Big Boats Racing Like Dinghies at the Hampton Sprints

Short and Fast Racing at the Hampton Sprints

When John McCarthy first envisioned the Hampton Sprints, he had no assurances the inaugural event would be as well received as it was in 2019. The first event went off like a thoroughbred racehorse breaking out at the start of the Kentucky Derby.

The Cool Change crew at the inaugural Hampton Sprints sailboat race 2019 out of Hampton Yacht Club on the Southern Chesapeake Bay. Photo courtesy of Lin McCarthy

Twenty southern Chesapeake Bay big boat racers signed up to go “race like dinghies” in a championship regatta: short races (the entire windward/leeward course was 1.3 nautical miles long) and back-to-back-to-back-starts and finishes through the six races in the single-day program. When the racers piled onto the host Hampton Yacht Club (HYC) flag deck at the end of the day for hotdogs and beer, they were exhausted, blown away, sunblasted, and happy as clams. “Let’s do this again,” was the cry.

So, the Hampton Sprints was added to the 2020 big boat schedule. And, then came C-o-v-i-d, and most of big boat racing went low key. Events were downsized, social interaction non-existent, and attendance numbers were hardly at the sustainable level. To even run the 2020 version was a very late decision, and none of the “special” Sprints trademarks were included. However, a few hearty souls came out and raced a few traditional format races on one of the season’s windiest days, keeping the event alive.

The Hampton Sprints was added to the 2021 schedule and plans were made to restore it to its original level of uniqueness and racer competitiveness. HYC hosted the event, and Vortex Racing sponsored the social and the post-race awards party and trophies again. When the Friday night Welcome and Skippers Meeting took place, the assignments were made of 21 competitors to six small, tightly matched groups, the scratch sheet handed out, and the order of starts announced. Racing would begin the next morning, Saturday, July 31.

The HYC race committee hams it up at the first Hampton Sprints sailboat race in 2019.

And, once the racing begins at the Hampton Sprints, it does not stop until the last fleet sails the last race. There are special rules “tweaks” included in the Sprints format. For instance, the direction of the mark roundings changes with each race and is governed by the color of the start line flag being used for that race. The penalty for an acknowledged foul is one turn, and at the starts there is an “observer” on the signal boat who may be called as a witness at any eventual protest hearing.  The starting sequence is abbreviated to three minutes; and it’s a good thing, since the race committee started six fleets over six races. And, of course, there is the trademark checkered flag used as the flag marking the finish line.

In 2021 the racing was the most exuberant yet. After a full day, not a single fleet had an undefeated boat among the tightly banded competitors. A prime example of the competitiveness of the racing can be found in a race-by-race look at Fleet 2 in 2021. There were four boats in the fleet; all race regularly in the PHRF A fleet. The battle for the fleet winner between Leroi Lissenden’s Tripp 38 Voodoo 2 and Phil Briggs’s J/36 Feather, came down to two races where the difference between the two was four seconds in each race. Voodoo was first in both races. Five seconds were a valuable commodity in that competition.

Skippers and crew also see the Hampton Sprints as a “tune-up” opportunity as they enter the end of summer and beginning of the fall season where area wide and fleet championships are decided. “Six starts, six hoists, six douses, and six finishes all in one day is a great workout for our whole team,” one skipper declared. “We’ll be back next year!”

When asked what the plan is if more than 24-26 boats enter in the 2022 Sprints, McCarthy said, “We’ve been noodling that and think we could run two circles all in the same area off Hampton Bar, and have a heckava time. People love the Sprints—it’s so different. We like doing it as much as the racers like racing in it. All hard work, but a whole lot of fun.”

Find results at HYC website.

By Lin McCarthy