Set to rock the boats

Sailing: The MTN Cape-to-Rio 2000 yacht race is long not only in nautical miles but in contrasting styles, speeds and budgets as well.

January 08, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- The boat that Annapolis sailing professional John Bertrand will co-skipper in the MTN Cape-to-Rio 2000 yacht race starting today is a gleaming 75-foot speed machine, known as a turbo-sled.

The boat that Sieraj Jacobs, amateur sailor from a depressed area of this port city, will sail is a borrowed 10-year-old, 41-foot sloop, patched up, repainted, and crewed mainly by "previously disadvantaged" teen-agers -- as blacks and people of mixed race are known in post-apartheid South Africa.

The cost of the campaign to race Bertrand's dark green Zephyrus IV, owned by California chemist, businessman and co-skipper Robert McNeil, runs into the millions. As McNeil wryly says: "If you need to ask -- you can't afford it."

The race budget for Jacobs' white, yellow and blue boat, on loan from three members of the Royal Cape Yacht Club and sponsored by the local MTN cell-phone network, is just $30,000.

The Cape-to-Rio run is not only the longest (3,640 nautical miles) and the biggest (80 entrants) ocean-crossing on the international sail race calendar, but also the most inclusive.

The youngest competitor on board today is a 12-year-old schoolboy. The oldest is a 72-year-old pensioner.

Sailing on one boat is a couple planning to marry upon reaching Rio. On another, retirees who recently found their dream live aboard here in South Africa and are using the race as the first leg of their cruise back to Britain.

The smallest boat in the race, which is run every four years, is 30 feet long. The longest is 84 feet.

Nine of the boats are so slow that they were allowed to set sail six days ahead of today's pack start to give them a chance of finishing before the Feb. 4 official end of the race.

At least three boats are so fast that they are out to better the average 10.3 knots, which established Fancourt Morning Glory's 14-day, 15-hour race record in 1996.

They are Zephyrus IV, another U.S. "maxi" Sagamore, owned by New York cable magnate and Knicks owner Jim Dolan, and the new South African-designed Portugal-Brasil 500.

Jacobs' boat, MTN The Better Connection, has virtually no chance of beating any of the maxis across the line because the longer a boat, the faster it can go. But it could pull a surprise under the handicap system used to decide the overall winner.

It has its own pedigree. A U.S.-built Schumacher 41, it was designed a decade ago as a downwind racer. And the Cape-to-Rio route is mainly downwind, with the southeast trades, spawned by air rotating counterclockwise around the southern Atlantic high pressure zone, filling the boats' spinnakers for days.

Jacobs' boat raced in the previous Cape-to-Rio with an all-female crew and finished in the middle of the 1996 fleet. But the young male crew crossing today's starting line off Cape Town's breakwater at the foot of Table Mountain hopes to do better. Last month they came in third in an international regatta here against some of the world's top sailors.

"Boats like us have nothing to lose and everything to gain," said Jacobs, 20, whose ambition is to be a professional sailor. "We are out to prove a point."

But major interest in the race focuses on the three maxis battling for line honors. Each costing around $2 million, they are an intriguing mix.

Zephyrus IV, a product of West Coast sailing, was launched by McNeil for the 1997 Trans-Pacific race from Los Angeles to Hawaii, another downwind race. She lost her mast in her first major race, then lost it again in the 1998 Pacific Cup. The fault was traced to a computer design error, and in the 1999 TransPac she finished third.

To help her run the trades, her carbon-fiber hull is long but narrow, her keel and rudder thin but deep. She carries a huge sail area and has a new suit of lightweight sails to speed her to Rio at up to 30 knots an hour.

To further minimize her resistance through the waves, below-water she has been fared to within one-hundredth of an inch of true and hand-sanded with 600 wet and dry, normally used in the fine art of decoupage, to a mirror-like sheen.

Sagamore, a product of East Coast and European thinking, was designed initially for upwind sailing. At 84 feet, she is the biggest boat in the race. But she has been slimmed down, shedding more than four tons of ballast for the Cape-to-Rio. Her flush-decked dark blue hull sitting low and straight in the water, she looks like one mean machine.

The dark horse is Portugal-Brasil 500, a new-design maxi co-skippered by Ludde Ingvall, a world-champion yachtsman known as "the Flying Finn," and Afonso Domingos, the first Portuguese to qualify for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. At 78 feet, she is three feet longer than Zephyrus IV, has a taller mast, carries more sail, and ranks as the next-generation turbo-sled.

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