Local pro sailors chase the sun, sign on for work in major races

January 04, 2001

While most of us are literally chilling out these days, a handful of Chesapeake Bay sailors are pushing themselves and their boats to the limits.

They are the professionals who follow the sun. They are engaged in a series of major race campaigns, which will dominate this and next year's racing calendars.

First off the mark, on New Year's Eve, was what is simply called The Race, a rules-free, record-chasing circumnavigation for a new generation of super-catamarans.

Six of the cats, all 100 feet long or more, left Barcelona, Spain, on Sunday, and for the next 65 days or so of nonstop sailing, their only goal will be to sail round the world faster than any boats have sailed.

The record to beat is French sailor Olivier de Kersauson's 71 days, set in the 1997 Jules Verne Trophy. With speeds of above 40 mph, the cats hope to finish in 65 days.

Aboard PlayStation, owned by endurance athlete and balloonist Steve Fossett, is Tom Weaver, an Annapolis veteran of the Whitbread Round the World Race.

Before the Barcelona start, Weaver had sailed 6,000 miles training aboard PlayStation, which recently had its pontoons lengthened by 20 feet to 125 feet in an effort to counter its tendency to dig into the waves, threatening to pitch-pole, or somersault.

It is now the biggest boat in The Race, and Weaver expects it to set the pace in the Southern Ocean, which will be the big cats' ultimate test.

"Our boat is very strong," said Weaver. "We have launched off waves with the whole thing airborne. It's pretty impressive. The boat's gone through its paces. It's going to be terrifying at times on these boats. On the Whitbread boats, you get very scared, and the adrenalin gets pumping, because you are pushing all the time.

"With these boats, we will be backing off. We only get one crash. On a Whitbread, you can crash, theoretically, and race on. We can only go over once.

"The real danger on these boats is rig failure. The loads are tremendous. Definitely, I don't think all these boats will get round the world."

Two days after the start, PlayStation had to put into Gibraltar to repair its mainsail.

British skipper Peter Goss didn't even make it to the starting line. His super-cat suffered a series of failures, including a snapped pontoon, a disconnected mast, and, finally, a steering breakdown that forced him to abandon ship in mid-Atlantic earlier this month.

Immediately after The Race, Weaver will coach an Italian team for the 2002-2003 America's Cup regatta.

Earlier this year, with Rick Deppe, another local sailor with an international pedigree, Weaver sailed in The Worrell 1000, racing a 20-foot catamaran 1,000 miles from Florida to Virginia.

Along the way, the couple encountered almost every mishap known to sailing but managed to finish, gaining the catamaran experience that helped get Weaver his berth on PlayStation and Deppe a crew place on Team Adventure, skippered by Maine champion sailor Cam Lewis, and the only other American cat in The Race. Team Adventure led the fleet out of the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic earlier this week.

"The Worrell was a tremendous learning curve for me," said Weaver. "It was the best catamaran sailing I could have done." He and Deppe already have signed up with more than 20 other teams for the next Worrell 1000 in May.

Perhaps the most familiar of the major races this year is the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, which starts in September. Intensive crew training is under way. It has attracted several local sailors.

Annapolis-based professional Terry Hutchinson, frustrated in a valiant effort to find funding for a local Volvo boat, plans to crew for a European syndicate for part of the race before joining the Dennis Conner campaign for the 2003 America's Cup.

Jonathan Swain has signed up for Bermuda-based Team Tyco, which has also tapped another Annapolis sailor, Grant "Fuzz" Spanhake, to manage its Volvo sail program. Spanhake was the sail boss aboard Chessie Racing during the 1997-98 Whitbread.

Greg Gendell, who worked the mast on board Chessie, was bowman during a recent Southern Ocean training voyage with illbruck Challenge, one of the Volvo favorites. John Kostecki, a co-skipper of Chessie Racing - now being used as the training boat for Sweden's Assa Abloy syndicate - is skipper on illbruck Challenge, which was the first of five Volvo 60s to finish in this month's Sydney-Hobart ocean race.

"The sailing conditions we saw with illbruck were not quite full Southern Ocean conditions," said Gendell, who has his eye on the next America's Cup after the Volvo campaign. "It was pretty cold, windy and wet, but it gets a lot worse.

"It all came back very quickly - how wet the boats are and how physically demanding. Last time [on Chessie], we sailed the boat really hard ourselves. But this time, everybody is going to be pushing that much harder, trying to get more out of the boats."

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