Tacking their pride against wind, wave

Sailing: Some of the world's best female crews compete in Annapolis for love of the sport -- and a shot at the Olympics.

June 02, 2000|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

The two 22-foot sailboats zigged and zagged across the mouth of the Severn River as the four-member crews engaged in a fierce yet balletic duel to the finish line.

Tacking and jibing this week under a bright sun were some of the world's best female sailors, drawn to Annapolis for a five-day marathon of intense one-on-one contests that make up the BoatU.S. Santa Maria Cup.

"I call it unabashed aggressiveness," said Sandy Grosvenor, a boisterous woman with silver-specked hair and raccoon eyes caused by wearing sunglasses. "You're looking to nail your opponent every time. There is a lot of adrenalin. You either win or lose."

After a round robin competition that will continue today and tomorrow, the top four finishers in the field of 12 will move on to the semifinals. The two teams left will vie Sunday for the cup, in its 10th year. No fat check will await the winner, no cheering throng.

Money and fame are not the point, though.

"It's pride," said Liz Baylis, a captain from the San Francisco area. Pride and the points that determine world rankings and will help decide who goes to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens -- the first time that medals will be given for women's match racing.

Mere weekend warriors these women are not. This year's 48 competitors include past and present Olympians, a fleet of Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year winners and the first woman to lead a challenger boat in the prestigious America's Cup. They have come from across the United States and Europe, and from as far away as New Zealand.

"This is as good a field as you'll find in the world," said Jim Capron, chief umpire for the races, which are being run out of the Eastport Yacht Club.

Their achievements are all the more remarkable considering what they do on land. By day, Grosvenor is a senior programmer at NASA's Goddard Space Center, Baylis a virologist at the California Department of Health.

Cory Sertl of Rochester, N.Y., has a different sort of demanding job. She is the mother of two young children, 4 and 6. Two of her three crew mates also are parents.

"We're the old ladies of the group," Sertl joked.

By contrast, Sharon Ferris of New Zealand, 26, sails full time thanks to the sponsorship of a sports foundation in her country. That means she can spend about 270 days a year on the water, endlessly racing.

With summertime's arrival, the waters near Annapolis are teeming with sailboats, and races seem as common as the tourists ambling down Main Street hunting for crab cakes and knickknacks.

The Santa Maria Cup, however, is different from most regattas. Not only is it one of the area's only all-female races, it is a showcase for the growing popularity of women's match racing.

Unlike fleet racing, where boats compete in a group, there is no pride in finishing second in a match race, nobody but yourself to blame for a loss. And match races are quick affairs, often lasting 25 minutes, which leaves little room for error.

"There is not much love lost on the water," said Ferris, whose lilt turns words such as "yes" into "yis." "Everybody comes here to win. You do everything you can to win."

Everything within the rules, that is. Two umpires police each race to make sure neither boat commits, say, an illegal pick by cutting off the other boat too sharply.

The battle begins before the starting gun sounds, as boats jockey for position. In one race, Baylis timed the breeze wrong, so the other boat glided across the start in "controlling position."

"She got me," she recalled. "That was it. Game over."

But sometimes the lead changes more often than in a tight basketball game. Grosvenor, skipper of the only all-Annapolis crew, broke out ahead of Swede Malin Kallstrom's boat only to fall behind halfway through. But toward the finish she reclaimed the lead for good.

"Even when you're ahead you're never comfortable," said Karina Vogen, a crew mate in Baylis' boat who designs and fits artificial limbs. "If you're not too far behind, there is always a way. You're always thinking."

About 5 p.m., the women reassembled at the Eastport Yacht Club. Competitors on the water, they quickly resumed the role of old friends on land.

That's not to say they didn't engage in a spirited debate. At a post-mortem held beneath sailing flags hanging from the rafters and with a grand view of the Naval Academy, they discussed who did what and to whom. Like a general analyzing battle plans, Capron illustrated near-collisions by moving tiny magnetic boats on a metal board.

Come Monday, the sailors will be gone. Baylis, whose expenses are partly covered by private "benefactors," will be back at her desk in California -- though she and her husband are looking forward to a San Francisco-to-Hawaii race in a 27-footer.

For Ferris, a pro for nine years, the punishing itinerary has her going to Germany for two weeks, then to Sweden for a regatta, and then back to Annapolis.

"I'm not sure where my home is right now," she said with a laugh. "I'm starting to think it's Annapolis."

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