A friend once quipped that sailboat racing was “70 percent boredom, 25 percent fun, and 5 percent sheer terror.” For sailors hoping to ramp up the excitement factor, there’s no better way than frostbiting.
During the cold-weather months, local sailors don’t hibernate. They just put on their layers, their waterproof boots, gloves, jackets, and pants. Or drysuits. In the Boston Sailing Center’s frostbite race series on Boston Harbor and races hosted by the Winthrop Frostbite Sailing Club at Cottage Park Yacht Club near Logan Airport, diehard sailors harness the wind while battling the elements.
“Unlike summer sailing and racing, frostbiters show up irrespective of conditions,” said Wellesley’s Keith Fox, a winter sailing enthusiast for the past 20 years. “By definition, there are no ‘fair-weather sailors.’ This means that those participating really enjoy being there.”
Sailors show up not only because of their passion for sailing, but also for better wind.
“Most people, myself included, would prefer sailing in warm, sunny weather, but during the Boston winter there really isn’t any other option,” said Will Pelleteri, racing program manager at the Boston Sailing Center. “So the type of people that end up being drawn to frostbiting are really people that love racing so much that they’re willing to go out in brutally cold weather just to sail.
Make no mistake, though – frostbiting isn’t causal sailing. It’s racing.
“We always want to win, of course, but it isn’t the main thing,” said Roslindale’s Jeanne Petitpas, a business analyst and veteran of the sailing club series. “Well, on some boats it probably is, but on our boat safety is first, then fun, then winning. When we go out on crazy windy days, sometimes just staying on the boat is my goal.
“I sit closest to the bow, so when we hit waves, I get them first,” said Petitpas, who races on a crew of three women and two men, including her husband, Jim. “There’s nothing like that trickle of ice cold water going down the back of your neck on a winter day.”
At the sailing club’s Lewis Wharf location, 18 crews of three to five sailors gather every Saturday to race J-24s, 24-foot sailboats with a set of three sails (mainsail, jib, and spinnaker). At Cottage Park, sailors have a choice between the quicker, single-person Laser and a two-person Interclub Dinghy. Races there are held Sundays from early November through April.
“The original attraction was that I would get to race with my good friend against some of the best sailors in the Northeast from 18 to 70 years old.” said Arlington’s Linda Epstein, a research scientist who organizes the Winthrop races with her husband, Tom Robinson.
“We would have five races every Sunday,” said Epstein, noting her group was based at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead until 1995. “There were Olympic sailors, college All-Americans, etcetera. After racing was also fun, with refreshments in a marginally heated room at the Eastern Yacht Club, recounting the races and learning new tactics.”
The actual “race courses” change constantly, depending on the prevailing winds, said the Boston club’s Pelleteri.
“We’re generally out on the water for around four hours total,” said Pelleteri. “Being out on the water for that long during the coldest days is totally exhausting. Each race is about 25 or 30 minutes long, and there isn’t a lot of down time between races.
“There’s so much that you need to be think about when you’re racing – sail trim, what the boats around you are doing, current, changes in the wind – that you have to be able to stay really focused during those three hours of racing,” he said. “That can be a huge challenge by the end of the day when you’re tired and completely freezing.”
The chief requirements for sailors are attention to detail and a willingness to suffer.
“What stands out most prominently, of all the lessons I’ve learned frostbiting, is that it is so . . . democratic,” said Waltham’s Robert Perry, executive director of the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation. “It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old. . . . It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. All that matters is, can you sail your boat fast, consistently?”
Given the vagaries of the weather, and the sheer cold, having proper gear is essential. With decks prone to freezing, lifejackets are mandatory. At Winthrop, which uses smaller boats more susceptible to capsizing, drysuits are highly recommended.
The brutal conditions make for special post-race gatherings, as participants know they’re part of a very select group. The racing camaraderie can also turn romantic.
“It’s a great place to meet your future spouse,” said Epstein. “My husband and I met frostbiting, and I can think of at least six other couples that met through frostbiting. Maybe being able to endure the cold allows you to get through the bumps in a marriage.
“I’m still pretty competitive, but I also enjoy introducing people to the sport, giving suggestions on how to stay warm or how to rig the boat,” she said. “I’ve learned that I can endure a lot more discomfort than people who choose to stay inside.”For details, visit the Boston Sailing Center at bostonsailingcenter.com, or the Winthrop Frostbite Sailing Club at mass-frostbite.org. If you have an idea for the Globe’s “On the Move” column, contact correspondent Brion O’Connor at email@example.com. Please allow at least a month’s advance notice.