THE focus of many area sports fans may be on Pimlico Race Course this weekend, but Baltimore Harbor is the site of a watery racing event of national prestige that brings together top female sailors competing in the inaugural Santa Maria Cup.
To be sailed tomorrow through Sunday in an area of the harbor easy for shoreside spectators to see, the event is believed by organizers to be the nation's first match regatta for yachtswomen.
"It's sort of the America's Cup for women," says Nance Frank of Annapolis, who will skipper one of the eight J-22 sloops to be used in the competition.
"It is the only opportunity of its kind, really the most prestigious race for women in America," says Frank, who is also skipper of the U.S. Women's Challenge, which is intent upon mounting an all-female crew to sail the every-four-years Whitbred Round the World Race in 1993.
Team practices were scheduled for this afternoon, and racing is scheduled to begin at noon tomorrow and at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The new HarborView Marina & Yacht Club, on the south side of the harbor, is headquarters for the event. Spectators are welcome, free parking is provided and each day's racing will be announced and explained by a commentator on a public address system on the HarborView docks.
Eight four-member crews have entered the event, including one team from Genova, Italy. Prospective participation by teams from the Soviet Union and England fell through, but the field includes crews from San Diego, Calif., Newport and Providence, R.I., Rochester, N.Y., and three teams from this area -- two from Annapolis and one from Baltimore.
Match racing is perhaps the most watchable form of sailboat racing and is similar to America's Cup racing. Only two boats, largely identical because they are built to a single class specification, will race head to head. A series of eliminations will produce a final championship race on Sunday.
Unlike the commonplace Chesapeake Bay form of "handicap" yacht racing, in which boats of many sizes and designs compete together under a system of time handicaps, in match racing "you can always tell who's ahead," Frank says.
The favored "A" course for racing will be marked by buoys in the harbor area directly off the HarborView docks and extending roughly between Harrison's mock lighthouse on Pier Five and the Domino Sugar plant. A "B" course off Fort McHenry will be utilized under certain weather conditions. (Spectators can learn the course in use daily by calling (440-9395.)
"We're really hoping that people come out to learn something about this kind of event," says race official Susan D. Taylor.
In addition, Frank says, the competitors say they will be happy to talk with spectators and explain the event before and after racing.
Organizers hope the inaugural Santa Maria Cup will be another significant mark for Baltimore on the international yacht racing calendar. It is an affiliated preliminary event to The Columbus Cup international match race series, whose third running is scheduled in Baltimore in October, says Taylor, executive director of The Columbus Cup.
That series is sailed in larger J-44 sloops with 12-member crews, and has drawn top teams from around the world.
"This one is closer in where people can watch, and the boats are livelier, too," says Taylor.
The J-22 is a 22-foot keel sloop with a distinctive raked mast. It sails particularly well in light wind, such as might be encountered the confines of Baltimore Harbor. Individual owners loaned the boats to be sailed to the competition, and the boats will be prepared by pairs for racing in nearly identical fashion, Taylor says.
For example, boats of the same age will be paired, as will those with the same relative age and sophistication of sails, Frank says. The hulls of all eight craft were to be scrubbed and smoothed for speed sometime today, to assure that tactics, skill and perhaps luck are the factors that determine the winners.
While Frank and Taylor say the Santa Maria Cup is an important milestone toward recognizing women in competitive sailing circles, Frank notes that "sailing is still one of the sports where competition can be equal" between men and women.
Thus she does not desire completely separate events, as illustrated by her pursuit of participation in the Whitbread racing. Frank had a female team and a boat ready to sail in the 1989 race, but had to drop out before starting because of lack of sponsorship.
"A lot of the owners of boats have not been women, so if you don't see women as owners and operators, you don't think they're competent," Frank says.
"I think it's just really the next step" for women sailors, Taylor says of this weekend's race.