Under intense scrutiny, two young Annapolis sailors are helping test secret new sail and keel designs and hoping to land a berth on an America's Cup team next year.

INTO THE WIND

October 08, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

QUONSET POINT, R.I. -- Like a billowing cloud of steam, the spinnaker undulates and hovers over the bow as the boat cuts through the waves of Rhode Island Sound.

Suddenly, the ghost-like form plunges onto the deck. A crewman is standing in a hatch, furiously hauling the sail into a storage compartment below deck, his arms pumping violently and his head and shoulders engulfed by the white mass.

In about five seconds, Ryan McCrillis has packed 4,500 square feet of silky cloth into a bag the size of a bale of cotton.

McCrillis, a 23-year-old graduate from the Naval Academy, should be enrolled in Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Fla., learning to fly F-18's. Instead, the Navy has granted him a deferral of his five years of service so he can try another form of naval warfare: winning the America's Cup back from New Zealand.

McCrillis is trying to land a place among what may be the world's most elite crew of sailors: the Young America team, sponsored by the New York Yacht Club, the Annapolis Yacht Club and sailing organizations in five other cities.

The former midshipman is joined in his quest by another Annapolis resident, Chris Kam, 33. Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, a 39-year-old sailor from Annapolis who crewed on the Maryland-based Chessie during this summer's Whitbred Around the World Race, has already made the cut. He will be one of the 16 sailors racing with the team off Aukland when the America's Cup matches begin in October 1999.

Whether McCrillis and Kam make the team will be a close call, with the decision coming in the next few months, said Jane Eagleson, spokeswoman for the team. There is no formal try-out; the team's leaders choose the crew based on long-term observation.

For almost two years, all three men have been testing equipment with the Young America team at a former Naval base here preparing their assault on the oldest trophy in sports.

Because the team is collecting data on secret new keel and sail designs, the fenced compound where the team has been training has the high-security feel of a commando base in a James Bond movie.

The half-dozen trailers in the compound are under 24-hour watch by a uniformed guard. The team's test boats are always shrouded in blue plastic skirts when they are out of the water. And when

they sail, a pair of motorboats speed out to interrogate any boaters who drift nearby with cameras.

"Sometimes I find the secrecy is even more intense than on military missions," said McCrillis, who graduated from the Naval Academy in May. "And the use of high technology is very much like in the military."

The project even has a Pentagon-sized budget: $40 million to build two sailboats and train a team of 35 crew and support staff. The boats are being designed by Bruce Farr of Annapolis, one of the world's premier designers of racing yachts.

Another day of tests

As the sun rises over the west passage of Narragansett Bay on a recent morning, a 130-foot-tall construction crane lifts a carbon-fiber sailboat from a wooden base behind curtains that hide it from view. For a moment, it hangs above the water, its keel exposed.

The device beneath the boat looks ominous, like a weapon of mass destruction: jet black, the length of a torpedo but flattened slightly, with a pair of knife-like blades slicing downward from its rear in a V-shape.

"No pictures," insists Eagleson. "We don't want anyone to know what we're working on."

The boat, which has a red shark painted on its side, is lowered into the water beside a similar yacht with a mermaid's face on its bow. Her eyes are closed, her chin cocked forward and her golden hair flowing the length of the boat. These are the Spirit of Rhode Island and the Young America, 75-foot racing yachts that sailed in the 1995 cup. The team is using them to test new equipment as it designs new boats for the next race.

The crane swings a sail bag nearly the length of a telephone pole onto the deck of the Young America, with McCrillis and the other crew members guiding it into place. The air is loud with sea gulls, the water beside the dock flashes with tiny fish.

A haggard-looking lobster boat, Old Glory, belches to life at the end of the pier. It rumbles into the smooth gray water, exhaust swirling, as a crewman heaves a white line that another ties to the bow of the Young America.

As Old Glory tows the sailboats away from the dock, there is a loud, metallic clacking sound. Two of the crew are bent nearly halfway over, cranking long black handles on a winch system that is lifting a crewman in a harness to the top of the 110-foot mast.

Meanwhile, near the stern, McCrillis squats in front of a computer bolted to the deck. He explains that data on the boat's performance during today's tests is being collected so that engineers can decide on the fastest design. He's careful not to say too much.

Hush-hush

"What kind of information are you giving out, Ensign Ryan?" one of the older crew members barks, noticing that McCrillis is talking to a reporter. "Thanks a lot, you bum. See you next race."

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