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When the wind comes up, the doctor is absent
Hugh D. Whall
March 30, 1970
One of the world's worst cases of sailing fever has made Stuart Walker, M.D. a small-boat skipper of wide renown. Walker is a man of such tenacity that he has been known to keep racing even when dismasted
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March 30, 1970

When The Wind Comes Up, The Doctor Is Absent

One of the world's worst cases of sailing fever has made Stuart Walker, M.D. a small-boat skipper of wide renown. Walker is a man of such tenacity that he has been known to keep racing even when dismasted

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Observe the gray-haired man in the picture below. His name is Stuart Walker and he is sailing a cockleshell in a snowstorm. He is sailing on the Severn River near Annapolis. The water is very cold. The wind is very cold. Stuart Walker is very cold. He has his feet hooked under a toe strap so that he can sit outside the boat. The boat is wet. Stuart Walker's seat is wet. His stomach muscles hurt. His face is freezing. His fingers are stiff. Stuart Walker is very happy. The crewmen are not happy. They would like to go ashore and have a nice warm jolt of rum. The skipper will not let them go ashore. He will sail until he has extracted all the day can give in wind and wave, for he is the dilly-down-daffiest small-boat skipper in all the world.

Although in middle age and not much bigger than a bollard, Walker is also one of the world's best sailors. Many sailing people find this surprising, since Walker has more theories about sailing than a belfry has bats, and at times appears to be applying all of them simultaneously. As one dazzled rival has remarked, "I've heard him say things like the weather pattern over Baltimore today should interact with the pattern over Annapolis and, with an incoming tide and the birds on Greenbury Point singing one note off-key, the wind should favor the other shore."

Then there is this thing Walker has about gadgets. He is the Hammacher-Schlemmer of the seven seas. Gadgets sprout from his boats like toadstools from a soggy lawn. "I have seen him put five new gadgets on a boat," says a friend, "win a race and then go crazy trying to figure out which one did it."

Walker is an M.D. who teaches pediatrics at the University of Maryland and is head of the department of pediatrics at Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, but he has long since given up private practice in order to have more time for sailing, thinking about sailing, writing books and articles about sailing, lecturing on the subject of sailing and propagandizing heathen landlubbers on its myriad virtues. Occasionally he has time to ponder his own personality, and this has led him down curious byways. "I see myself as Charlie Brown pitching a baseball game in pouring rain," he says. "The field is flooded and nearly everyone has gone home except Charlie, who is up to his knees in water. Lucy says, 'He's an idiot, but you've got to admire him for it.' "

Men who have crewed for Walker would perhaps be reminded of Captain Bligh more poignantly than Charlie Brown, but there is truth in the up-to-his-knees-in-water image all right. Let's face it: when a winter northwester blows in, only mad gobs go sailing for fun on the Severn. Walker does it all the time. It was my dubious pleasure to be in his crew in a Soling sloop not long ago. As we gathered on the dock of the Annapolis Yacht Club, Walker was hatless. He wore a blue track suit with red, white and blue " U.S.A." lettering—a souvenir of Mexico's Olympics, in which he served as navigator and tactician aboard the 5.5-meter yacht Cadenza.

"A chicken, look," someone shouted derisively as a battered sloop, wearing only a scrap of mainsail in deference to the gale, came into view. Walker's response was to toss two more sail bags aboard the Soling. They were not conventional sail bags. They were "turtles," which contain spinnakers, sails meant for balmy days and silken breezes. One could picture the mast catapulting overboard, the decks awash, the boat foundering, then a swim in 40� water.

Anyway, up went the jib and main, and the Soling leaped away from the dock. She flew through water smoothed by the Naval Academy's great gray lee, then from the outer rim of sheltered water into the angry Severn, where whitecaps curled and foamed. As a bitter spray flayed our faces Walker steered and smiled and smiled and smiled.

Walker relinquished the helm momentarily to set up the spinnaker. It filled with a crack and almost instantly launched the sloop on a run that chiseled destroyer-sized waves at her bow and required Walker to steer magnificently against the boat's inclination to broach. (Afterward, a shorebound spectator said the sight of Walker surfing down the Severn was one of the wildest damned things he had ever witnessed.)

"Well," said Walker, when finally he steered for shore, "I guess we stayed on that last tack too long. My face is frozen. But that was fun, wasn't it?"

It should not surprise you that Walker, who sailed Q-boats and Stars on Long Island Sound in the '30s while earning his M.D., volunteered for the paratroops during World War II. He helped occupy Japan and finished out his military career as a divisional surgeon at Fort Bliss, Texas.

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