illbruck crew stops by here, surviving wave of adversity

Member's 27-stitch wound closed as preparations heat up for ocean race


April 28, 2001|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

If you think yacht racing's a non-contact sport for the blue blazers and khakis crowd, you should have gotten a look at the two-inch square patch on Tony Kolb's throat yesterday.

Kolb, the bow man for the illbruck Challenge in the Volvo Ocean Race, was working the "coffee grinder" winch on one of the organization's boats as it raced to Baltimore from Charleston, S.C., this week when one of the handles broke. He fell forward and the remaining jagged metal caught him just under the jaw on the left side of his face, ripping a huge gash in his throat.

His crewmates called for help and a Coast Guard vessel from Oregon Inlet, N.C., took Kolb ashore where he received 27 stitches to close the wound. He rejoined the crew at the finger piers at the Inner Harbor for Baltimore's Waterfront Festival, but he had to stay ashore as his friends took reporters for a promotional cruise down the Patapsco.

"He wasn't happy about that," said Jane Eagleson, an illbruck spokeswoman.

The illbruck (the lower case "I" was their idea) boats were in Baltimore to start generating interest in the Volvo Ocean Race, formerly the Whitbread Round the World Race, which starts in September in Southampton, England, and stops here next April.

Whitbread organizers and sailors were so happy with the response to their Baltimore stop and Annapolis start in the 1997-98 race that Volvo agreed to return when it took over the race.

Although Maryland has no hometown rooting interest as it did three years ago when former T. Rowe Price CEO George Collins sunk more than $6 million of his own money in Chessie Racing, there is some connection. John Kostecki, who skippered Chessie for six of the nine legs of that race, is the captain of illbruck's German-based team. The sailing organization is the promotional arm of the German plastics giant Illbruck (with a capital I this time).

Unlike his experience on Chessie, when he came aboard at the beginning of the third leg of the Whitbread, Kostecki said he has had the advantage of being involved in this program from the beginning and in choosing the crew.

"The biggest thing is, you look for compatible people," he said. "When you have 12 guys in this tight a space, you have to be able to get along with each other."

Kostecki took over a demoralized Chessie crew in Sydney, Australia, and had the boat in contention by the time it reached Baltimore. He recalled the leg up Chesapeake Bay as one of the trickiest that he sailed because the bay is so shallow, the currents change and the winds are unpredictable.

"You have land so close on both sides and the winds play off the land," he said. "It's not like that in the open ocean."

Yesterday, the wind blew a steady 14 to 15 knots out of the west, making for an easy sail under spinnakers out of the harbor and under the Key Bridge in the lime green boats that competed in the 1997-98 race as EF Education and EF Language, the winner. The illbruck team has been using those boats for training while awaiting its new boat, which is to be delivered in two weeks.

Although the sailing organization is based on the Rhine River town of Leverkusen, it has been training in Charleston for the last month.

"It gave us a variety of conditions and a longer season," Eagleson explained.

They were racing from Charleston to Baltimore when the winch handle broke, injuring Kolb.

As the boats, now designated V1 and V2, cleared the Domino Sugar sign yesterday, the crews quickly set the main sails and rigged the spinnakers, the parachute-like nylon sails used mostly for downwind sailing. Within moments, each spinnaker went up and filled with air. The boats surged forward.

Jeff Ecklund, a friend helping out for the day, took the sheet -- the rope that controls the sail. "Trim," he said simply as other crew members whirled the coffee grinder handles to help pull the sheet. "Trim. Stop."

You don't need to talk much on these boats, he said. "These are the top guys in the world. Everybody knows their jobs. You don't know your job, you're not on the boat."

V1 and V2 worked out the river, dodging freighters and the usual harbor traffic, past Fort McHenry and under the Key Bridge, then dropped the spinnakers, put up the triangle-shaped jib sails and headed back into the harbor, tacking back and forth up the river in the freshening breeze.

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