'The Box' directs traffic smoothly Boatload of agencies makes re-start a breeze for competitors, fans

Whitbread 1997-1998

May 04, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

From the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Northland yesterday, it was glittering water, fluttering flags and cheers for the Whitbread contestants as the big, graceful racers tacked and preened for spectators at the start line.

Below deck, it was "The Box."

The Box was the official designation for the protected area the boats moved through as they sailed down the Chesapeake Bay, starting Leg 8 of the 31,600-mile race that will end in England later this month.

It worked, producing a smooth, accident-free race start.

The Box -- one mile wide and seven miles long, with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at the top end -- was actually a long, thin rectangle that looked as if someone had tried unsuccessfully to fold it in half. It was protected by a military-style plan worthy of combat.

The target: keep all of the thousands of other boats on the bay yesterday a safe distance away from the nine racers.

The method: a system of sectors, subsectors, grids, code names, radar tracking and satellite positioning enforced by 1,000 people on land, sea and air.

"We want to try to minimize the chaos -- we have nine boats racing through 2,000 or so others," said Capt. Dean F. Scarborough, a regional commander of the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

The chaos he referred to could be seen filling a bank of radar

screens two decks below in the Combat Information Center, a small, shadowy room in the middle of the ship.

Thousands of dots flickered and shifted on the screens, each one representing a boat on the bay. Two Coast Guard officers kept vigilant watch.

"This has been published -- it's the law now," said Coast Guard Lt. Jim Driscoll an hour before the 1: 45 start yesterday, tracing the outline of The Box on a wall chart.

Behind him, a radio cackled to life, an almost unintelligible din of static and staccato marine-speak.

"Clipper City wants to go through the box," translated Coast Guard chief radarman Tim Mayer.

"No," was the immediate response from Driscoll. "Tell him he has to go around."

Word went out via radio to the sector leader out on the water near the commercial passenger boat -- and no more was heard from Clipper City as it went around The Box.

Planning how to enforce the protected area took eight months. The Coast Guard, the Navy, the Maryland Natural Resources Police, volunteer auxiliary groups, firefighters and paramedics all became part of what the Coast Guard designated a Unified Command System.

As part of the command structure, the area to be protected was divided into seven sectors. Each sector was then divided into subsectors, which were patrolled by individual boats. The lead boats maintained their positions -- and preserved the shape of The Box -- by using satellite positioning, Coast Guard officials said.

Despite spawning an imposing array of code names, the sectoring system appeared to be efficient and effective yesterday.

Only 50 boats had to be warned out of the protected zone, said Lt. (j.g.) Toni Gay, a Coast Guard spokeswoman, and warnings, rather than fines or citations, were all that was required. No injuries were reported, she said, and "we didn't have any accidents" -- a remarkable feat on a day when at least 5,000 boats clustered around an area a mile wide.

"The perfect boating public is the right phrase," said a clearly delighted Capt. Charles L. Miller, a Coast Guard officer. "This went perfectly."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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