J.J. ISLER OF SAN Diego is the first female skipper to sail in the Columbus Cup, and she is coming in a winner to the third annual big-boat yacht racing event being contested next week in Baltimore.
Not only did Isler win the inaugural all-female Santa Maria Cup in Baltimore just this past May, in J-22 sloops, but she began beating male competitors a long time ago.
Her brother Trevor was an early victim, Isler recalls over the phone from Newport Beach, Calif., where she is competing this weekend in the North American Championships in the 470 Olympic dinghy-racing class.
At the age of 7, third child in a sailing family (maiden name Fetter), she followed Trevor and older sister Margi into the junior racing program of the San Diego Yacht Club. Races were sailed in little Sabot class dinghies, so called "because they look like little Dutch shoes."
After a time, however, big brother Trevor quit competitive sailing, "partially because I started beating him," laughs Isler fondly. Sister Margi moved into competitive rowing.
"But I really took to it right away."
Now 27, Isler's lengthy list of sailing achievements includes winning the women's collegiate nationals two years running while captain of the Yale University varsity sailing team (1984-85), a European Championship in the 470 class (1986), a U.S. Woman's Sailing Championship (in 470s, 1988) and the Women's International Match Racing Championship (1990).
But Isler admits to some minor trepidation coming into the Columbus Cup, which is sailed in big J-44 class sloops, each with a crew of 10. They are a long stretch from the 14-foot 470 class in which she has had so much success (and which she hopes to sail in the 1992 Olympics in Spain).
"The largest boat I've ever raced was a J-35," says Isler, who is arriving in Baltimore Monday morning to begin practice in the bigger vessels.
"I like sailing boats where my 120 pounds and [small] size are not a factor," she adds with a chuckle, noting "no one will ever ask me to be a grinder on their team," a position requiring lots of muscle.
As an advantage, however, husband Peter Isler, a well-known successful racer and ESPN commentator, is sailing as tactician in her crew -- "my own ringer."
The 1991 Columbus Cup has attracted some top international jTC skippers, including potential participants in next year's America's Cup defense in San Diego, as well as possible Olympic contenders and representatives from Spain, France, Canada and England.
Events begin Monday with an exhibition race, "The Race to Save the Bay," scheduled at 3:45 p.m. from race headquarters at the HarborView Marina & Yacht Club on Key Highway south of the Inner Harbor. Wind permitting, the finish line will be set off the marina docks.
With participation by local business people and celebrities, the race is a benefit for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and includes a 6 p.m. open-to-the-public crab feast at HarborView. (The cost is $15 a person; tickets will be on sale at the marina as of 10 a.m. Monday. Reservations can be made by phone at 783-0034.)
Competition proper begins at 1 p.m. Tuesday, with the first of five fleet races that will determine the pairings for the elimination series of match races, according to Columbus Cup Committee co-chairman Mark Fischer.
The race course this year has been moved inside the Francis Scott Key Bridge, ranging from near the span to off Fort McHenry, to permit spectator viewing from the Fort and along the Canton shoreline. Spectator boats are also available daily (call 440-9396 for this and other race information).
In two fleet races Tuesday and three Wednesday (with races beginning at 11 a.m. Wednesday), all eight boats will sail together. The order of rankings will determine who races together in the match racing events scheduled Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. daily.
In match racing, two boats compete head-to-head in each race (just as in America's Cup events). Each day, the fleet will be sent off from the start in pairs at intervals of five minutes, says Fischer, meaning spectators will clearly be able to see who is ahead in each race.
The cup finals and "petit finals" (which determine the rest of the standings) are scheduled on Saturday.
In addition to Isler, the 1991 Columbus Cup skippers are:
Jim Brady of Annapolis, recent winner of the One Ton class world championship and a former Olympic Athlete of the Year; Buddy Melges of the United States, a skipper in the 1992 America 3 syndicate of the 1992 America's Cup events; John Kostecki of the United States, an Olympic silver medalist in 1988; Chris Law of the United Kingdom, the 1991 Etchells class world champion; Paul Thomson of Canada, the Canadian National J-24 champion and a potential Olympic contender in Solings; Marc Bouet of France, the 1991 Soling world champion, and Antonio Gorostegui of Spain, tactician of Espana '92, Spain's 1992 America's Cup challenger.