Light winds flatten Key West start

Botched getaway puts Chessie behind

April 24, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

KEY WEST, Fla. -- The sky was blue. The sea was flat. The air was still. "Have you got anything at your masthead?" shouted Charlie Ulmer, class of 1961 Annapolis graduate and official starter of the Key West-to-Baltimore ocean race yesterday, to John Bertrand, Annapolitan co-skipper of the favorite, Zephyrus.

"Nothing," replied Bertrand, sweltering in the mid-day heat and glancing at the digital wind indicator to see it recording just 3 knots of wind 100 feet up.

"It couldn't get much flatter," muttered Stanley Bell, vice-commodore of the Storm Trysail Yacht Club, organizer of the 1,000-mile ocean race along the Florida Keys, up the East Coast, round Cape Hatteras and into the Chesapeake Bay.

"Pretty discouraging way to start a 1,000-mile race," said Ulmer. The noon start time brought two shots from the committee boat cannon, signaling a delay. And the fleet of seven racers continued to wallow on the deep blue sea.

"We're already rationing the sandwiches," joked Tom Weaver, sail trimmer on Chessie Racing, the boat entered by Baltimore millionaire George Collins, retired chief of T. Rowe Price.

For the race, expected to last four or five days, Chessie is carrying enough food for eight days and water for 10 days for her crew of 12. It was beginning to look as though she might need it all.

Then, a tell-tale patch of dark water approached from the southeast. A zephyr was on its way, and Ulmer seized the moment to call the boats to order.

"If we get enough to move them, I'm going to shoot them off," announced Ulmer.

The 10-minute warning was sounded, and the boats hoisted their sails. The arriving breeze filled them briefly as the racers jockeyed for position parallel to the start line.

Chessie Racing appeared to have the advantage. Collins was keeping her closest to the line, ready to swing to starboard as soon as the gun sounded. He would have been fine, except he lost steerage as the breeze dropped again and the current, now the only force pushing the boats, carried him over the line too soon.

"Number 54," shouted Ulmer, and Collins had to re-start as the other boats glided slowly on. In the calm conditions, executing a 360-degree turn was a slow procedure for Collins, but it was more of a psychological blow than a real setback in such a long race.

By the time Chessie Racing was back in the running, she was trailing Zephyrus and Blue Yankee -- the two boats likely to be the stiffest competition for line honors -- by a couple of hundred yards.

Zephyrus, the year-old 73-foot turbo-sled owned by California venture capitalist Bob McNeil, is favored over Chessie to be first to arrive in Baltimore's Inner Harbor later this week. The overall winner of the seven-boat race will be decided on a complex ocean-race handicapping formula.

"Zephyrus is a much better all-round boat than our boat," said Collins, noting that his white-hulled Santa Cruz 70, emblazoned with the green fire-breathing sea monster "Chessie," was originally built for film magnate Roy Disney in 1990.

Certainly, Collins will need to capitalize on any mistakes by the Zephyrus tacticians if he is to win. His botched start was hardly a good omen. The skippers' initial challenge last night was to be first to find the Gulf Stream, running 60 miles or so to the northeast.

The stream, with its average 3-knot flow northward, will initially help the racers on their way, pushing them toward Baltimore and creating what is known as "apparent wind" from the boats' forward momentum. Apparent wind can enable a racing boat to sail faster than the "real wind," which was expected to pick up last night to 10-15 knots.

But, later in the race, the Gulf Stream could transform itself from boon to threat.

The forecast is for a front to cross the current just south of Cape Hatteras tomorrow -- about the time the boats are expected in the area. This could produce the dreaded northeasterly blow that piles the current into steep waves, and made the Florida-Annapolis run the worst leg of the last 33,000-mile Whitbread round-the-world race.

"If we get a northeaster, we could be in big trouble," said Collins, whose boat is designed primarily for smooth downwind sailing rather than battling into a strong headwind and heavy seas.

"In most cases you are going to stay in the Gulf Stream because it gives such a large percentage of your boat speed," said Ulmer, who served out of Norfolk, Va., with the Navy and is familiar with the Hatteras area.

"It's a very rough stretch. When it wants to be, it can be as nasty as any piece of ocean there is. But that's the challenge of this race," he said. "Chessie is not an upwind boat -- no question about it. But that would make it more important for her to stay in the current's action."

The race was originally slated to start in Havana as a follow-up to last year's baseball game between the Orioles and a Cuban all-star team. But the Treasury refused to license the event, citing restrictions on individual travel by U.S. citizens to the communist offshore island.

Race organizers are convinced the Havana-start was scuttled because of the controversy surrounding 6-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. Without the attraction and intrigue of a visit to Cuba, the fleet for today's race shrank quickly from 25 to just seven boats.

"I would like to see more boats," said Collins, an outright capitalist who was one of the few sailors who did not want to start in Cuba because of its communist background.

"We were disappointed, but we kind of understand the implications," said Bertrand.

But Havana was far from the minds of the skippers and race organizers as the fleet crossed the start line here.

"Baltimore - next stop," shouted a relieved Ulmer with the seven yachts heading for the horizon.

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