J.J. Isler of San Diego, using the guile of a seasoned match racer, won four of five races her team sailed in the Inner Harbor yesterday and won the Santa Maria Cup, the first women's regatta of its type to be held in the United States.
But for a brief time yesterday morning, it appeared that Isler's chances of winning the regatta were all wet.
Isler entered the final day of racing in the three-day regatta as the No. 3 skipper and was matched against No. 2, Betsy Alison of Newport, R.I., who on Saturday had won the first race in their best-of-three semifinal series.
In Race 2, with Isler and Alison sailing close together upwind alongside a freighter tied at the Domino Sugar pier, a puff of wind surprised the two crews, Isler lost her balance and went overboard.
"We just sort of auto-tacked, when all of a sudden the jib backs and the boat heels way over," said Isler, the most experienced skipper in the regatta. "I was turning the helm at the same time, so I was kind of leaning out, with my center of gravity over [outside] the boat, and there was nothing to grab onto."
Alison's crew took the puff better and sped to perhaps a 10-length lead while Isler clambered aboard and her crew regained control.
Although the dunking was momentary, those aboard the judges' boat shadowing the pair of J/22s thought the incident might provide an insurmountable lead.
By the bottom of the next leg, however, Isler was in command and went on to win two straight.
In the finals, again a best-of-three series, Isler was matched against Cory Sertl of Rochester, N.Y., who had not lost a race in the regatta.
With Sertl trailing in the final, 1-0, Isler ran perhaps the best bluff of the regatta -- and won the hand.
In match racing, where two boats race only against each other, which yacht starts first is not as important as which starts best. So often there are elaborate maneuvers in and around the starting area before the opening gun. The purpose of these maneuvers is to gain controlling position over the opposition.
After the starting gun in Race 2, Isler, knowing that her boat could circle more quickly than Sertl's, had managed to take position to starboard on her opponent's transom so that Sertl could not sail clear except by going away from the starting line.
Isler then shifted her boat down on Sertl until she could break away for the starting line.
"I didn't know if it would work, and if it didn't, we would have sacrificed our position," Isler said. "But I realized she has done some match races, but not many."
The key was a move Isler made without telling her crew.
In that situation, the standard maneuver is to gybe onto a port tack and head for the starting line, leaving your opponent scrambling to recover but not buried.
Isler faked the start of a gybe to port by trimming the mainsail -- and Sertl fell for it and gybed.
"We just stayed on starboard and won the start," Isler said.
Sertl also was forced to make a penalty turn through 270 degrees for impeding Isler's right of way.
"It [the bluff] shows my inexperience in match racing, clearly," Sertl said. "She had every right in the world to do that, and I just got suckered into it."
In a sailoff for third and fourth places yesterday, Swett defeated Alison, two races to one.
"It was a great regatta," Isler said. "I just wish I hadn't taken that swim in the first race [Sunday]."
Round-robin final results
Cory Sertl, Rochester, N.Y., 7-0; Betsy Alison, Newport, R.I., 6-1; J.J. Isler, San Diego, 5-2; Hanna Swett, Providence, R.I., 4-3; Nancy Yellott, Baltimore, 3-4; Barbara Vosbury, Annapolis, 2-5; Paola Ferrario, Italy, 1-6; Nance Frank, Annapolis, 0-7
Sertl 2, Swett 0; Isler 2, Alison 1
Petit Final (for third and fourth place)
Swett 2, Alison 1
Isler 2, Sertl 0