Winter sailing is the coolest thing going

Some call it "the only game in town" in the wintertime.

Every Sunday from November to March at the Washington Sailing Marina in Alexandria, about 20 sailors gather to race in the dead of winter, dubbed the "frostbite season."

"We go out to where the wind might be good, set up a race course and hang out," says fleet Capt. Jennifer Parrow.

Clad in a red-and-dark-blue dry suit and a yellow life jacket, Frank Gallagher maneuvers his sailboat into the water with help from Bill Buck, who is on the race committee today. Gallagher floats out from the cove toward the Potomac River to test the wind patterns.

Shortly after, Buck and Bill Kleysteuber follow suit, heading out into the river in a powerboat to set the course.

Each of the sailors races a small Laser sailboat in the weekly regattas. A Laser boat is a small sailboat with enough room for one person. It has one sail and is designed for speed.

They race every week - except when the cove is frozen over.

"It's also an unofficial rule that when the temperature is lower than the wind speed then it's too cold," says Chris Bolton, a sailor from Lorton, as he prepares his boat to hit the water.

Parrow is the "fearless leader" of the group and the only female. She says wintertime is for the diehards - spring and fall are the normal sailing seasons.

"We don't do much in the summer," Parrow says. "There's no wind."

Most sailors wear dry suits to protect themselves from the freezing water, often in the low to mid-40s, Bolton says.

Gallagher has sailed since 1964. Laser sailing did not come along until later, and he was one of the first boaters to pick up the now-Olympic-class sport.

The powerboat is now about three miles out into the Potomac. The two Bills set the racecourse by using a long pole with a string attached to determine the wind. They drop one buoy and then speed down the river a half-mile and drop the other. They place the starting line between the two.

Planes are flying low overhead toward Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The Washington Monument is visible in a distance. The scent of fresh water is in the air.

"We're going to set up our upwind mark and our downwind mark," Kleysteuber says.

"Sailboat racing is very easy," he adds, joking, "until you try to do it."

An alarm sounds and the sailors gather at the starting line. The alarm sounds again and the sailors are off.

This course is tricky because the wind keeps shifting. The Bills debate whether or not to change the course, before deciding that they're "never going to get it absolutely right," Buck says.

The sailors make their way around one mark and head toward the second. Then they finish where they started. Then they race again, and again - as much as they can in three hours.

"It's really tough," Kleysteuber says. "You have no control over the wind. That's what makes sailing so fun."

Sometimes tempers will flare slightly in getting around the marks, "but it all gets sorted out over a beer after," Bolton says.

At 3 p.m. the sailors come in and help each other get their boats out. Some store them at the docks for a fee; others put them on trailers to pull home. Then out comes the beer and hot dogs.

Today Erich Hesse, 23 and one of the newest to the fleet, is the winner. He's been a part of this fleet for a couple of months but has sailed since he was 8 years old. Hesse is an engineer and went to the New York Maritime Academy.

"People here are really inviting and friendly," Hesse says.

"One of the other really nice things about sailing is you have all these young guys, then old guys like us, and you can really have a lot of fun with a mixed age group," Kleysteuber says.

The Laser Fleet, a division of the Potomac River Sailing Association, is open to anyone with an interest in sailing, and one doesn't necessarily have to own a boat to join. For more information visit www.potomacsailing.org/lasers.

"In D.C., where everything is about work, this is about something we love," Kleysteuber says.