Catching the winter wind off Marblehead

As the snow blows in gusty puffs through this traditional New England ocean town, people bundled in wool and goose down rush down the cobbled streets past the 18th-century townhouses and shops.

Across Marblehead Bay, local sailors rig their sails and don a last waterproof layer of clothing in preparation for the Frostbite sailing races, held weekly throughout the winter.

Every Sunday from November to April about 40 polar adventurers gather at the Pleon Yacht Club on Marblehead Neck. The races start around 12:30 p.m. after an hour of two of dressing, rigging and re-rigging, wind checking, and crew conferences. The boats that sail are small, with no more than two people normally on board. Usually five races are held, but this varies according to the unpredictable weather conditions.

"Many of the sailors who participate are class leaders in summer sailing," says Gene Thorber, this year's Frostbite Commodore. "Others are just here for fun. But they're all trying to keep in touch with the sport; these are serious races. Sailing is addictive. You can't stop -- and a little winter weather won't stop a true sailor."

On his wintry March Sunday, when the temperature is 22 degrees but the wind makes it feel near zero, salt water blows in stinging, freezing sprays.

"My wife and I usually sail together -- she's my 'crew'," says Thorber. "I really enjoy it," says Mrs. Thorber. "I love getting outside. We just shovel the snow off the boat and go."

Mrs. Thorber recently "fell into the drink." She says people don't go over very often, but when they do, the rescue boats really zoom out to help. "If more than three good sailors ever fall in during any one race we call if off for the day -- too dangerous to sail," she explains.

There are three rescue boats, Boston Whalers. In addition, several people man a small hut floating in the middle of the bay, where they watch for infractions and "men overboard."

"They have a great time out there," explains 80-year-old Harry Beam, a classic salt complete with a navy blue captain's hat and a white handlebar moustache. Harry doesn't compete anymore, but he has participated in the Frostbite races in one way or another since the races started in 1946. "In all these years, there's never been a casualty," he says. "The rescue crew is really great. Believe you me, that water is cold, too. You couldn't last more than 15 minutes in there."

"I don't think you could last that long," says Mrs. Thorber, her unintended dip still a little too fresh in memory. "Actually, you don't even feel the cold you're so busy trying to get out. The worst problem is the weight of all the clothes. They just pull you down."

Dave Curtiss, a Pan American Games gold medal winner, dresses in snowmobile boots, special gripping gloves, yellow slicker pants, and several layers of wool sweaters. "They have similar winter races in other towns," Curtiss says, "but they don't get the turnout we get here."

Trying to explain his reasons for sailing in winter, Thorber says, "I can't stand to be inside. I enjoy the Frostbite because it keeps me outdoors. The competition is fierce -- I think it's better in the winter than the summer. but pretty soon it'll be spring, then summer, and we can sail everyday."

For the moment, however, the white of the sails bends with the white of the snowflakes sailing through the sky.

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