Wind in His Sails

By Dolly Merritt

Solomons sailmaker Clarke McKinney is busily preparing for the June Annapolis Bermuda Ocean Race. This will be the fifth time he has joined the 753-mile race from the Bay to Bermuda. But it will be the first time he has raced it with a special crew member: his son Neal.

The McKinneys are part of a crew of six who have been working since February for the event. The two men, both from Leonardtown, are physically and mentally preparing for all the potential challenges such a race exacts.

“It’s 750 miles—pretty bare bones,” says the 67-year-old, who will serve as captain aboard the 40-foot Graybeard, a Class40 boat primarily used for short-handed offshore and coastal racing. He hopes the speed potential will get the crew to Bermuda in three and a half days, a far cry from his initial Annapolis Bermuda race.

“The first time, it took us eight days to get there; we ran out of water; it was 120 degrees on deck in the middle of the day, and it took four days to get home. We had one single burner, one liter of water, and freeze-dried food.”

McKinney says preparations for this race include many things such as getting safety gear for the crew and ensuring a specified amount of water for each person. “All of the crew must be CPR-certified and have some medical knowledge to treat issues on board. They also need to be certified for completion of Safety at Sea training; a crewmember is given the responsibility of being the navigator.”

Having spent his childhood summers in Ocean City—boating and fishing with his family—Clarke McKinney’s love of water is innate. When his parents built a summer home in St. Mary’s County, he and his brother’s priority was “water and waves.” His father purchased two catamarans “to keep his boys out of trouble,” says McKinney, with a laugh. After high school, it wasn’t uncommon to see the brothers using the family car to tow their watercraft to regattas.

When McKinney entered St. Mary’s College he joined the sailing club. As he learned more about the sport, his competency increased and he won his first race. “The hook was set,” he says.

McKinney was active in the sailing activities, ultimately becoming captain of the varsity sailing program. In 1979, he received a bachelor’s degree in natural science with an emphasis in biology. “I probably had 12 credits of sailing courses,” he adds.

Fresh out of college, McKinney applied for a sailboat rigger position at Zahniser’s Yachting Center in Solomons and was immediately hired. One of his first projects was to sew a canvas mast boot, and McKinney laughed as he described being pointed to a nearby barn where a Singer treadle sewing machine was kept—the place where he honed the skills that have brought him much success and accolades.

A year later it was purchased by two businessmen and McKinney took over the management of Leonard Sails, Solomons, Inc. His workforce—a receptionist, sewing machine operator, and himself—was a small start that began in a 500-square-foot office with a tiny floor used to spread out the canvas.

“It was a true sweat shop with no bathroom…,” says McKinney. “We built sails for a 65-foot schooner without the ability to lay it out, so we did it in sections. I love puzzles.”

Through two prior affiliations, Leonard Sails and Sobstad Sails, the business grew and McKinney ultimately joined forces with Quantum Sail Design Group. Today, Quantum Sails Solomons Island is operated out of a 2200-square-foot loft, with three tables and eight sewing machines, making custom canvas items using computerized technology.

Though McKinney is color blind, he says he hasn’t had too many problems and it’s even a possible advantage when a couple disagrees about a particular canvas color. “I tell them they need to figure it out themselves,” he says with a grin and mentions a wide variance in colors that can include 12 shades of blue. McKinney admits that, on occasion, he was stressed when he used the wrong color. Still, “The staff knows my shortcomings,” he says. “If I say it’s green, they’ll look for red or brown.”

McKinney’s craftsmanship and passion for sailing are intertwined. “My livelihood is my hobby and it’s nice that I can keep it that way,” he says. Throughout the year, McKinney estimates he spends 100 to 150 days on the water, having raced in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, as well as the Great Lakes, and cruising the Chesapeake. Over the years, family time on the water has included his wife, Mary Anne, two children—Neal and Allison—and grandchildren, ranging from 3 to 12 years old.

Both father and son share excitement for the upcoming race. Neal McKinney says it’s “awesome” to have the opportunity to bond with his father in their mutual love of sailing and to participate in the “experience of a lifetime.”

“It’s something we are talking about non-stop,” says Neal.