There are people who just can’t understand weekend sailors. Boats are a lot of work, they say. And what if you go out and there’s no wind? Besides, you can see the ocean from the shore. Why do you have to be on it?
According to a number of hardy sailors, not only do you have to be on the water, you have to be on it all year long. For them, the lure of open water is ever-present, oblivious to seasons. When winter rolls around, it’s still sailing season – only the sailors’ names change. They call themselves frostbiters. “We all find the summer season too short,” says Gary Smith, who along with his sailing cohorts launches his Sea Dog from the Wickford dock on various Sundays from October to April. “None of us want to quit,” he says. “None of us want the season to stop.”
Not that many of us want summer to end, but the vast majority of us just shrug our shoulders and walk inside when the temperature drops. The frostbiters not only defy winter and compete against its weather by sailing in the face of adversity, they also compete against one another. They don’t just sail in the winter, they race. And they’ve even formed an association.
The Wickford Frostbiting Association, generally known as Fleet 166, began in the ‘60s and has carried on its winter sail racing ever since, as new enthusiasts catch wind of their activities and join, or become members to carry on the tradition their parents treasured. Usually 12 to 15 boats make up the fleet, all of them Sea Dogs, which Gary describes as sailing dinghys, 10-feet-long and deep enough to sit in, allowing boaters to stay dry – “Unless you tip it over,” Gary adds with a laugh. Sea Dogs came on the scene when the frostbiters did – in the ‘60s – and they're built for speed. The boats are currently manufactured locally in Fall River.
They sail in competition on Wednesdays all summer in various boats, then put on wet suits or dry suits and drag out the Sea Dogs just as soon as the frost bites the dock. They run 20- to 30-minute short course races on Sundays in winter, around Cornelius Island. The fleet can manage seven races a day that way. For the rest of the week the boats reside on the docks, tipped upside down for protection.
Everyone has stories to tell about the great competitions past and present, and the frostbiters who have inspired them. Gary joined with the help of a frostbiter legend named Rollie Whyte, a devoted 12-month sailor who kept at it until he turned 80, winning a couple of national championships along the way.
That’s another thing about frostbiters: you never know who’s going to be racing, from college kids and their teachers to all kinds of amateurs and professionals – and even some regatta winners tossed into the mix. Rollie Whyte’s son now races with Fleet 166, and (like all new sailors) he begins races at the back of the fleet. Gary adds, “I’m in the back part of the fleet, too,” because he’s only been at it for eight years, which should give you an idea how dedicated these winter sailors are.
Back of the fleet or not, eight years ago Gary won the first race on his first day as a frostbiter. “Beginner’s luck,” he says. But that’s the kind of moment and memory that are the stuff of legends, or at the very least cocktail conversations, and just one of many kinds of experiences that unite frostbiters.
Competition exists inside and outside Rhode Island. There’s a frostbiting fleet in