Sea-torn `Yankee' 1st to line at harbor

April 28, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

A battered Blue Yankee, its fore-hatch staved in and its mainsail torn, took line honors yesterday in the 1,000-mile, Key West-to-Baltimore ocean race during which the two fastest boats were dismasted.

"This is one of the toughest races I have ever done," said owner-skipper Robert C. Towse, a veteran of the ocean-racing circuit.

"It was horrendous," said Steve Benjamin, one of the 66-foot boat's main drivers. "We took a pretty good battering. But we're all fine, just a little sore."

Blue Yankee crossed the finish line shortly after noon yesterday -- four days after leaving Key West -- with its crew expecting to see the two race favorites, the turbo-sleds Zephyrus and Chessie Racing, already tied up in the Inner Harbor.

"We were looking for them, and saying, "Wow, what happened to those guys?' We definitely thought they were ahead," said Pete Pendleton, a professional racer from Annapolis who crewed on Young America in the recent Auckland, New Zealand, America's Cup regatta, before joining Blue Yankee.

But the two turbo-sleds were berthed in Morehead City, N.C., where they motored after losing their masts in violent squalls south of Cape Hatteras Tuesday.

The same squalls battered Blue Yankee, but it is a heavier boat, designed for tough sailing, and it survived to win the City of Baltimore Trophy for being the first across the finishing line off the Rusty Scupper restaurant.

It must now wait for the four smaller boats still in the race to finish, before knowing whether it has also won the Hemingway Cup for the overall winner based on handicap.

"Think about it," said Towse. "This race is named for Ernest Hemingway, whose definition of courage was `grace under pressure.' I sailed with a crew that had courage by Hemingway's definition.'

"We faced incredible seas. It was blowing hard for a long period of time, and blowing hard from almost every imaginable point of sail."

Winds of up to 50 knots had the dark blue boat planing off the waves at 26 knots under main and jib.

"We slowed the boat down as much as we could to keep her in one piece," said Pendleton. "We had our radar on so we could watch the low [pressure] front cells move in on us."

Blue Yankee was the only sailboat on the water as she entered the Inner Harbor on a day when a chill drizzle kept the crowds away from the city's annual Waterfront Festival.

It was an anticlimactic end to an inaugural race that encountered more than its share of setback and mishap.

The race was supposed to start in Havana, Cuba, an intriguing prospect that attracted 25 entrants. But after the U.S. Treasury blocked a Cuba start, citing restrictions on individual travel to the offshore communist island, the organizers elected to relocate the race to Key West.

Without the allure of Havana, the fleet quickly shrank, and when the starting cannon fired on Easter Sunday only seven boats set sail for Baltimore.

With Zephyrus and Chessie dismasted, the race also lost another element of excitement. The two speedsters were only two or three miles apart, and seemed set to make a real race of it up the Chesapeake Bay to Baltimore.

When the masts crashed down, Blue Yankee was 30 miles behind, but, with the wind shifting from the southwest to northeast, was about to encounter the sort of headwind conditions for which she is specifically designed, suggesting she might have gained on the leaders for a dramatic, three-boat finish.

Even the weather refused to cooperate, with a sweltering near-calm delaying the race start, the stormy mid-race conditions eliminating the two fastest boats and yesterday's gray skies and drizzle putting a chill on the finish.

"`All great boat races start with just a few boats," said Dick Neville of the race-organizing Storm Trysail Yacht Club. "How many boats were in the first Sydney-Hobart race? Four.

"Races have to develop. What we have been through in this race, the weather we have encountered, will make it a classic race.

"On the East Coast, in 1,000 miles, you are going to get some bad weather. I'm hoping it will take off. But you never know, ocean racing is pretty fickle."

Another member of the Storm Trysail's race finish-line committee, Sandy Morse, a Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association J-35 champion, said: "It sets the precedent and the stage for the next time. When it starts in Havana, it will be big time."

Noting that the Key West-to-Baltimore race was part of the qualifying series for the Northern Ocean Racing Trophy, winning skipper Towse said: "If you want to be an important ocean racer, you want to be a part of this race."

Javelin was expected to finish overnight, followed by Volador, Mensae and Ariel, at 47 feet the smallest boat in the race, from Oxford, Md.

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