Riding bucking `cat' up coast is wild way to test racing mettle

`Slightly crazy, super fit,' Annapolis 2 try Worrell

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

For most of the next two weeks, professional Annapolis sailors Rick Deppe and Tom Weaver will be hanging out - literally - over the eastern Atlantic waves, hoping their "`chicken wire" doesn't break.

The two veterans of the Whitbread Round the World Race have found a new and perhaps even more challenging sailing contest - the Worrell 1000.

It is to sailing what the Tour de France is to cycling or the Iditarod is to dog sledding: an extreme test of human strength and endurance.

Deppe and Weaver have stepped off the big ocean-racing circuit to race 24 other two-man crews in 20-foot catamarans 1,000 miles from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Virginia Beach, Va.

The race started yesterday in an on-shore breeze of between 15 and 18 mph, enabling the boats to sail off the beach on a reach, the optimal side-wind conditions for catamaran sailing.

Rougher conditions may lie ahead. But, however the wind blows or the seas surge, all that will be between the crews and the ocean for the next 12 days will be an 8-foot square trampoline and two hulls from which they will suspend themselves on trapezes to keep the boat balanced against the wind.

In fast conditions, they will attach the potentially life-saving "chicken wire," a safety belt for seat-of-pants sailing.

The wire runs from the stern of the hull, from which the sailors are hanging, to their waist belts. It is to prevent them being flung forward round the forestay - which runs from the top of the mast to the bow - should their racer, capable of speeds of 25 knots or more, slam into a wave and come to a rapid stop.

Another ever-present danger as they power up the coast is the threat of broken ankles.

On the open sea in a tiny, plunging, bucking, careening catamaran, accidents are an ever-present threat. And their webbing footholds on the hulls are unforgiving.

But the biggest threat comes simply from the constant exposure to sun and sea. For much of the race, the racers will be wearing hooded dry suits and sun goggles, but the relentless saltwater spray and sunshine will be invasive. It's an environment in which minor blisters or lacerations can turn ulcerous.

"It's all part of this race," Weaver said. "Sunburn is critical, and rashes anywhere - these are all huge considerations in this race."

Said Deppe: "It's a chance to push ourselves professionally as sailors. It's just for the challenge, just to do something different. It's an intriguing event. One of the things we haven't figure out is how to use the toilet."

The Worrell started after a 1974 coffee-shop bet on whether it was impossible to sail a 16-foot Hobie Cat from Virginia to Florida. Mike Worrell and his crew, Steve McGarrett, won the bet in 20 days.

Two years later, Worrell reversed the direction, setting the course for what has become an increasingly popular race, now in its 18th running.

The race is staged in 12 legs, 10 of them sailed in daylight, two overnight. It hip-hops up the coasts with stops at such well-known resorts as Cocoa and Daytona beaches in Florida, and Myrtle and Atlantic beaches in South Carolina and North Carolina, before the final landfall at Virginia Beach, on May 20, Preakness weekend.

Both Deppe and Weaver were crewing on Baltimore millionaire George Collins' Santa Cruz 70 Chessie Racing when it was dismasted south of Cape Hatteras during the inaugural Key West-to-Baltimore race last month.

This did not stop them from towing their 20-foot catamaran straight south for a week's intensive training before the Worrell race-start in Fort Lauderdale yesterday.

"It's like a mini-Whitbread," said Deppe, who has sailed in the round-the-world event - to be sponsored next year by Volvo - twice.

"A large chunk of it is going to be knowing when to speed up and when to back off to try to protect the boat. It's very easy to drop [break] the mast, smash the boat up. We will probably capsize a number of times."

Typically, barely more half the boats that start the Worrell finish the 1,000-mile course. In 1998, 21 boats started, seven finished.

One major difference between the Whitbread and the Worrell is the cost. While the circumnavigation runs into millions of dollars, the off-shore sprint can be done for around $30,000.

"It's been a fabulous experience for us," said Weaver. "Typically, we've always been given money to race [as professional crew]. Now, we've had to raise the money ourselves."

Their Team Chesapeake is sponsored by Pyacht.com, BaywindUSA.com, B&G electronics and E-2 Marine Electronics.

For Deppe and Weaver, racing the Worrell is part of a larger plan. They hope the catamaran experience will improve their chances of crewing during what is billed simply as The Race, an open-rule, round-the-world sprint due to start next New Year's Eve.

It has attracted some of the most radical boats, including super catamarans, yet seen on the oceans.

"We don't have that much time on catamarans," said Weaver. "Finishing the Worrell would be very nice. Our goal is to place. If we win it, the others are doing something very wrong.

"What we can do is apply some of the skills we have that are ideally suited to this race - we're slightly crazy, super fit."

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