Headed here, 8 boats full of sailing all-stars

Sailing: Competitors in the Volvo Ocean Race, a quadrennial round-the-world chase that began last September and features many of the planet's best sailors, leave Miami today for Baltimore.

April 14, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MIAMI - Imagine an all-star game that takes nine months to complete. In which the biggest names in the sport aren't chauffeured to the field of play in limos or allowed to sit down after a token appearance.

Where, instead, they are scorched, glaciated, drenched, battered and cut off from family and friends for weeks at a time, their bodies pocked with sores and bruises and nourished by nuggets of freeze-dried food coaxed to edible form by water warmed on a one-burner hot plate.

An all-star game in which, if injury strikes, your doctor will be your own teammates.

That all-star game is coming to Baltimore this week, with boats starting from Miami today on its sixth leg, and it's playing under the name Volvo Ocean Race.

"It's the best racing you're going to get," says Jez Fanstone, skipper of Ruppert Murdoch's News Corp boat.

Eight boats set sail in September from Southampton, England, to circle the world, a 32,700-mile journey with stops in nine ports before reaching Kiel, Germany, on June 9. The sailors are all veterans of numerous sea battles, sometimes as comrades in arms, other times as rivals. Their resumes are dotted with America's Cup campaigns and Olympic competitions.

The competitors are men, for the most part, a dozen to a boat. The lone distaff flavor is provided by one boat of 13 women, a last-minute entry that keeps improving on each leg of the race, just not enough to rise from the back of the pack.

The boats themselves are remarkable pieces of engineering, 64 feet of bulletproof plastic with a towering black mast rising above each deck and a 6-ton bulb of lead underneath to keep the whole thing upright. In between are the guts - electronics, sails, food, fuel and sailors - that tame the beasts.

This is the first year Swedish auto maker Volvo has run the race, which began in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race and takes place every four years. While still called the Whitbread, it made a stop in Baltimore in May 1998.

Over the years, the race has evolved from a contest among rich men to a highly technical competition among the world's best sailors, bankrolled by major corporations as a marketing tool.

This year, depending on with whom you talk, first-place boat illbruck Challenge either has this thing won or is at risk of being picked off. This much is certain: illbruck Challenge has dominated, winning three of the five legs and finishing second on the most recently concluded run from Rio de Janeiro to Miami. The only real disappointment was a fifth-place finish in the segment from Sydney, Australia, to Auckland, New Zealand.

The team, with 36 points, has an eight-point advantage over ASSA ABLOY. But ASSA ABLOY beat illbruck Challenge to Miami, with two-time around the world veteran Neal McDonald of Great Britain as skipper and American Mark Rudiger navigating. Rudiger was the navigator aboard EF Language, the boat that won the 1997-98 race. Also on board is Annapolis resident Chris Larson, an in-shore racing specialist who would love to win this next leg before his home crowd.

Clustered right behind ASSA ABLOY are Amer Sports One, with 25 points, Tyco with 24 and News Corp with 23. The final three boats are djuice dragons with 19 points, the bad-luck magnet SEB with 17, and the all-women entry Amer Sports Too in eighth place with 8 points.

The race has but 5,600 nautical miles left but is only slightly past the halfway mark in scoring. Regardless of the distance sailed in each leg, the winner gets eight points. The runner-up gets seven and so on, down through the finishers.

"The race is now so tight," says skipper Grant Dalton of Amer Sports One. "Almost half the points are still out there on the table."

Even John Kostecki, illbruck Challenge's skipper, isn't measuring a display case for the first-place Waterford crystal trophy yet.

"The pressure is on," says the American who has participated in the Olympics, the America's Cup and the last edition of this race. "We hope the other [boats] don't gang up on us."

Although the boats receive expert maintenance while in port, catastrophic equipment failure can quickly alter the standings. After setting a speed record and finishing second on the second leg, SEB lost its rudder on the third leg and was dismasted on the fourth leg, giving up any chance of being the overall winner. Other boats have had to make repairs on the fly or limp along to the next port.

Larson says the top boats are evenly matched and that sail selection will be critical. Each boat is allowed 38 sails, 18 on board at a time. A wrong guess or a torn sail by one of the top contenders could lead to a switch in the standings.

On paper, the three-day, 875-mile sprint up the coast from Florida to Baltimore looks simple. Try telling that to the sailors from the 1997-98 campaign.

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