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The Delaware Bay Is Smooth Sailing for Yacht Club Races

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Photo by Maria Deforrest

The East Coast boasts a colorful racing scene this summer as First State residents enjoy lively yacht competitions on the Delaware Bay.

In 2005, Vincent Walsh and Thomas Sheridan purchased a house on Pilottown Road in Lewes for one primary reason. Since the property stretches to the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal, they have a private slip for the 37-foot sloop Ceili.

Over the past decade, the couple has witnessed an increased interest in sailing. “[Lewes has] become a big sailing community,” Walsh says. “It’s partly because of the easy access to the Delaware Bay, which is beautiful to sail in.”

The proximity to bay and ocean has made Lewes a sailor’s paradise for centuries. The Lewes Yacht Club was founded in 1932, and residents like Nick Carter—whose grandfather was a club founder—and Bert Keller grew up sailing off Lewes Beach. “We probably spent as much time on the water as we did on the sand,” Keller says.

In the late 20th century, powerboats and Jet Skis began eclipsing all but the small sailboats on the horizon. But now, there are more vessels like Ceili gliding past the Delaware Breakwater and East End Lighthouse.

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Sailing at the Delaware beaches has become a popular activity. With some people opting for competitions and others spending time out at sea for leisurely excursions./Photo by Maria Deforrest

In part, credit the “Beer Can Fleet,” an informal regatta for all sizes and classes. Carter and friends started the competitions about 15 years ago. Today, about 11 boats participate in the races, held on Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m. during the season. Anyone can join, and participants include Carter’s 36-foot Catalina sloop rig and Keller’s Catalina 25, a smaller cruising sailboat. “We’re the smallest but not always the slowest,” Keller quips.

The wind affects the course, but the two breakwaters, ice breakers and buoys often serve as marks. It’s up to the skipper to monitor the race time from start to finish. The boats are handicapped since they are all different. (Handicapping allows dissimilar classes of sailboats to race against one another. The goal is to emphasize a crew’s skill and not the boat’s inherent advantages or disadvantages.)

At the month’s end, boats with the lowest scores receive awards. There’s also a trophy for sailboats with the lowest cumulative score over the summer. It’s named the Drew Pfarr Memorial Cup to honor a late competitor’s son.

Part of the Mid-Atlantic Yacht Racing Association, the more formal Cape-to-Cape Challenge is organized by the Corinthian Yacht Club of Cape May and the Lewes Yacht Club. The 2021 event is Friday, August 6, through Saturday, August 7. (The Lewes Yacht Club has also hosted the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association.)

As for smaller vessels, the club is kindling more interest in racing with 2 p.m. competitions on Saturdays and a sailing school for kids ages 6 to 16. Membership is not required.

Sailfish and Sunfish are frequently spotted soaring across the Rehoboth Bay, which is too shallow for larger boats. It’s not unusual to spot a novice sailor trudging through water, pulling a boat behind them.

“But that’s why it’s a good place to learn,” says Greg Holochwost, manager of the Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association. “It’s a relatively calm body of water with fairly steady winds all summer long.”

The club, founded in 1963 to promote sailing and preserve the inland bays, has about 150 members. (A family is considered one membership.) However, the public may rent sailboats, including a 19-foot vessel, and take lessons. The club also holds a sailing camp for kids.

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Photo courtesy of Sue Ingram Keller

Every Saturday, Sunfish and Flying Scots participate in races, and the club welcomes non-members for Hobie races. An annual race around the bay is also open to all boats, which are handicapped, and this year, the club plans to hold regattas for Lasers and Sunfish.

Any type of sailing requires skill. For a race, larger boats need a crew of up to five to cover all the bases. But the thrill of competition is not sailing’s sole allure. Sheridan, who has his captain’s license, and Walsh simply enjoy the quiet charm of moving across the bay on wind power. They often tie-up with boats to create a floating social scene.

After all, Walsh says, ceili is Gaelic for “party.”

For more information, visit: Lewes Yacht Club 2701 Cedar St.; Lewes, 645-8596; lewesyachtclub.com

Rehoboth Bay Sailing Association 38767 Rehoboth Bay Sailing Assoc. Lane, Dewey; 227-9008; rbsa.org