Frostbiters kick off sailing season with mild conditions
It is hard to miss the little oneman dinghies sailing in the bay waters off of East Ferry from November through April. The boats are usually the only ones in the chilly water long after the other watercraft have been stored in their winter homes.
The “frostbite sailors,” also known as the Conanicut Island Shellback Sailing Association, started their eighth year of racing last Sunday. Founders John Quinn and John Horton came up with the idea while having a cup of coffee one day at East Ferry Deli.
“John Quinn, Dick Hutchinson and I were talking about how we would really like to start a frostbiting group that was more fun than competitive,” Horton said. “We just wanted something that would get us out of our chairs on Sunday mornings before we went home on Sunday afternoons and sat back in them to watch football.”
The sailors set themselves apart from their counterparts in Newport, partly in the casual nature of the group and partly by their choice of boat.
“We keep a score card and tally it up at the end of each regatta, but by the end of the year I don’t think anyone knows what the cumulative score is,” member Doc Clarke said.
When forming the group, Quinn and Horton looked for boats that would be suitable for frostbiting, but could not find what they were looking for.
“We looked at fiberglass boats, but didn’t find one we liked. Then we went to the Providence boat show and found a wooden boat that we thought would be perfect,” Horton said.
The boat of choice is a wooden shellback dinghy, which was originally designed by famed naval architect Joel White. White is the son of “Charlotte’s Web” author E.B. White.
“These boats were built a lot by the workers in the boatyards to sail. They were a workman’s boat,” Horton said.
Each of the sailboats used by the frostbiters is hand built. They are not available ready-made. Most of the boats the association sails were built over the course of several months.
“Mine probably took about 100 hours to build over the course of a winter,” Horton said.
The original group of sailors built their boats in New Bedford.
“We built them on the third floor of a mill building that did not have an elevator,” Quinn said. “There were 99 steps up to the top floor, so you had better be sure you didn’t forget something in the car.”
Despite the name and the fact that they race in conditions that many sailors would find less than desirable, the frostbiters say racing in the winter is really not all that bad.
“Thankfully, we don’t know what the water temperature is, but John and I check the weather forecast on Friday nights and decide if it is a go or no go,” Horton said. “We take precautions, like no one leaving the docks until the committee boat goes out and everyone wearing a life jacket.”
For a lot of the racers, frostbiting is like getting a bit of their summertime fun in the winter.
“The hidden thing is that you don’t really freeze because you are working, so you stay pretty warm unless you are on the committee boat,” member Terry Jones said.
Horton said he tried to wear a dry suit designed to keep sailors warm and dry, but he was so hot he hasn’t tried it again.
Because the design of the boat makes it impossible to bail out or turn over when swamped during sailing, the group only sails in fairly good weather conditions. Winds are generally less than 15 or 20 knots, with mainly calm seas.
The group has only had one person end up in the water in seven years of sailing.
“It happened almost right next to the committee boat,” race committee member Dick Alphin said. “It was windy and the boat got rocked and took on a lot of water. We were able to pull them right out of the water and save the boat, too.”
The cumulative sailing experience of the group is impressive by any standard. Many of the members have been sailing for 30 to 60 years, Horton said.
Two of the members, Clarke and Quinn, sailed against each other at Dartmouth and Brown universities in the 1950s.
“This is not a bunch of hacks out there,” Clarke said.
Member Henry Seigel, who drives from Dartmouth, Mass. each Sunday to race with the group, said, “You really have to know what you are doing” to sail the wooden boats.
One of the most memorable moments for the group came off of the water. Four years ago, one of the dinghies blew off the dock into the water during a particularly bad storm. The transom and other pieces of the boat were found in the snow by the Clarke Boat Yard.
“Thanks to the excellent work by Joe Logan, the boat was able to be put back together as good as new,” Horton said.
Well, almost as good as new.
“Someone said that Joe’s boat was one-half inch wider than all the other boats,” Horton said. “We couldn’t figure out how they could tell that just by looking at the boat. We transport the boats in the back of an SUV and it is a perfect fit. The new boat wouldn’t fit into the SUV like all the others, so that is how they knew it was wider than normal.”
The frostbiters always welcome new racers, even those without boats.
“If someone doesn’t have a boat, we can always find one for them to borrow and take care of for the season,” Horton said.
Clarke said the group always makes new sailors feel at home.
“I am too old to enjoy cut-throat racing,” he said. “This group is the most congenial bunch. I don’t think we have ever had a protest. Not to say we don’t sail by the rules, because we do, but everyone is just good about following them because it is all for fun.”
Anyone interested in joining the group should call Horton at 742- 9605 or John Quinn at 423-0738.