandemic. After the faded blueprints and any pictures they could find, they cleaned and restored the structure, painted the surface and top sides, stripped and stained the mahogany planks, made and plastered the mahogany paint and planks, and polished the king board, trim, and centerboard. They removed the modern fixtures and replaced them with Ivan’s original bronzes, and made up any details missing on site out of bronze and wood. “We learned a lot from YouTube,” Kafu says.
After a year-long delay due to the pandemic, the boat made its debut at the 2021 Bob McVey Memorial Race, the season finale held September 10 at the Havre de Grace Yacht Cub. For the occasion, the club agreed that the start would be fourth, only for the HOD class. “If we can sail around the track, we will be able to declare ourselves the winners,” Caffo said a week before putting their project in the water. “But we have to complete the course, it’s not a slam dunk.” Turns out, the boat performed beautifully on the water, and the win was pretty good.
From now on, Hull 117 will be on display in the museum’s boat shop and then hopefully on display every season to represent those early regattas. The entire project is a fitting testament to sailboat racers, past and present. In the words of Bob McPhee, “The motivating force that defines the sport of sailing is the satisfaction of finding the measure of your ability.”