- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2008

PASADENA, Md. | It was sunny, about 80 degrees - fine weather for an afternoon promenade along the Chesapeake Bay wearing a floor-length white gown, long formal gloves and a tiara.

Think summer starts on Memorial Day? Not in Maryland, where a decades-old tradition of opening summer the first weekend of June at the Maryland Yacht Club culminates in a curious throwback: the crowning of the Queen of the Chesapeake.

The pageant features “princesses” nominated by yacht clubs around the Chesapeake, aged 16 to 21 and wearing white gowns. It’s a pageant like pageants used to be, before high-pressure talent contests, fitness evaluations and big-money scholarships.

Here, contestants give beauty-queen waves wearing sashes in the colors of their home yacht clubs. They pick a song for a promenade in front of about 200 yacht club members gathered for the event, then receive roses before going onto a makeshift stage overlooking the Chesapeake to await the decision of a three-judge panel and the crowning of the winner.

“It hasn’t changed much,” says the first queen of the Chesapeake, Rachel Holmes Cruzan, who was crowned 60 years ago, in 1948. Now 77 and living in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Mrs. Cruzan lived in Bel Air, Md., when she won the first Queen of the Chesapeake pageant. She was 17, talked up her skills at water-skiing and powerboating and ended up marrying her escort two years later.

She returned to the club for the opening of its 100th season, and at the pageant was handed a dozen red roses and given a front-row seat.

The pageant Mrs. Cruzan saw was much like the one she won. The 12 contestants showed off bracelets, sometimes two or three of them, packed with charms they received when visiting other clubs on the Chesapeake.

Contestants read a short essay on the Bay, just a few sentences long but extolling the pleasures of sailing and crabbing and duck hunting. Then they answer a simple question - what kind of charity would they start? - and that’s about it. The winner spends her reign visiting yacht clubs for their dinner dances and winter balls, with the high honor of wearing a white gown everywhere she goes while the other princesses make do in Sunday dresses.

If it sounds old-fashioned, it is.

“Maybe yacht clubs are a retro kind of thing,” mused Sandy Stevens, a Maryland Yacht Club member who has emceed the pageant for years. “We keep up our tradition with our uniforms and our ceremonies. And there’s a big segment of the population that really likes that.”

The contestants are presented by a uniformed officer who runs their home club, called a “commandant.” Princesses walk through a line of other uniformed commandants saluting them. The audience rises when the reigning queen enters and doesn’t sit down until she says, “Please be seated,” and sits herself on a white wicker throne, holding a white fan in case of hairdo-ruining heat.

It’s a production that either strikes you as laughable or spectacular, yacht princesses concede.

“I have a distinct memory of being 6 at the Red Eye [Yacht Club], and the queen was there, and she was singing the national anthem, and she was practicing in the bathroom, and I was hooked. Totally in love with it. I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” said Stephanie Yourick, 17, a two-year reigning princess from Essex, Md., who because of college sat out this year’s queen pageant because she wouldn’t be able to complete the requisite hostessing duties.

Life as a princess can be grueling. They visit as many other clubs as they can, sometimes attending four parties a day on summer weekends, gathering charms and small gifts from other clubs, often jewelry or nail polish or handbags. The gifts come from the yacht club’s home princesses, or sometimes the commandant’s wife, called a “first lady.”

The Chesapeake’s yacht queen tradition is unusual. Organizers say the only other group with a similar princess and queen system is the nearby Delaware River Yachtsmen’s League

“It’s a wonderful thing to see young people put their heart and souls into the yachting community,” says Coles Marsh, commodore of the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Club Association, made up of 129 clubs from Virginia to New Jersey. “We do this every year. We’ll always do this every year.”

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