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Earning Its Stripes

How Annapolis became America’s Sailing Capital

Look around Annapolis these two weeks, and you’ll see how the maritime industry helps the visitor industry thrive.
    Recreational sailing and power boating are newcomers to this old city. We were a working seaport from colonial times through World War II.
    So well known were Eastport’s skilled wooden boat builders that in 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the grand and famous schooner America here to be restored.
    But with the coming of World War II, the boatyard on Spa Creek turned to making PT boats for the Navy. One Annapolitan serviceman rescued from the English Channel found the name of his neighbor carved into the side of the Eastport-made boat that saved him. The neighbor was Joe Alton, who would later become Anne Arundel county executive.
    Before work on America was finished, disaster struck. A late spring snowfall in 1943 crashed the roof of the shed unto the schooner, splintering her beyond repair. Her wood decorated the mantels of many Eastport homes.
    After the war, the boating climate of Annapolis changed.
    Little by little, workboats stopped bringing oysters to Annapolis Harbor and McNasbys Oyster House (now the Annapolis Maritime Museum) to be shoveled into buy boats.
    Owens Cruisers began business on Spa Creek. Trumpy luxury yachts took up shop where the America was housed and where the Chart House stands today. Both were early builders of motorboats.

Annapolis can credit much of its sailing reputation to the work of Arnie Gay.

    But when Arnie Gay, the father of today’s industry, came to town with $1.27 in his pocket, workboats still crowded the creeks at dilapidated piers harboring waterfront rats, the four-legged kind and some two-legged ones, too.
    Convinced Annapolis had a future in the sailing industry, Arnie set about building a sailing empire. Today Annapolis is called America’s Sailing Capital thanks to the initiatives of Arnie Gay.
    Newport, Rhode Island fights Annapolis for this title. But Newport gave up much of its downtown waterfront for shops to satisfy spending sprees. Maritime businesses squeezed out by the shopping malls in Newport moved to Annapolis, now home to more than 200 of their kind.
    We almost threw away our own chance at that title through development and neglect. Finally, in the 1980s, Annapolis city fathers passed tough maritime zoning laws to protect its waterfront from a ring of tall condominiums.
    Frank Young, publisher of the now-defunct Public Enterprise, editorialized about the city’s neglect of the industry. “If the mall in Parole closed down,” he complained, “you would notice it. And if the maritime industry disappeared you would notice it and feel it. Boats define the city’s character. What would Annapolis be if our boats disappeared?”
    To demonstrate the importance of the invisible industry, Arnie Gay once paid his employees in $2 bills. Business leaders couldn’t help but notice.
    “This industry employs over 2,000 people,” said then-Annapolis mayor Roger ‘Pip’ Moyer — and that was 30 years ago.
    The U.S. Sailboat Show, the first in-water show in the country, opened 42 years ago and introduced the city to an international community. Twenty years later, the Whitbread Round the World Race — which followed the old clipper ship routes — added Annapolis to its circuit. Enthusiastic residents lined Spa Creek when the ocean racers — including the Maryland challenger Chessie — came to town. In an amazing display, hundreds of spectator boats lined the Bay shipping channel for miles when the racers set out for the finish in England.
    Recognizing the pillars of this local industry, the city created a local hall of fame and saved the Thomas Point Lighthouse, an icon to sailors. Today, Annapolis is home to the National Sailing Hall of Fame.
    We have had many hometown heroes in international sailing competition. Gary Jobson for one, who brought sailing into our living rooms on ESPN, was aboard Courageous, captained by Ted Turner when the U.S. won the America’s Cup in 1977.
    Annapolis sailors continue to bring home awards. Terry Hutchinson will be vying to bring home the honors in the next America’s Cup competition, starting in November in San Diego.
    Today, the maritime industry nourishes all of Annapolis on both sides of Spa Creek. That’s always been true, but it’s never more visible than during these first two weeks of October, when the U.S. Sailboat Show and the U.S. Powerboat Show come to town. See for yourself.