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'Frostbite racing' sails on frigid LI waters

Members of the Babylon Yacht Club compete in

Members of the Babylon Yacht Club compete in a regatta in West Islip as part of their winter frostbite racing season. (Nov. 29, 2013) Credit: Jeremy Bales

Babylon Yacht Club members and guests who partake in the not-for-everybody winter sport of "frostbite racing" are used to people questioning their sanity.

But for the two dozen sailors who turned out Friday morning on 10 boats for the kickoff of the 2013-14 season, it's the perfect way to counteract overeating on Thanksgiving and enjoy the great outdoors.

"Most people think you're crazy, but it seems pretty normal to me," said Greg Schneller, 57, an engineer from West Islip who was Friday's overall winner.

"It's tough" to recruit new racers, said Peter Capitain, co-chair of the winter racing program and one of its founders. "Most people never mix sailing and winter in the same sentence. They really have to be prepared both in their mind and physically."

Besides paying $50 per person for the season, they have to have the proper protective clothing. Most wear waterproof drysuits that cost from $300 up to about $1,000.

"We tell people to think of it as if they're going skiing, and you're going to get wet," said Joe Mulle, 44, a West Babylon resident who helped launch the Babylon frostbite program.

Andrew Hemingway, 38, a West Islip native who now lives in Manhattan, said with his drysuit the cold is never a problem. "Today, in fact, I was a little warm out there" as the temperature hit 40.

Besides Babylon Yacht Club, based in West Islip, there are clubs or other groups that sponsor winter racing in locations including Oakdale, Hempstead Bay, Mount Sinai, Centerport, Oyster Bay and Port Washington.

The concept of frostbiting began on Manhasset Bay on Jan. 2, 1932, at the now-defunct Knickerbocker Yacht Club in Port Washington and has been continued by the adjacent Manhasset Bay Yacht Club.

The Babylon series dates back six years. "We used to sail all winter long on our larger boats," Mulle said.

Then, one year, almost everybody took their boats out of the water in the fall, he said. "So we said, 'What are we going to do?' "

The program has grown from four boats to 12.

Schneller's win Friday earned him "a burger and an attaboy." The season winner gets a trophy.

He likes the winter races because everybody uses the same boat model: in the Babylon case, the 19.5-foot Flying Scot sloop. "So everyone's even and that makes it more competitive and more fun."

"And in the winter when it's cold," he added, "it's usually beautiful down here."

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