photograph by ERIC LUSHER
Somewhere in John and Lin McCarthy’s home, storage boxes brim with spoils from their time at the top of the southern Chesapeake Bay sailboat racing circuit aboard their J/33 Sugar Bear, with John at the helm and Lin working mast and foredeck.
Sailboat racing demands physical agility, smarts and often a double ration of courage. When a “cranky” back forced John from the helm, they immediately went into race management. These days, the McCarthys are key to the Hampton Yacht Club’s Southern Bay Race Week, one of the area’s biggest regattas attracting 100 boats or more. Here, John talks about the allure of racing and this most unusual of racing seasons.
How did you get into racing?
I didn’t race at all until age 42. I coached, first at Portsmouth Catholic High School, and then at North Carolina Wesleyan (College) as athletic director and basketball coach. At 42, I became operations manager for the Navy’s sports and fitness programs in Tidewater and Lin was in labor relations and training for the Coast Guard. For the first time, I wasn’t coaching — i.e. working 24 hours a day. At the naval base, one of the things I was in charge of was the sailing center. So, we said, “Let’s try sailing!”
Yes. One of my good friends was the sailing master and for a whole year, Lin and I went down there, I bet you, four days a week, just chugging around Willoughby Bay. A year later we bought a sailboat, and my friend said, “Why not try sailboat racing?”
And that was that?
The rest is history. Anybody who knows sailboat racing knows it’s an addiction more powerful than any other. For me, it just checked all the boxes. By nature, I’m a coach. Sailboat racing is competitive. That box is checked for sure. Second, there’s a lot of teamwork and organization. Check. And it’s hard, challenging, and I kind of like that, too.
But now you are on the organizational side of it, designing racecourses and such?
About 15 years ago, we got to where physically, we just couldn’t race like we wanted to. We finally, unhappily, tears running down our faces, sold the boat. But we immediately went into race management. It checks the same boxes, and we’re still on the water.
What makes the Chesapeake Bay such a great place to race?
It starts out with what a great place it is to sail. The old saw that you could spend a lifetime exploring the Bay is true, there are just so many nooks and crannies. In racing, there are so many yacht clubs that sponsor sailboat races that there is plenty of competition. And last of all, we have a long racing season — from April till November. You can race without suffering undue agony.
It’s kind of a heartbreak that Southern Bay Race Week had to be canceled this year, like so many early-season races, as a result of COVID-19.
Yes, it’s tragic. But I do believe in my bones that there will be races on the bay sometime this year. There are a lot of regattas still scheduled, and assuming a lot of races will be rescheduled, we should have a pretty jam-packed mid-summer to fall racing season. That’s great, because we’ll be ready for it. Good gosh, we’ll be ready for it.
– Interview by Lorraine Eaton; condensed and edited for space and clarity.