Alone, sailing the world BOC, sponsors sell lure of adventure

OUTDOORS

March 01, 1994|By PETER BAKER

Mark Schrader and Dan McConnell are having a late breakfast in a hotel coffee shop along the Annapolis waterfront and talking about the past, present and future of the BOC Challenge, a sailing race that every four years sends competitors around the world alone.

Together they are the brain trust of a BOC publicity tour, and from each there are different insights into the workings of a sailing race that after 12 years is beginning to beat its way into public awareness.

McConnell, media operations director and a marketing specialist, brings a soft sell and a forecast of increasing American interest in such ventures.

Schrader, a competitor in the 1986-87 BOC and now the race director, brings the voice of experience to the conversation.

"People who follow this race are people who have sort of a general interest in it, not so much in the racing, but in the adventure," said Schrader. "This is very foreign to a

lot of folks. . . . It goes to someplace different and requires some effort, and they like the personal challenge of it."

In the past five to seven years, said McConnell, individual participation has increased dramatically in "adventure lifestyle sports." And while media attention given to the Iditarod dog sled races in Alaska, mountain climbing near Katmandu or solo ocean racing is a small percentage of that given to traditional college or pro sports, advertisers and sponsors are taking note.

"The lifestyle marketing folks of the consumer goods companies out there have now decided that there are probably not just a million people but tens of millions of people in this country who are after this sort of adventure lifestyle," McConnell said.

IBM, Apple Computers and Chevrolet are among the major corporations sponsoring adventure sports events, said McConnell, who works for an international advertising agency. And each, of course, expects its reward in sales built off product recognition.

Oddly, Mike Plant, the American who won his division in the last BOC and afterward was lost at sea when his new racing yacht capsized in the Atlantic, may be largely responsible for increased American interest in this BOC, which will start in Charleston, S.C., in September.

"The Mike Plant incident certainly has generated a lot more press forthese kinds of things," said McConnell, "but I think you have to realize that in these kinds of sports it is the individual story that makes the difference.

"It is not even the winning that is even really the key. . . . Whether it is Nancy Kerrigan or Norm Vaughan [an 80-year-old dog sled racer], a good people story in an adventure sport is the thing that rings the bell."

The BOC, of course, is fraught with adventure. Storms. Whales. Freighters rumbling down the shipping lanes on autopilot.

"There are a lot of times, sensing down below on a dark night that something was out there, you immediately get out of your bunk and there is that instant, sort of like a kid who has to look in the closet or the attic but is afraid to," Schrader said. "You know, your hand is on the door, and you don't know if you are going to see something awful or it is going to be OK.

"Coming up the companionway steps, I often had the same feeling. . . . You don't know if you are going to see the bow of a ship right there or if everything is going to be OK."

In the three runnings of the BOC, there have been dismastings, collisions and death. There have been the wise and the foolhardy, and always intense competition.

The nature of the race, Schrader said, is what makes it an attraction to designers. The 50- and 60-foot classes are virtual research and development labs in which things such as movable water ballast systems, multiple roller furling gear and self steering systems are refined.

"A lot of the equipment that ends up on those boats or is custom made for those boats so that short-handed sailing is not only possible but it also is efficient and it is fast, is equipment that [sailors] end up seeing in next year's boat show," Schrader said.

"Twelve years ago, this race didn't exist, and now there is equipment on the market that was tested and designed for the single-handed side of the sport, and it is now being used for the cruising side of the sport."

The unanswered question, of course, is what attracts sailors to this race in the first place.

"I think one of the reasons I did it was that in 16 years of living in Nebraska I had learned as much as I wanted to know about dirt and didn't know anything about water," said Schrader, who never saw an ocean until he was 16.

In the years since, Schrader, 47, has sailed alone around the world twice and come to know what it is to be apart from the rest of the world and at peace -- even in the midst of chaos.

"It was surprising to me that I enjoyed the worst times the best and I discovered some things about myself that were pleasant to discover," Schrader said. "I discovered that my mind sort of got clear when everything around me was chaos and confusion, and certainly it was nice to discover that rather than to find it was the other way around."

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