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Smith Sails the Seas

Col. Jeffrey S. Smith sailing

Col. Jeffrey S. Smith braves the elements while sailing off the coast of California. -Photo courtesy of Col. Jeffrey Smith.

LEXINGTON, Va. Nov. 20, 2023 — Activist and historian Bertha Calloway said, “We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.” 

Col. Jeffrey S. Smith, professor and head of the Department of Economics and Business at Virginia Military Institute clearly understands wind direction and sail adjustment thanks to his experiences in sailing and participating in sailing yacht races.  

Smith was introduced to sailing while stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County, California. Sailing was not part of his military training, but a form of recreation. “Some friends took my wife and me out in their boat, and we really enjoyed it,” he said. Years later, when they lived in Tennessee while he was in graduate school at the University of Tennessee, the couple bought a small day sailing boat. “We thought it would be something neat to learn and fun to do with the kids. Tennessee has an extensive lake system, so we took advantage of that. We would drop anchor and the kids would swim off the back of the boat,” he shared.  

In 2016, the Smiths bought a 32-foot sailboat which they named, “Sailmates” which they keep at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay. They take it out as often as they can, about 15 to 20 times a year. “We haven’t taken it out in the ocean or for an overnight trip yet. We sail in the bay and up the rivers, and like to reach our destination before it gets dark. We have seen pods of dolphins play with the boat in the bay. They’ll breach out of the water and jump in front of the bow and swim back and forth. It’s a lot of fun to watch,” he said. 

One of Smith’s friends mentioned to him that he had served as a crew member in an amateur sailboat race, so Smith did some research and decided he would like to become involved in racing as well. “I went online and added my name to a crew board website. Yacht owners go to the website, see the names, review qualifications and check references. If they pick you and if it’s a good match, you get to participate in a race with them,” he explained. 

The first event in which Smith participated was the 475 mile race from Annapolis, Maryland to Newport, Rhode Island in 2019. “We were on a 39-foot boat. Sailing round-the-clock, it took over 61 hours to finish the race. In sailing, if the wind goes away you’re miserable, but with that race we had wind and rain throughout the night. It was brutal. No one slept, and half the crew got seasick. We placed third out of the 23 boats that finished. Thirty-four boats actually started the race, but 11 retired because of the bad weather and one 72-foot boat actually lost its mast. When I finished that race, I told my wife, ‘This was miserable, I’ll never do this again.’ Then I took a hot shower, ate a meal, and slept. When I woke I said, ‘Okay I’ve got to find my next race,’” he laughed. 

Smith was scheduled to run a race in 2020 from Annapolis to the British island of Bermuda, but it was cancelled due to COVID-19.  

In 2022, Smith was chosen as a crewmember on a 47-foot boat for the Vic-Maui Yacht Race, which starts in Victoria, Canada and ends in Maui, Hawaii. “We were able to get into the trade winds, which were blowing steady at 20 to 25 knots (a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour, approximately 1.151 mph.) The fastest speed when I was at the helm was 16 knots, which on a sailboat is moving pretty quickly. During that trip, we had to clear the deck from all the fish that jumped onto the deck. At night, we came very close to sleeping whales. It was dark, so we couldn’t see them, but we knew they were hanging vertically, and we could hear them breathing. It was fantastic,” he shared.  It took the crew 16 ½ days, sailing round-the-clock to reach Maui. “We lost three sails because of rough weather and high winds. Some sail tears can be patched, but two of our sails were destroyed beyond repair. We limped across the finish line, but we made it,” he said.

Smith has participated in many short day races, and several times was involved with the Down the Bay Race, a 120 mile competition from Annapolis to Hampton, that takes about 18 to 24 hours. Smith’s crew won that race last June.  

Smith hopes to get his boat ready for the 635 mile race  from Newport to Bermuda Race this summer. He would need three to five crew members including himself. To qualify his boat must pass a safety inspection, and a certain percentage of crew members must complete a safety-at-sea program which includes hands-on training. “If I don’t use my own boat, I’d like to be part of someone else’s crew in the race to Bermuda. There is also a race from Marblehead, Massachusetts to Halifax, Nova Scotia that I’d like to run sometime,” he stated.   

Smith warned that sailing is not glamorous. “It is a lot of work, a lack of sleep, and conditions can be extremely uncomfortable and often dangerous. But it is thrilling. You meet new people and build new relationships. Your self-imposed limitations are stretched, and you gain a huge sense of accomplishment. You get to reach exotic destinations and experience strange things — like sleeping whales.”  

Marianne Hause
Communications & Marketing
VIRGINIA MILITARY INSTITUTE 

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