Race to Rio begins with search for wind, Zephyrus IV in front

Annapolis' Bertrand among favorites in 2,500-mile trip

January 09, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- With silver spinnaker flying, the green-hulled Zephyrus IV, co-skippered by Annapolis sailor John Bertrand, led the way out of Table Bay yesterday during a colorful but almost windless start to the MTN Cape-to-Rio 2000 yacht race.

In barely five knots of breeze, the 75-foot racer crossed the start line at the gun ahead of the other two "maxi" boats in the 80-yacht race -- Portugal-Brasil 500, skippered by Ludde "The Flying Finn" Ingvall, and Sagamore, entered by New York Knicks owner Jim Dolan.

Gliding gently up and down the sloppy 10-foot swells, Zephyrus steadily moved across the scenic backdrop of Signal Hill, Lion's Head and Table Mountain on a starboard tack toward the open ocean.

"We're long and narrow," said Bertrand, who runs his own racing management business in Annapolis. "It's an easier form to push."

An armada of spectator boats churned the icy blue waters of the Cape to a white froth as they buzzed around the Brazil-bound boats. The early pace was so slow that an ocean canoeist was able to paddle alongside the lead "maxis," even when they hoisted spinnakers.

Leaving behind what Sir Francis Drake called "the fairest cape," the fleet's first challenge is to find the trades that blow counter-clockwise around the windless mid-Atlantic.

More than 2,500 miles away, they must round the Ihla da Trinidade, a rocky outcrop in the Atlantic, before heading southwest for the finish line off Rio de Janeiro's famed Copacabana Beach.

Although the overall winner will be decided on handicap, the three maxis, each 75 feet or longer and costing about $2 million, are expected to compete for line honors in the 3,640 nautical-mile race. All are out to break the 1996 course record of 14 days, 15 hours.

Before leaving the dock aboard Sagamore, Bill Langan, the boat's designer, said: "Zephyrus is very quick with a well-practiced crew on the boat. They will be tough."

Portugal-Brasil 500, a new boat sailing her first major race, was "an unknown quantity," Langan said, but, like Sagamore, was a lightweight turbo-sled, designed for running fast before the trade winds.

But 25 miles into the race, Portugal-Brasil 500's boom inexplicably broke in two during a routine sail change in 17 knots of wind. It had overtaken Zephyrus, but was forced to return to Cape Town for repairs. Skipper Ludde Ingvall said last night that he planned to restart the race today.

Langan designed Sagamore, the biggest boat in the race, for sailing around the buoys, which involves upwind as well as downwind capability. For the Cape-to-Rio race, the boat has been lightened by four tons, is equipped with a new lightweight asymmetrical spinnaker, and yesterday sailed with 16 crew members -- two fewer than normal -- to save weight.

"There's no lock-up on this race," said Zephyrus businessman-owner and co-skipper Robert O'Neil. "It's a race of very strong competitors."

Somewhere in the middle of the pack is South Africa retailer Ted Kuttel in what the official race program describes as one of the prettiest boats in the race. It is a classically lined Swede 55 that he bought in Maryland -- in St. Michaels in 1992 after holing his previous boat on a rock in the Mauritius.

"I was very upset at losing that boat, so I looked around the world to find the same boat," he said before yesterday's start.

His search led him to Maryland, where a Navy officer, John Cane, had put his Swede 55, which sailed under the name Counterpoint, on the market. From the Chesapeake Bay, Kuttel steered his new boat back here via Recife.

He entered the 1996 Cape-to-Rio race, but made more of a mark on the return voyage to Cape Town, arriving home in the fastest time -- 18 days.

His strategy for this race -- follow the maxis, which have the world's best navigators and equipment.

"Obviously, we'll keep an eye on them," he said, referring to the daily position reports he and the other skippers will receive. "It's a nice thing to know you can see what they're doing. Between the three of them, it's going to be interesting to watch."

Trailing the fleet out of Table Bay yesterday was the aptly named Drifter, which, despite being a light displacement catamaran with a surf-riding turn of speed, was finding slow-going at the start.

"We're doing 1.5 knots," skipper Barry Taylor shouted to passing friends. "It's exciting sailing because for the past half-hour we've been doing one knot."

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