Annapolis women hitch boat to stars

Sailing: Skipper Sandy Grosvenor and her crew set their sights on this week's Santa Maria Cup for a shot to qualify for the world match racing championships.

June 03, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

Sandy Grosvenor of Annapolis makes her living at the Goddard Space Flight Center, helping to design the next generation of space telescope. She makes her fun racing sailboats.

This week Grosvenor and an all-Annapolis crew are sailing in the Santa Maria Cup, a women's match racing championship being held at the mouth of the Severn River.

Her tasks on the water and at work both require a fine edge of intellect and instinct.

At Goddard, the job is to build the perfect replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.

"It is cutting edge, really," said Grosvenor, a high-tech programmer who works with a half-dozen team members. "We are prototyping something that won't be built for four or five years and won't be launched for eight.

"So we have the freedom to try things that will make it bigger and better."

For example, she said, it might be possible to use artificial intelligence to operate the next generation of space telescope rather than send commands from a control station on Earth.

"If it's been done already, we aren't that interested," said Grosvenor, who took one semester of astronomy at Smith College some 20 years ago before getting her master's at Maryland in computer systems management. "We are intentionally trying to take the next step."

In racing, said Grosvenor, the object is to sail the perfect race every time out, using quick thinking, good boat handling and aggressive tactics.

Yesterday, in the first round of racing, she won one race and lost three.

"That's what match racing is -- quick and aggressive," said Grosvenor, 41, who entered the Santa Maria Cup ranked 18th in the world among women match racers. "There is a cut-throat side to the sport, but on the other hand you have to sail clean and smart."

In match racing, two equally paired boats sail one-on-one, with tactical positioning almost as important as boat speed. In the Santa Maria Cup, 12 crews will sail a round-robin elimination series, followed by semifinals and finals.

Grosvenor has sailed as crew or skipper in every Santa Maria Cup since the series started in Baltimore in 1991 as a companion to the defunct Columbus Cup men's match-racing series.

Last year, her fifth as skipper, Grosvenor and her crew made the semifinals, their best showing in the event.

That crew -- which included Marsha Malkin, Margaret Podlich and Barbara Vosbury -- returns to compete in a field stacked with top skippers.

Paula Lewin of Bermuda and Betsy Alison of Newport, R.I., head the field and are ranked 1-2 in the world. Klaartje Zuiderbaan of The Netherlands is ranked No. 4 and Shirley Robertson of Great Britain is ranked sixth.

In all, nine of the top 20 women's match racers are entered in the Santa Maria Cup, the only U.S. qualifying event for the world championships this September in Italy.

"This could be the strongest field ever put together anywhere," Grosvenor said. "And that includes Dubai [site of the worlds last year]."

The field also is representative of the growth of women's match racing, which was limited to a handful of skippers in 1991 but since has drawn Olympians, keelboat champions, and America's Cup and Whitbread Race veterans.

"Seven years ago I didn't even know we even had rankings," said Grosvenor, who is a race judge and certified by the U.S. Sailing Association as a race umpire. "But those of us who have been doing this for a while have gotten good, and someone who comes in new can be a great sailor and still get her butt kicked."

Grosvenor and her crew admit to being an intense group, and each has campaigned in multiple levels of sailboat racing.

"We all are extremely competitive, so competitive that we laugh at each other because we are," said Podlich, 34, who handles the jib aboard the J/22s the crews race. "One of my other jobs is to stock up on one-liners, jokes I can use to release the tension -- and since it is not mixed company, they don't have to be clean, either."

Podlich, director of the Clean Water Trust for BOAT/U.S., said the crew has worked hard to prepare for this regatta, including a third-place finish in the Osprey Cup, sailed in Florida last year against several of the skippers to be competing this week.

There also may be something of a home-field advantage for the Annapolis crew, Podlich said.

"I think knowing the waters is one thing," she said. "I also think it's easier to be in your own home, where you sleep in your own bed and make your own meals."

Malkin, a 39-year-old computer specialist with GTE Government Systems, said the crew came together in the active Annapolis J/24 Class, where each raced with husbands or friends.

"We've all had boats of our own, and run our own campaigns," said Malkin, who works the foredeck, handling spinnaker sets and takedowns. "So we are all skippers on one boat, and sometimes we all have different opinions about how we should do certain things."

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